End of exhibitions? Reflecting on the future of exhibition design

This blog post is the transcript of a thought-provocation I made during the Plenary Session of the Museum Exhibition Design conference, Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, 11 September 2020.

How have we as curators and exhibition designers been complicit in designing for the default supremacies in society while continuing to marginalise the marginalised?

Thanks, and well done to the conference organisers and producers, all the presenters and fellow panelists for this opportunity to reflect.

My philosophy on good curating is balance. A balance between knowledge creation and communication. The caravan of knowledge is pulled by camels.

Looking back at my history as an exhibition curator and pundit I find myself exploring all of my senses.

I can’t remember a single word I’ve written for an exhibition, and I have written thousands, but I do remember the feel, the smell and the movement I have helped to create. I remember the light on the art, objects and specimens, the shadows and shapes they create. I remember the colours.

An exhibition, a display, is an opportunity not just to show and show-off, but to say something, as an artist, as an institution, as a curator, a community, a collective. When you realise you have come away from an exhibition unmoved or none the wiser, is it you with the problem, or the museum?

We are questioning every stage, facet and process in museums right now. We are questioning and falling out over the very definition of a museum’s purpose and even whether exhibitions are the way forward.

The truly memorable exhibition feeds the soul and lasts. But over my career I too have fallen foul of privileging the righteousness of professional museum and exhibition practices over the actual living needs of our communities and audiences. My work curating over 30 exhibitions and collections-led events has always sought to enhance the intimacy between the exhibit and its beholder — so a memory can be formed — and good human-centred design is so instrumental in this, and personally important to me.

Who do we imagine we are doing this for? The nuclear family who want to press buttons and spin things around; the retired couple who will read everything but want some peace and quiet; the tourist who wants to tick it off their bucket list? Our common contribution to being inclusive are ramps and turning circles for wheelchair users and large-print versions of our very many labels. We put up respectful signs asking for forbearance because of the protective darkness in which we shroud our exhibits. Do not touch, obviously.

How have we as curators and exhibition designers been complicit in designing for the default supremacies in society while continuing to marginalise the marginalised? Let’s take responsibility for our prejudices. Let’s be more open when we talk and write about them—as some of the presentations in this conference have started to do. Prejudice.

How have we as curators and exhibition designers been complicit in designing first and foremost for soundbites, the flashy budget busting boasts, the gimmicks, sometimes betrayed by questionable content and slapdash storymaking? The earth is heaving because of our egos and our wastefulness.

Suppressed and marginalised by the attention paid to celebrity blockbusters and eye-wateringly expensive capital redevelopments the real diversity of talent in the exhibition world seem now to be emerging strong. These creators are speaking directly to our souls and helping us ask Why and How?

Yet in spite of past attitudes and behaviours, in spite of the problematic world we have helped to create, there must still be something in museums and exhibitions that we love and care about and are not yet ready to let go. 

All of this that I have just said, has found expression in a poem I’d like to share.

Someone untied your camel

by Hafiz the Sufi Master (translation of Daniel Ladinksy)

I cannot sit still with my countrymen in chains.

I cannot act mute

Hearing the world’s loneliness

Crying near the Beloved’s heart.

My dear, is your caravan lost?

It is if you can no longer be kind to yourself

And loving, to those who must live 

With the sometimes difficult task of loving you. 

The camel is untied.