Check out this chapter in Nina Simon’s book, The Participatory Museum.
Curating the Curator: Perspectives from Mary Alexander
For our first post in the series “Curating the Curator: Perspectives from MSMC Committee,” I introduce Mary Alexander.
Mary joined the MSMC committee last year and is currently instructing the Introduction to Museum Scholarship and Material Culture course. She has worked in and for Washington area history museums for the past four decades. She has been a museum educator, assistant director, leader of the Common Agenda for History Museums project for the American Association for State and Local History, and most recently administrator of the Museum Assistance Program of the Maryland Historical Trust.
I asked Mary, “What tools should every museum scholar take time to develop?” and she responded with the following insight:
A scene from “The Real Museum Directors of Kansas”
“The slide projector in the main exhibit hall kept needing adjustment so I had to open the back of the exhibit case and slip in to jimmy with jammed slides, replace bulbs and other mechanical fixes. Because this happened so often I got to eavesdrop on visitors chatting in the gallery. It was amazing what I learned simply by being a hidden observer. All our highfalutin’ ideas about what visitors would notice from our impressive collections and our brilliant explanatory texts went right out the window.”
This scenario from an old friend of mine who ran a small museum in Kansas illustrates an important reality for museum professionals (curators, historians, researchers, registrars, educators)—watch out for the museum “bubble.” Visitors will surprise you with their perspectives, interests and ability to simply overlook what you consider so important. In our Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Introductory class discussions we remind ourselves that we are not “regular” visitors and therefore we must always question our perspectives as potentially biased.
Be aware of your assumptions about visitors. Visit museums and take time to observe what others are doing and saying while they wander the galleries. Note where visitors cluster and seem engaged; why are they stopping there? Is it an object, a label, a bench to sit or an interactive?
Interpretation is complex and difficult to codify, but writing clearly is a central building block for both scholarship and its interpretive expressions. It’s easy to warn against jargon, but more important to focus on clear, concise descriptions that are readily understood. Exhibit design reports will quantify “appropriate” label length, but that’s not the solution, it is clarity. Working with others will improve your communication regardless of its form–labels, artifact layout, design decisions and programming–as it will inevitably challenge your assumptions and help you work towards clarity.
Your important tools are:
- Knowing your audience,
- Questioning your assumptions,
- Writing, re-writing, and writing again, and
- Working with others to gain clarity and provide understanding.