Exhibition-making in the current landscape
What are the biggest forces shaping current exhibition-making? The question came up at a recent away day with the Oxford Museum of Natural History. The Museum is world famous for its many historic specimens and stories, from dinosaurs and dodo remains to Darwin. But in the last few years staff have been experimenting with a new strand of contemporary exhibitions, becoming expert in blending the latest international science discoveries with original natural history specimens and media, always with an eye on the big questions that interest members of their 800k-strong audience.
I’ve worked with the team to write interpretation strategies or text for various exhibitions in the series, from Brain Diaries to First Animals, Bacterial World to Meat the Future. So, as we sat down together, I shared some of the big themes I think are affecting exhibition-making, to kick off discussion.
1. Sustainability and climate crisis
Globally, museums are responding to the climate crisis both in their content and corporate culture. When the Edelman Fossil Park and Museum opens in New Jersey, it will be the largest public net zero emissions building in the state. No fossil fuels will be burned for museum operations and nor will greenhouse gases be released into the atmosphere. As well as the galleries devoted to the dinosaurs that roamed the site prior to the fatal asteroid strike, the museum will have a gallery on the Sixth Extinction and what we can do to halt our own demise.
Al-Ula is a UNESCO heritage site in the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia. Among a series of oases and settlements stretching along the ancient incense road are stone tombs inscribed with 200,000 years of memory and language. Now the Royal Commission of Al-Ula aims to open up the area to tourism and travel while embracing zero-carbon and circular economy strategies.
Closer to home, at the Horniman Museum in South London, the Nature + Love project aims to make the museum more inclusive and accessible, placing environmental sustainability at its heart and fighting the climate emergency. The team is developing the gardens to account for changing weather patterns and with human wellbeing (including staff) in mind.
2. Equity, sharing power, new voices
Many cultural institutions are changing to reflect a new commitment to equity and rebalancing of narratives. Manchester Museum has opened its South Asia gallery with co-curated displays that reflect the city’s populations. Their Chinese Culture gallery prioritises Chinese text in its displays and hopes to become a focal point for empathy between Britain and China.
The National Gallery took great care over displaying Gauguin artworks in their recent After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art exhibition, warning visitors about his colonial attitudes, and exploitative relationships with Tahitian girls. It was well done, but some critics pointed out that while Gauguin’s misogyny was acknowledged, the show as a whole featured only five works by women, out of a hundred.
At the British Museum, Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic had guest commentary woven throughout, from Bonnie Greer, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White. Their responses added hugely to the interpretation which was themed around such juicy juxtapositions as ‘Justice and defence’, Compassion and salvation’, ‘Passion and desire’, ‘Magic and malice’.
Finally, the Technicians gallery at the Science Museum was nominated for Permanent Exhibition of the Year in the recent Museums and Heritage Awards. It embodies science capital principles, which seek to build equity in access to science and science careers, and show everyone has a stake in the science, technology and engineering that build our world.
3. Social impact, innovative partnerships
Museums are working with each other, and with new partners, in ways that can achieve life-altering social outcomes. The Royal Shakespeare Company worked with local fashion students, refugees and charity yarn-bombers to co-curate their exhibition The Play’s the Thing, reopening for the first time post-pandemic. Each group selected costumes and props from the RSC collection, and the exhibition team collected quotes for the interpretation to explain their choices. The refugees said the project had given them a space to talk, share emotions, and support one another.
In Suffolk, Ipswich Museum worked with the Department of Work and Pensions to offer families an events programme during half term, in a project called Joy in the Jobcentre. Activities included handling animal specimens, dance, music and craft and as the team reported, ‘the result was bigger, messier, and had more meerkats than we could have ever hoped’. There is a toolkit for providing Joy where you are, and the project won the Museums and Heritage Partnership of the Year Award 2023.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History itself partnered with Banbury Museum (where I am a trustee) to enable us to create a bespoke version of the Brain Diaries exhibition. The Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroscience in Oxford provided funding, and much enthusiastic expert support for the Banbury team to create a family-friendly exhibition Your Amazing Brain, plus a wonderful Lates event that broadened the organisation’s vision and aspiration. The show then travelled on to Aylesbury Museum.
4. Digital media
There is such rapid development in digital technology, it is hard to keep up. Apps (such as Smartify, implemented by National Galleries Scotland and many international institutions which gives instant audio-enabled access to collections information and interpretation), audioguides (used so effectively by Tate particularly when exhibitions are so busy you need help to pick out highlights), handheld and immersive video (I’m hoping to get to Gaudi’s Casa Batllo this summer), exhibitions that continue their life on the web (as the Oxford Museum of Natural History does so well), social media (the Black Country Living Museum’s Tiktok springs to mind), VR and AR (the new Apple Vision Pro had just launched around the date of the away day) and even AI (that, it seems, can write pretty good object labels already).
Questions about how organisations stay current, or decide which technology to embrace on limited budgets, are ongoing and under discussion by practitioners and academics in the Inclusive Digital Museum collaboration involving UK and South Korean institutions. But the potential for accessibility that technology offers is becoming more obvious daily, as I described in this blog post from the project.
And if virtual reality seems to lack its killer app, the National Railway Museum’s new Flying Scotsman VR experience may prove to be just that, described on twitter as ‘brilliant’ and ‘a museum-grade exhibit’; ‘it is the future’.
5. Funding and philanthropy
But to do any of the things to which we aspire, we need money. Without public funding, most museums would struggle or close, and yet the funding museums receive is usually not enough to do any more than core business. The work to address this shortfall is complex and time-consuming.
Donations often come with strings and complications, even when the institution retains editorial control. The Sackler name is being removed from buildings and galleries in Oxford and across the world following the opioid crisis. BP has been a funder for various cultural institutions including the National Portrait Gallery, but this has not been without controversy.
The boundaries of funding can be aspirational and useful, for example in guiding how a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant must be used to benefit under-served audiences or achieve certain outcomes. If we have clear, inclusive goals and a shared understanding of the benefit we bring to communities and places, then we stand the best chance of avoiding perpetuating old ways and find new solutions.
Many of the huge benefits museums bring are captured in the idea that Museums Change Lives, a campaign from the Museums Association. As exhibition makers, we can enhance learning, put significant collections on display, build community, foster wellbeing, encourage renewal – and make the world a better place.