Ideas

Radical Change: Participatory Exhibition Design - by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni

NewExhibitionDesign_Big.jpgThe Indianapolis Museum of Art has recently undertaken a significant shift toward becoming a more visitor-centric institution. Silvia Filippini-Fantoni explains how as part of that ongoing approach they have implemented a new more collaborative participatory exhibition development process

In response to the ongoing changes in our society brought about by the recent technological revolution, as well as the increasing competition from other leisure time activities, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has recently undertaken a significant shift toward becoming a more visitor-centric institution. While art museums are behind other types of institutions like science and children’s museums in catering to visitor needs and engaging them in different ways, the IMA is an early adopter of this approach among its peer institutions.

The IMA’s approach to visitor-centricity is based mainly on three different strategies, which we have gradually implemented over the past couple of years. First of all the IMA has established a new research and evaluation team, which is responsible for better understanding its real and potential audience, evaluating exhibitions and programs, as well as testing ideas, concepts and prototypes with visitors throughout the various stages of the development of a project.

"By providing opportunities to include visitors’ voices in the museum experience, participatory projects offer ways to engage members of our community in more innovative ways, and can contribute to changing the community’s perception of the institution as a more inclusive environment"

Second, the IMA has started to develop a number of participatory projects that allow online and on-site visitors to contribute to the museum experience by creating their own content and sharing it with the public. An example is the Inspired by Matisse drawing competition which encouraged visitors to create and submit drawings inspired by the French artist using one of the apps available at the museum or via the competition website - www.imamuseum.org/inspiredbymatisse. Winners and finalists in various age groups were selected monthly during the course of the project and exhibited at the museum. By providing opportunities to include visitors’ voices in the museum experience, participatory projects offer ways to engage members of our community in more innovative ways, and can contribute to changing the community’s perception of the institution as a more inclusive environment.

Last but not least, the IMA has implemented a more collaborative exhibition development process, led by a core team of representatives from various departments, including curators, designers but also evaluators and interpretation specialists, who are charged with prioritizing the needs and interests of visitors and who ensure that learning theories are applied to the process. This approach has the following objectives: to ensure that exhibitions are accessible to visitors, including those who have little or no previous knowledge of art or art history; increase visitors’ engagement with artworks and the institution, as well as their understanding of art; and ultimately guarantee visitors’ satisfaction in the hope of increasing repeat visits and new audiences.

Implementing a New Exhibition Development Process
Based on the work of other pioneering art museums such as The Brooklyn Museum, The Denver Art Museum, The Oakland Museum of California and in particular The Detroit Institute of Arts from which the model is based, this new process represents quite a significant shift for the IMA. Even though cross-departmental team approaches had been experimented with before on a few projects (e.g. The Viewing Project http://www.imamuseum.org/research/audience-research-evaluation/featured-projects), until about a year ago, exhibition development was very much an individual process, centered around the curator, who would come up with the idea, select the objects on the checklist, create the content, decide the structure and who, only at later stages of the process, would work with designers and eventually interpretation specialists on aspects related to the layout and what they hoped visitors would learn from the experience.

Today, the exhibition team (i.e., core team) convenes in the early stages of the process, when the idea is still in its infancy, and works as a group to identify the exhibition’s main thesis (i.e., big idea), learning and organizational outcomes, and the preliminary checklist of objects to be displayed. The big idea and proposed outcomes are then tested with visitors through formative evaluation. For instance, feedback collected in the early stages of the development process of the Essential Robert Indiana exhibition (February 14 - May 5, 2014) showed that respondents, after seeing images of some of the works in the show and briefly reading about it, had many questions about the technique and process employed by the artist. As a result, the team decided to update the big idea document by including an additional outcome related to process and technique.

"Interpretive tools, particularly technology-based ones, are tested multiple times during the development stages to guarantee that they are intuitive and easy to use"

Once the big idea and learning outcomes have been tested and refined, these are used by the core team as a reference to develop the interpretive plan, which maps the identified outcomes with the various analog and digital interpretive tools that will be used to tell the story (e.g., labels, videos, mobile guide, various types of wall-text and visuals, apps, hands-on experiences, etc.). Interpretive tools, particularly technology-based ones, are tested multiple times during the development stages to guarantee that they are intuitive and easy to use. The learning outcomes are also taken into consideration by the team when creating the gallery design and layout, finalizing the object checklist, and developing public programs, thus ensuring that the many elements of the exhibition are strategically chosen, cohesive, and well-integrated.

Benefits and Challenges of the New Model
While this is an emerging process that has been applied to three public exhibitions thus far with five more currently in development, benefits of this approach are already evident and measurable. First of all, we have witnessed increased attendance and higher satisfaction levels with our most recent exhibitions compared to those developed with the older model. While other factors might also have contributed to such results (e.g. more accessible subject matters, more effective marketing, etc.), the main novelty of this new process is that it provides a different set of criteria for evaluating the success of the exhibition. By identifying outcomes early on in the process and using these as a reference in the development of the various aspects of the exhibition (e.g. interpretive tools, design, content), we can easily measure through observation, interviews, and surveys with the public whether such outcomes have been met and to what degree, thus determining if we have been effective in communicating our story to the public.

"Another benefit brought about by the new process is that interpretation tools are much more integrated into the exhibition and are used more often by visitors"

Another benefit brought about by the new process is that interpretation tools are much more integrated into the exhibition and are used more often by visitors. This is true not only for mobile guides, wall-text, visuals, videos, and apps, but also for hands-on and participatory experiences, which in previous exhibitions tended to be confined to outside the show or in isolated areas. Evaluations show that participation in these activities is relatively high, ranging from 20% to 60% of visitors depending on the show, and that visitors see the value in other people’scontributions, even if they themselves do not participate.

Despite the encouraging results that we have had so far with this process, its implementation has not been without difficulties. The new process, in fact, represents a relatively radical departure from the way in which exhibitions and content have been developed at the IMA for a long time; so it is not surprising that there has been some resistance towards this model across the organization. The main concern that has been expressed by some staff members is that by attempting to integrate elements that respond to visitors’ interests and by including non-art experts in the decision-making process, the academic soundness of the exhibition could be compromised, resulting in an experience that panders to public or popular interests and may appear to be “dumbed down.”

Another concern is that the increased use of interpretive tools brought about by the attempt to satisfy the needs of various visitors, and their installation in proximity to the art as a way to maximize impact, may distract visitors from experiencing the actual works of art. While these concerns have been mitigated to some extent by the successful implementation of our last three exhibitions and the positive feedback from the public, some opposition still persists both internally and externally. When it comes to the implementation of canned exhibitions, in fact, organizing institutions are unfamiliar with this development process and have often been uncomfortable with the idea of adapting the exhibition to respond more specifically to the needs of our audience.

Another point to consider is that this new exhibition development process has required more staff time, as it involves more meetings to work collaboratively and to reach consensus on issues where team members hold different viewpoints. This can be a challenge in an institution where resources and staff are limited and this is why, so far, this model has been applied only to our paid exhibitions. Our objective for the next year is to fine-tune the process by minimizing some of these challenges and eventually extending it to non-paid exhibitions and permanent collection reinstallations, in the hope of further realizing the benefits of this approach museum-wide.

Even though the IMA is gradually shifting toward becoming more aware of and accommodating visitors’ interests and needs, through research and evaluation, as well as the implementation of participatory projects, and of a more team-based exhibition development process, art still remains itsmain focus. The difference is that it is more about how visitors engage with it, the meaning they make, and the stories that can be told through those objects.

Silvia Filippini-Fantoni
Director of Interpretation, Media & Evaluation, Indianapolis Museum of Art