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 (a museum exhibition and planning consultant, formerly Director of the Museum at the Minnesota Historical Society and 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.
Historically, museum collections were often intended to “teach” audiences something, to be instructive. Today, we frequently talk about museum audiences having experiences that are not strictly “educational.” How can collections function in both ways?
Darielle Mason Conceptualizing a difference between instructive and experiential gallery design is an often-asked question in museum circles today, but in my mind, it’s a false duality. That idea is inherited from a 19th-century vision of learning as boring and painful. The real beginning point for visitors and curators alike is pursuing the wonder of curiosity.
My mother was not a museum professional, and she shared her own wonder and sense of inquiry, transmuting it into fun. We would investigate the violent and lascivious imagery on Greek vases, or make up outrageous new titles for paintings. I learned facts—but I also imbibed the ability to discover meaning and be emotionally moved by objects.
Dan Spock I think the argument between didactic versus experiential learning is a distraction from what’s really important. It says more about the limiting assumptions we have about education than it does about just how people actually learn. However, I do believe the distinctions between formal classroom instruction based on the requirements of the teacher, and museum learning—a kind of voluntary and social learning reliant on the motivation of the learner—are often conflated.
My childhood experiences mirror yours (right down to the lascivious Greek vases), except that my father was a museum professional. As a result, I developed a pretty high sense of confidence about and ownership of museums as a thing to do. Later, I became keenly aware that my experiences were a kind of privilege that many of my peers did not share growing up. As a part of my practice, I try to keep them in the back of my mind: smart, curious kids who, nevertheless, never had that initiation experience.
Mason Absolutely—confidence and ownership are a privilege. But I think you mean privilege not in the sense of exclusive right, but rather of a gift that can be shared freely. Figuring out how to give that sense of privilege and ownership to all visitors is, in my mind, our fundamental challenge.
How can we help ‘open doors’ when we create gallery experiences? In the earliest phases of this project, we recognized that the standard museum organization by region and chronology wouldn’t serve most of our visitors, even if it provides a familiar structure. We decided the aim wasn’t to educate visitors on how to identify art from a multitude of regions, cultures, and religions or to present a coherent narrative spanning more than 2,000 years. Instead, we aimed to foster that exploration and wonder by creating a varied thematic organization. It alternates immersive or narrowly focused spaces with those that contextualize culturally and temporally unique elements through universally relatable ideas.
Spock Yes, early on as an exhibit designer at a children’s museum, I was discouraged from creating ‘rat maze’ or ‘forced march’ exhibits. Unfortunately, history museums in particular are stuck on chronology as an organizing design schema, so they tend to design a lot of rat mazes. This strikes visitors as subtly coercive, due to the feel of the spaces and an inability to see what’s next or how much there is left to see, and it also tends to wear you down.
Mason The way the team at the Philadelphia Museum of Art initially imagined interpretation in the new South Asian galleries was a ‘skim, swim, dive’ model. As the project evolved, a major aim became not to limit this model to the standard definition of interpretation with typical tools like wall and other text; digital interactives; and video, audio, and sound. We wanted to apply it to everything in the gallery experience, including visitors’ interactions before and after their trip to the museum. Flow, lines of sight, juxtaposition and placement of objects, color, lighting, comfort, places for rest and casual interaction, and website—all of these elements should serve to help the unfamiliar achieve a sense of ownership. At the same time, they should deepen the pleasure and connection of those who already feel familiarity in a museum or with the collection, on whatever level. We wanted to create personally meaningful experiences for as many visitors as possible.
Spock I like the ‘skim, swim, dive’ analogy! Late in life, I’ve come to the conclusion that museums are better at prompting questions than answering them. And that might be okay, if a person leaves curious and with an appetite for more.
What determines the mode and the amount of interpretation a gallery design should offer museum visitors?
Spock The issue of the level of mediation that is desired or necessary has always been particularly tricky with art. The anxiety about context, whatever the context might be, interfering with the direct experience of the art, is very real for art curators—but I wonder if it’s also necessary to balance that anxiety with the anxieties of visitors who need some help understanding what it is they are looking at. The Tate has tried to address this with a sort of mission statement that the meaning of art is not self-explanatory and, though this is not usually true for me, I think it is a realistic acknowledgement of the situation for the preponderance of visitors.
Mason It’s especially great that the Tate does it across the board in terms of cultures and times. My concern in making such a statement only for a group of spaces that hold ‘non-Western’ art is that it might convey the underlying message that visitors need help understanding only these supposedly foreign works and not others.
