Assessing exhibitions

What makes a great exhibition?
Paula Marincola (ed.), Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia PA, 2006. ISBN: 0970834614 (pbk),
RRP A$35.95

Judging exhibitions: A framework for assessing excellence
by Beverly Serrell, Left Coast Press Inc., Walnut Creek CA, 2006. ISBN: 9781598740325 (pbk), RRP A$59.95

review by Stephen Foster
What makes a great exhibition book cover

What makes a great exhibition? asks Paula Marincola in this collection of 13 essays on various aspects of exhibition-making. Oddly, the question is rarely asked — perhaps because, without innumerable qualifications and sub-divisions, it is as hard to answer as 'what makes great music?', 'a great book?' or 'a great film?' Yet many people need to know, including the makers of exhibitions, and the institutions, such as Marincola's Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, that fund them.

So the question is definitively worth asking. But it's a misleading title for this book, which focuses not merely on art, but contemporary art exhibitions. The editor tells us that the authors are mostly curators of contemporary visual art, 'although the lessons, insights, and examples they bring to their writing should be directly relevant and transferable to historical exhibitions' (p. 11) — meaning, presumably, historical art exhibitions. This is a fair claim — and indeed there is much in the book that will interest museum workers with little concern for art exhibitions. Its greater value, though, is in what it reveals about how curators of contemporary visual art see their own roles and the functions of the exhibitions they help create.

The question that gives the book its title has two meanings: 'what constitutes a great exhibition' and 'how do you go about making one'. The editor and contributors elide this ambiguity, evidently assuming that the first question will be answered by responding to the second. They emphasise 'questions of practice': 'how concepts surrounding curating are filtered through the lessons derived from repeated performance, from thinking and doing, or, perhaps more accurately, thinking based on doing' (Introduction, p. 10). Prompted by a series of questions set by the editor, the contributors reflect on the challenges involved in mounting group exhibitions, the opportunities and constraints presented by particular spaces, whether 'bad art' can feature in a good exhibition, and so forth. There is no shortage of strong (and sometimes wry) opinions: Robert Storr, in his lively lead essay, warns forcefully against 'the managerial and sometimes market-driven tendency to put together shows by committee' (p. 15); Jeffrey Kipnis abhors 'the supposition that exhibitions should be informative or, god forbid, educational' (p. 97); Ralph Rugoff declares that 'the closest analogy to what curators do can be found in the field of consumer packaging' (p. 45). In a chapter wittily attributed and titled:

Ingrid Schaffner
Wall Text, 2003/6
Ink on paper
Courtesy the author

Schaffner refers to 'a lack of both rigor and regard paid exhibition wall text, which has become, like wallpaper, something of a dreary necessity, taken for granted even by the curators who write them' (p. 156). (This chapter should be compulsory reading in most Australian public art galleries.) Several essays focus on exhibitions of design, craft and architecture; some present case studies of specific institutions, including Berlin's New National Gallery, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitechapel Art Museum in London. In the last of these, Iwona Blazwick offers a persuasive argument, based on the history of the Whitechapel Museum, that 'Institutions will tend towards systems of display that reflect the complex socioeconomic and geopolitical contexts within which they operate.' (p. 131).

All this suggests that many ingredients go towards making a great exhibition. The prevailing impression, though, is that the key to success is the relationship between curator and artist. No doubt this is critical — but where is the audience? In most chapters, visitors are incidental or missing entirely. This neglect is confirmed by the editor's list of 30 or so questions, printed on the front cover and a bookmark, only one of which mentions 'potential viewers'; and by the telling dedication at the outset: 'In memory of a curator's curator'.

Judging exhibitions book cover

In contrast, Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence focuses exclusively on 'visitor-centered issues'. The book, written by Beverly Serrell and a small team of museum professionals, reports on a project initiated by Serrell in 2000 and funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States. The project's original purpose was 'to develop a valid and reliable tool for judging excellence' (a much abused word that deserves a holiday for a century or two). When this turned out (unsurprisingly) to be too hard, the exercise shifted 'from judgments that could help us compare exhibitions to assessments that could help us make better exhibitions' (p. 145), from setting common standards to contributing to professional development. In other words, the process became the product.

