The very concept of the “permanent” or “long-term” exhibition is an oxymoron. Few permanent exhibitions remain the same over the decades, and even when they do, the world changes around them. Researchers and curators regularly unearth new knowledge; the demographics of neighborhoods and audiences evolve too.
Recently, the Penn Museum—an august archaeological and ethnographic institution founded in 1887 at the University of Pennsylvania—embarked on the re-installation of a longstanding display of African objects. In the past, this would have been a closed-door process in which the museum’s experts drafted new storylines based on changes in scholarship and what they thought their audiences (first and foremost faculty and students) ought to know. This time, the museum decided to take a risk and try something new. Mindful of the fact that the museum has never had a meaningful relationship with its West Philadelphia neighbors, a community that has been majority-black since the 1960s (African and African-American), museum staff threw open their doors and asked nearby residents what Africa means to them.
The result was Imagine Africa, a 12-month prototyping exhibition and series of events, funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The programs were designed to elicit visitor feedback that could be used by museum staff as they redesign displays. An impressive number of more than 135,000 people participated—far more than museum staff expected. In the short videos below, Kate Quinn, the museum’s director of exhibitions, and Jean Byrne, director of community engagement, discuss how they approached the project and what they learned.