I recently asked a group of Museum Studies grad students a deceptively tricky question. “What is your #1 priority for an exhibit?” Not a whole museum, just a single exhibit. It could be big (connected ideas) or specific (enough benches)but they had to pick something that could make or break an exhibit experience for them. Although some of the answers connected, they each had a unique something that they looked for in an exhibit.
Then, we turned the conversation outward. I asked them to help me brainstorm a list of anyone who might have a stake in, or feel some ownership about, an exhibit at a museum. Once again, not an entire museum…just a single exhibit. The list kept growing and growing. “Visitors” was broken down into different generational categories, families, school groups, members, donors, researchers and one time visitors. Social media, events, the community at large, sponsors, board, volunteers soon took over another part of the board. Staff, art handlers, other museums and security and more filled in the rest of the space.
Once we’d run out of ideas for who would feel connected to the exhibit, I asked them to think back to their “one important aspect” and to imagine what the #1 priority for each of these groups would be. Amenities, experience, access, exposure, safety, the objects…the list grew and grew with some groups overlapping but most having a unique need.
Our final task was to match each of these needs with someone in the museum who could address them. Curators, education, visitor services, security, maintenance, events/PR, development, exhibit design, registrars…each group had at least one and in many cases multiple staff that would best be able to handle their needs or anticipate problems that might come up.
So…who is on your exhibit team? Without the objects and the aesthetics you won’t have an exhibit, but without the voices of other people in your museum during the planning process you won’t have a SUCCESSFUL exhibit. Including front line staff, education, maintenance, marketing and others in the initial conversation will help you have a stronger exhibit that not only meets your mission, but reaches the groups that are your museum’s stakeholders.