My own graduate training focused on sculpture in its architectural and ritual context on temples in India, and included years working with archaeologists and priests, so I tend to see museum objects and their context as inseparable. I also believe each of the many contexts an object has inhabited over time is a facet of its meaning. Helping visitors explore the past ‘lives’ of an object, especially the meaning it had for its makers and patrons (the ‘why’ of its creation), opens a door into what may be unfamiliar and gives that gift of access. Becoming engaged emotionally, aesthetically, or intellectually also opens us to recognizing the humanity and sophistication of people we might otherwise have feared or avoided because of their cultural or religious difference or because they lived long ago.
When it comes to interpretation, too many words or digital materials are overwhelming—yet unanswered questions may be frustrating. In terms of the South Asian galleries in particular, our front-end study confirmed these objects are extremely challenging to the vast majority of our visitors, even those who have affiliation thanks to their national heritage or religion. We wanted to recognize this fact but also foster the ability of the objects and visitors to converse directly. It’s always a fine balance, and one we will continue to juggle as we interact with our visitors and study how they interact with the galleries.
How can the traditional pleasures of contemplation meet increasing audience expectations for participation and activation of collections?
Spock When it comes to audience expectations, I proffer that visitors have a wide spectrum of motives and that experiential variety can be one way to serve a variety of tastes. Not every tool we have is appropriate every time, but we also have big spaces. We could be more deliberate about saying, ‘This space will be contemplative in nature, this will be raucous and festive, this will be dark, this will be bright, this will be about quantity, this will be about quality, this will be interactive with the hands or body, this will be about seeing, or listening. This will be participatory or immersive, this will be reflective and detailed, this will be cheerful and optimistic, and this will be sad and gloomy.’ I think of it as a splendid buffet; not everyone eats everything, but nobody goes away hungry either. That’s the craft, isn’t it?
Mason It’s definitely the craft, maybe the art. Being really upfront with the method as well as the message is an important idea, and frankly I’ve never tried it so consciously. When we create spaces intended to be used in different ways, why hide it? To some people the use may be obvious, some may want to do their own thing, but many would like a clear statement on why the space was designed as it now exists and clues on how it might be used to full advantage. If this wasn’t the case, people wouldn’t read travel books and blogs before going on a trip.
When each gallery creates its own self-contained experience yet links without disjuncture to others, visitors ‘read’ their own unity into each aspect of an individual space. They take cues from object selection and placement, wall color and lighting, or even scratches in the paint. If the changing themes are clear and loosely related, they readily accept that each space explores something different and in a different manner. One might be for contemplation, another more didactic or participatory. The follow up study showed the success of our organizational scheme for the South Asian Art galleries. Visitors emphasized that they didn’t feel confused or disoriented throughout the entire ‘Asian Wing.’ They accepted the differences in approach just so long as each was made clear.
When is digital the answer? How does technology strengthen the connection of a gallery design’s educational and experiential roles?
Spock Interactive tech can’t be a gratuitous tool simply to pile on more information. A question I would have here is whether a digital interactive was really thought about from the beginning as an enhancement that would draw a person in, or whether it was thought of as an extended, high tech label.
Personally, I don’t often use apps or audio tours. I don’t like the experience of being cut off from the people I’m visiting with. And I’m not alone. All the evidence suggests that, unless the tech is for a blockbuster show, uptake is very low, only 8 to 12 percent, which really calls into question the expense of the effort. But there are always exceptions. The audio tour of Eastern State Penitentiary is excellent. Why? Because it has narratives from actual former inmates and guards and those first person accounts are very compelling. Compare that to the Met’s mobile app: it just piles on more information. It’s too much and disappointing. Down the street at The Frick Gallery, the mobile app (which was designed by students) worked because it started by locating where the restrooms are and, because a lot of the art represents a classical or biblical story, the descriptions could take a storytelling approach. Also, because the museum is a salon in a mansion, the frame-mounted labels only give the last name of the artist. So the Frick app fills a void that isn’t there at the Met.
Mason You’ve put your finger on the challenge. Aspects of digital interactives in the South Asian Art galleries are experiential rather than static. You watch a classical Indian dancer telling the story of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, whose sculpted image appears nearby. You join a group of conservators in the lab talking about their adventure reconstructing a great wooden door that stands completed in front of you. As you note for most places, of all the interpretive materials we made for the galleries, our follow-up study revealed that the interactives had the least uptake (11 percent). And, yes, they cost the most money. But I’d argue that the money was well spent—sometimes no matter how many studies there are, an institution has to learn its own lessons in order to move forward. When people find the good stuff in the interactives, they experience a leap in enjoyment and connection. We’re still studying visitor response on this first iteration, but we hope in the future to know how to use these tools more pointedly, perhaps simply by offering a single living story that can’t be experienced in other ways.
Spock The idea of connecting with people through stories, through individuals and emotions, is a very powerful one, and the research we’ve done shows that, at least, history museum-goers really do find this an accessible way to learn.
