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“Special” Exhibitions The Same, but Different

An incomprehensible number of images and sounds compete for our attention everyday. From traffic signs to product labels, from freeway noises to elevator music, from television commercials to store window displays, the happenings of contemporary life constantly bombard us with stimuli. The cumulative effect of all this dissonance teaches us to see and listen less acutely in order to eliminate the distractions. As a result, our attention is increasingly more difficult to capture and hold.

The advertising, movie, music, and television industries understand this phenomenon well. They employ ever greater levels of excitement, explicitness, and sensationalism to gamer the public’s notice and interest. From video games to music lyrics, from movies like Fatal Attraction to computer-generated experiences such as “virtual reality,” we have become people best baited by high stimulus and the lure of an adrenaline rush.

With this in mind, consider the implications for museums, gardens, and historic sites. Could there be environments more antithetical to today’s fast-paced, action-packed, over-stimulating world than that of static exhibit halls or the vestibules of old houses?

Most exhibitions are inanimate — silent and still; they demand that visitors initiate and sustain engagement. For many people, such institutions and their collections simply do not “speak loudly enough” to be heard over the din of all that competes for their attention and interest. (Even in zoos, visitors quickly abandon exhibits where animals are sleeping or are well camouflaged.)

This may explain the proliferation of “Blockbusters” and other “special” exhibitions that began to appear with increasing regularity since the early 1970’s. Their catchy titles are often provocative, their transitory nature — appearing only for a limited time — creates a sense of urgency, and the accompanying media hoopla offers hosting institutions a higher profile than usual.

From model dinosaurs that move and growl to the treasures found in threatened environments; from the wonders of ancient civilizations to the horrors of human slavery; from a retrospective of an artist’s lifetime of work to an array of cold-war era toys, special exhibitions lend a sense of excitement to a realm that is otherwise thought by many to be anything but exciting.

The tactic has worked. Special exhibitions have drawn tens of thousands of additional visitors to museums, zoos, and historic sites. They have been useful tools for audience-building and for increased institutional visibility. In fact, they have been so successful that some newer “museums” only feature changing exhibitions and do not even possess permanent collections of their own.

For all their usefulness, success, and validity, changing exhibitions can tax education and docent programming. The demands of acquiring and presenting new information can fatigue and intimidate, as often as it can excite. And, the sense of obligation to visitors who have made special efforts (and sometimes paid additional fees) to attend, may result in anxiety or confusion about responsibilities and appropriate methodology.

What should the role of docents and interpreters be when touring special exhibitions? Since it is often the subject matter of such exhibitions that attracts visitors, is there a greater responsibility to provide information than on regular, inquiry-oriented tours of the permanent collection?

It is the prerogative and responsibility of each institution to establish its own goals for touring special exhibitions. The decision, which should be made by the institutional director and senior education department staff, must then be communicated to all who work with the public. Both staff and volunteer educators should know and understand the philosophy guiding their activities.

When establishing the philosophic goal for touring special exhibitions, it is imperative to employ realism and honesty. For instance, since the majority of visitors taking tours are dependent learners, less able to acquire information or make determinations about what they see and hear than those with greater levels of exposure and experience, it must be honestly acknowledged that telling does not equal teaching. If hearing ensured learning, then merely attending a lecture on nuclear physics would guarantee comprehension.

It’s also not realistic to assume that simple access to an exhibit, or to recited information, satisfies an institution’s educational responsibility. Nevertheless, institutions must stake out and defend a philosophy of public service. If crowd control and logistical assistance are paramount, then so be it. If the distribution of information (regardless of its absorption) is pre-eminent, then guides need only recite from prepared scripts. If, on the other hand, educational programming is responsible for ensuring that learning occurs, then teaching should be the prescribed route. Whatever the decision, it should be known and understood by both the staff and volunteers who execute it.

When education is truly the goal, then teaching should be the primary conduit. Teaching is the most time consuming and least comprehensive method of guiding visitors through exhibitions. Such characteristics are worth noting as visitors who expect to be shown everything in a special exhibition may be disappointed when a method that relies upon in-depth examinations, rather than a survey or overview, is employed.

What about the public’s expectations? Usually, visitors believe that they want to see “everything,” though their capacity to absorb what they see and hear diminishes rapidly after the first few minutes. Also, most would simply rather be told about an exhibition, and shown what to notice, than to engage in conversation and the retrieval of information.

If the institutional goal is to satisfy these desires, then that scripted presentation might suffice. If the institution strives to go beyond the public’s desires (addressing their needs) then, again, teaching is called for. If both are essential considerations, then perhaps there should be a blend — teaching activities followed by a bit of “show and tell.”

Whenever education is an institution’s goal, in whole or in part, those who teach should find some comfort in the knowledge that they are striving to impart the same looking and analyzing skills using the special exhibitions as they do when using the permanent collection. While this does not remove the decent’ s responsibility to learn about the special exhibition, it does lessen the burden of becoming “experts.” (It is the “borrowed insights” of scripted presentations that establish guides as authorities in the minds of visitors.)

It is axiomatic that established teaching concepts and techniques have constancy even when the objects used in a lesson have changed. Among the more successful teaching structures was one developed by Benjamin Bloom, called “The Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning.” It is well synopsized and made relevant to museum teaching in this issue of The Docent Educator by Laura Wendling in her article Questions? Questions! A Report from the Field.

Another teaching method that can be successful employed was developed by Dr. Louis Raths, and is explained in depth in his text Teaching for Thinking (Columbia Teachers College Press, 1986). Dr. Raths approaches teaching using those thinking and organizing principles that he believes people rely upon naturally, on their own, to acquire and analyze information. They are:

  • observation – looking closely with reason or purpose
  • comparison – finding similarities and/ or differences in two or more things
  • classification – sorting using established or created criteria
  • summarization – condensing form or substance without omitting essentials
  • interpretation – pulling meaning out of, or investing meaning on to, something
  • hypothesis – making predictions based on evidence or what is known
  • imagination – extending into the unknown using fantasy • decision-making – making determinations using established criteria.

Either enabling structure can be employed equally well with new exhibitions or “old friends,” because both address the process of learning, and both serve to impart skills for independent and continued learning on the part of visitors as a priority over remembering isolated pieces of factual information. They offer methods for teaching, when telling just isn’t enough.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “‘Special’ Exhibitions: The Same, but Different,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 2-3.

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