A moment in the life of a museum educator.

20 03 2015

This week I had the privilege of presenting to 187 year 9’s, and 10 educators and supervisors, from a comprehensive Sydney High School on the topic of how to design an exhibition. The presentation was on request, and its actually not always possible to respond to school requests, even though in an ideal world we would love to deliver completely bespoke experiences every time. The young people had been set the project to develop and mount an exhibition at school as an assessment task. The entire year 9 cohort will be the “visitors”.

Its probably important for me to put it right out there up front, that I do not consider myself, or profess to be, an expert in exhibition design. Still, it may be reasonable to expect that twenty years into my accidental museum career, I might know something about it.

The particular day the school were in our part of town, combining a visit with us and IMAX, was already a very busy day. Over 500 other school kids, corporate functions occupying almost all the spaces, including perfectly suited theatres and teched up meeting rooms, meant the kids were accommodated in 4 banks of 5 rows of 9 seats in a massive 5-story high ceiling ‘turbine hall’. Not exactly conducive to informal and interactive dialogue based presentations, my preferred style.

As this was the 3rd consecutive year the school had attended for this specific content, I was provided a slide deck developed for a previous year by a colleague. This deck was fine, although I have a way of thinking through, refining and scripting my presentations as I design the images. The content was also not my preferred story, so in typical verge of peril fashion I started building How to make an exhibition PM v2 the evening before, at home, sitting on the couch, tv and family evening backdrop.

In the end I was happy with the “pop-up exhibition” story as it came together, even though I wasn’t completely sure how well it would deliver practical benefit to the kids. I hadn’t done a run through for time, but at 20x slides, I was pretty confident I could do it in less than 30 minutes, and easily develop aspects if there were specific interests and questions. The group arrived pretty on time, but of course, it takes a while to get 180 15 year olds bags away and settled into seats. As the last few were being ushered to the last spots by their teachers, I began with introducing myself and acknowledging country.

I then, a little bravely (?) it seemed at the time, showed a full screen image and proceeded into a see-think-wonder. I did this for a number of reasons: It is the current primary strategy for activating interactions and dialogue between visitors and staff throughout the museum’s galleries and spaces, and I am asking all of my team, and other colleagues to experiment with it, so I want to be sure I model finding opportunities for it, and dealing with the reality of what happens next, the dynamics of group styles and responses. I also happen to think it is an excellent “tool-kit” for appreciating exhibitions, artworks and other interesting things.
And it can be fun. It didn’t feel like fun, and maybe I didn’t quite land the value proposition in this case. Hmmm.

The see-think-wonder image d’jour was a ‘cabinet of curiosity’, as my story started back in the Enlightenment, with the idea of rare, wondrous and “exotic” things collected from far-flung places as talking points in the drawing rooms of the European bourgeois. As I kind of whipped through the see-think-wonder the excursion coordinators words of advice ringing in my ears “They get restless pretty quickly and can lose concentration”. In fact my final briefing notes were “They should be OK for 15 minutes”. I negotiated 20 with the supervisors and set the timer on my phone. In the event, I finished up, delivered the required housekeeping advice and released the group to their supervisors with 3 minutes to spare.

Although I was left feeling a little shell-shocked, I did notice quite a few kids dashing out notes as I covered terrain such as Nina Simon’s focus on and brilliant ideas around participation, and a provocation “What type of experience do you want the visitors to have?”, outlining Michelle DelCarlo’s fab pop-up museum models which is perfect for school and classroom exhibits, looking at a professional museum’s exhibition development process, and finishing up with the idea that a single object can embody multiple stories and interpretations. This early typewriter is currently being displayed in Interface and was most recently in the Oopsatoreum exhibition conceived and developed by the amazing Helen Whitty in collaboration with artist, writer, filmmaker Shaun Tan and the sublime Sydney Children’s Choir.

The next day I sent the slides and this note to the school:

Hi
Just wanted to send through yesterday’s presentation for your and the young people’s reference. As we discussed I did move through the material at a rapid pace and saw many people taking notes.
As the young people begin to develop their projects they or you are welcome to contact me by email if questions arise at that point.
Should it be appropriate, please do let me know about any opportunity for me or other museum staff to view the exhibit.
I look forward to seeing you back in the museum in the future.
Best regards, 
Peter

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