Mason To be accessible, it has to be easy to find. In our first iteration, the good stuff was too hard to find amidst the extended labels—and if you happen to go to a label-like object first, you lose interest. We have two digital elements that people find immediately accessible and meaningful. One is a simple looped video of life in a Hindu temple complex (the same complex once entered through the very hall in which they’re actually standing in the museum). Accompanied only by ambient sounds, in the video visitors experience the complex as devotees do today, from the ritual circumambulation to festivals to quiet everyday worship. Another is a major digital element that is a huge draw as both interpretation and a work of art—that’s Shahzia Sikander’s Disruption as Rapture. It interprets an 18th-century Sufi illustrated manuscript (displayed nearby) through an immersive video-sound installation located in an intimate and stunning setting where you can also sit comfortably. The experience is an extraordinary combination of art, storytelling, and mystical dream. Both of these open a path away from information and toward experience, imagination, and feelings, and they even challenge viewers in different ways. They seem to break down the boundaries between teaching, experiencing, and entertaining.
Spock I think this is an incredibly exciting direction. As a history person, I find myself craving a sense of how a museum object—like this temple in particular, and temples like it—fits into the daily patterns of life. What is the interplay between the sacred and the profane? Thinking about the role of sacred architecture in quotidian life gives me a flashback to visiting the Pantheon in Rome and learning that, for a period of time, it served as a fish market. What are the telling details that help us put these things into a human context? I get excited about approaches that aren’t linear or didactic but respond to people’s natural inclinations to explore whatever arouses their curiosity.
Mason Conceptual leaps are always much harder than the technological steps. It takes a lot longer to separate the surface appeal of a new tool from a thoughtful product.
Will the lines between art, historical artifacts, and objects become increasingly blurred? Will disciplinary boundaries matter?
Mason As a South Asian art historian who began with classical archaeology, moved to Indian temples in worship, then women’s embroidered ‘folk’ textiles and lots more, I have a really hard time separating ‘art’ and ‘artifact.’ I feel, though, that some objects have more power, beauty, or finesse than others, so I use that as my de facto definition of art. Too often categories like ‘art,’ ‘artifact,’ ‘craft,’ or ‘architecture’ stunt our ability to approach a work in its totality. And our past itself is an expanding entity in which objects play ever-changing roles; they shift categories as society shifts perspective.
Spock Art museums tend to collect exceptional and unique things, while history museums are all over the map, collecting exceptional and quotidian things and everything in between. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, for example, has a relatively small collection of Native American materials, but everything in that collection is superb and it’s not limited to Minnesota tribal groups. At the Minnesota Historical Society’s History Center, we had a much bigger Native American collection with a bit of everything from superb to pretty prosaic and it is all from Minnesota tribal groups.
In my last job, I was a champion for storytelling, and I saw the collection as one of many paints in the paint box to illustrate stories. Part of why I left was a directive to make exhibitions collections-driven. I came under fire because I chose to do exhibitions driven by relevance, not necessarily by what we had in the collection. My argument was that we always found a way to augment what we had in the collection with loans or even props, but this became more controversial over time.
Mason I love your analogy to the collection as a paint box to use for illustrating stories. As the only major fine arts museum in the US with significant, longstanding holdings of South Asian folk material, I know our storage appears to many of my colleagues more like that of a history museum. I’ve always had to battle the prejudice toward the elite masterpiece—when I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the fabulous material excavated from one of South Asia’s oldest cities was deemed too ‘archaeological’ for display. How does a curator in a fine arts museum offset the desire to bring visitors the stories of cultures with the desire to offer them the ‘best’ that humankind has created? We’ve chosen to break ground in our field by integrating the ‘vernacular’ and ‘elite’ arts, showing their dialogue and how they grow from the same soil. It opens the possibilities for all sorts of meaningful juxtapositions.
Spock I think that, increasingly, the traditional discipline boundaries are becoming self-imposed barriers to thinking and engaging. The domain boundaries are increasingly being blurred in academia, so why should museums be the last to change? In my own practice, I’ve felt that history has a lot to learn experientially from art and science, but also that art has a lot to learn from history and science. Personally, I’ve learned the most from performance, installation, and theater arts, but I look at everything as a potential source of inspiration: retail environments, parks, churches, libraries, museums, historic sites, and memorials of all kinds. I’m inclined to ask: what kind of approach will really enhance the experience this time?
Mason That openness is a great mantra in terms of both inspiration and methodology. In a large and traditional art museum, it can feel like the walls are too thick for new ideas to enter, the culture too set in its ways. But that just makes it more important for those of us working inside to search out new ideas and drag them through the door. Our installation incorporated so-called folk art (a strength of Philadelphia’s collection) without separation, something that I don’t think has happened, at least as seamlessly, in any comparable permanent installation.
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 a museum exhibition and planning consultant, formerly Director of the Museum at the Minnesota Historical Society and Senior Vice President for Audience Engagement at the Levine Museum of the New South.