Designing Museum Galleries for Contemporary Audiences: Darielle Mason & Dan Spock in Conversation

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Mosaics and woven textiles capture the attention of guests wandering in the Safavid Court. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Mosaics and woven textiles capture the attention of visitors wandering in the Safavid Court. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Between art and artifacts, between digital and non-digital experiences, and across disciplines, once rigid boundaries in museums are blurring. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage has supported reimagined collections and exhibition designs including the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries and the South Asian Art galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—the Museum’s first reinstallation of its South Asian art collection in 40 years. By embracing modern methodologies and techniques that prioritize accessibility and curiosity over top-down pedagogy—and celebrating how that creates new opportunities for exploration—these galleries can serve as models for new approaches to gallery design and interpretation.

We invited Darielle Mason (the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art) and Dan Spock (formerly Director of the Museum at the Minnesota Historical Society and now Senior Vice President for Audience Engagement at the Levine Museum of the New South) to discuss issues of museum accessibility, experiential design, and the influence of digital culture on visitor engagement.

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In our digital culture, do we need real objects? What is the nature of that in-the-flesh experience, and why does it still matter?

Mason: To me, tangible, if not literally touchable, is key—in scale, in detail, and in the blooming of imagination that connects us with the past or with a distant or distinct culture. I still get a shiver whenever I can discern an artist’s fingerprints, maybe thousands of years old, still visible in a clay or lost wax sculpture. As opposed to unscaled, mechanical, two- or even three-dimensional replications, ‘real objects’ provide a physical, human link that includes emotion and so will always be irreplicable. Just how this takes hold and grows in a person, whether child or adult, is entirely individual, but it brings together the creator and the viewer. The object, as opposed to its image, opens multiple points of entry to ourselves; sometimes this sparks a short-term revelation, more often it’s a long-term embedding that subtly changes our relationship with the world we inhabit.

Spock: When I was an art student, I sat through dozens of slide lectures of amazing places and artworks. For those pieces I had previously seen, I could see the shortcomings of the slides. Digital is great for dissemination of material, but the emerging wisdom seems to be that exposure often makes a person want to see the actual thing even more, which is great for museums. The first time I went to St. Peter’s in Rome, I was stunned to see that the plaza in front of the domed basilica is on a slope and this causes the dome to loom even more impressively above you. You can’t get that from a picture. I recently saw one of Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hats in Springfield, and you could see the wear on the brim where he would habitually doff it and grasp it. That kind of telling and intimate detail is lost in a digital image.

Mason: [The digitization of collections has] definitely changed the way I, as a curator, think about the audience experience. Digitization allows all kinds of ‘exhibition’ ideas that you can’t do physically, or at least not all at one time, so the platform becomes an extension of the museum. It can also act as a reference book or an introduction to ideas through objects. Of course, having the collection available on the web has broadened the concept of the visit. Pre- and post-visit access enriches and satisfies curiosity as well as creates familiarity and excitement.

For me, though, it’s also fabulous that the web gives anyone around the world some visual and information access to our collections, even when they can’t visit. Thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded project, at the same time as we opened the galleries, we completed putting images of the entire South Asian collection online. It’s made me very aware that we have a global audience. Recently, I got an email from a young woman in a small town in central India who told me that her curiosity about her region’s ancient heritage was piqued by what she found on our website. Being involved in this kind of connecting is amazing.

Spock: The more access, the better; I absolutely agree. I believe we’ve been slow to identify how digitization might be a game changer for the visitor experience. Tellingly, our online digital databases are more popular by far in the categories of birth, census, and death records and photographs than they are for the 3D collections. We know this has to do with the power of the avocational family genealogists. They have a very personal connection to the archival data, not so much for the objects.

I think we have to acknowledge that everything digital in museums is still unsettled, still in its infancy. I think the chief challenge may be how this work is prioritized within a museum and how to keep up with technology in sensible ways.

Darielle Mason is the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art and Head of the Department of South Asian Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which received a Project grant in 2014 to reinstall and reinterpret its eight galleries of South Asian Art. 

Dan Spock is the Senior Vice President for Audience Engagement at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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