The process is summed up in the 'Excellent Judges Framework', which 'takes the position that the excellence of an exhibit should be judged based on the potential of an exhibition to afford high-quality visitor experiences' (p. 19). The judges, who might include anyone prepared to take the trouble to learn and participate in the process, are required to assess exhibitions not in their professional roles as curator, designer or whoever, but as self-aware visitors reporting on 'the visitor experience'. The process, the authors insist, is not a substitute for visitor evaluation: 'We aren't trying to read visitors' minds. We are reading our own minds, viewing the exhibit through our own eyes, and reporting our own reactions to the experience.' (p. 27)

To this end, the authors provide a framework comprising four criteria: 'Comfortable', 'Engaging', 'Reinforcing' and 'Meaningful'. Each criterion has four to eight 'Aspects': so 'Aspects of Comfortable' include, for example, 'There was a good ergonomic fit' and 'The exhibition welcomed people of different cultural backgrounds, economic classes, educational levels, and physical abilities', while 'Aspects of Meaningful' include 'The exhibition made a case that its content had value' and 'touched on universal human concerns'. The judges then assess the exhibition in accordance with the Aspects, rating it on a scale of one to six for each of the criteria — though the authors insist ratings don't much matter — it's the process that counts.

There is no attempt here to set up the framework as the be-all and end-all of judging exhibitions. The authors allow that their methodology needs to be used alongside the various other forms of assessment, including critiquing sessions, reviews and so on. The question remains: how much does it add to existing methodologies? To which the authors would probably respond that the value lies in the process taking precedence. Their object is professional development, leading eventually to better exhibitions. But is this process the best way of achieving these ends?

The problem is that the process has serious flaws. First there is the assumption that a methodology developed in the context of science exhibitions (perhaps necessary owing to the funding arrangements) can be translated to other forms of exhibition. Social history and ethnographic exhibitions don't get a look in. The authors put the framework to the test at just one art exhibition, yet bravely claim universal applicability, leaving me wondering how some of the contributors to Paula Marincola's collection might respond.

Then there are problems with the criteria themselves — and it is evident from comments within the book that some of the contributors were not entirely happy with them. The most problematic (as the authors concede) is 'Reinforcing'. Does it mean that the exhibition reinforces visitor experiences or that it has integrity? The answer, confusingly, is both. While a chapter sets out research that underlies the framework, the criteria are more asserted than argued.

Finally, the notion that professionals can divorce themselves from their various backgrounds sufficiently to adopt a 'visitor-centered perspective' demands a great leap of faith. Of course curators, designers, marketers and all the people involved in putting together an exhibition should endeavour to imagine exhibitions as visitors might see them. But equally obviously, just as every visitor brings to an exhibition a mass of preconceptions and prejudices, so too each professional is unlikely to escape his or her training and museum experience. Their judgements will inevitably reflect their professional backgrounds — which suggests that any assessment team should endeavour to incorporate a range of expertise (just as critiquing sessions already aim to do). Perhaps the authors' confidence in the ability of their colleagues to take a 'visitor-centered perspective' owes something to their definition of 'visitors' as 'culturally diverse people' who are, among other things, 'curiosity-driven', 'likely to have a social agenda' and 'ready to learn if it can happen easily and quickly' (p. 27). What about the museum visitors who don't meet these qualifications, including the fair proportion who would prefer to be somewhere else?

Certainly the framework should have the benefit of reminding contemporary art curators that visitors matter. But is there much benefit in focusing on the 'visitor-centred perspective' separately from other approaches to assessment? Does it make sense, for example, to judge an exhibition as excellent even though the content might be based on feeble scholarship or research? The authors assure us this is unlikely to happen, as the judges are expected under the Comfortable criterion to record whether attribution and authorship are made clear to visitors — which is all very well, so long as they are sufficiently expert in the field to realise if they are being conned.

What makes a great exhibition (or even a good one) depends on where you are coming from and what you expect from it. Too often museum professionals engage in futile arguments about what works and what doesn't in an exhibition because they are approaching it from different directions. This is evident at critiquing sessions, where the makers of an exhibition say what they intended it to do, while reviewers unaware of the exhibition-makers' main objectives sometimes respond using quite different criteria. So, when an independent panel challenged the content and design of an exhibition at a Museums Australia critiquing session some time ago, the makers of the exhibition countered, in effect, that the exhibition was based on community consultation; and that as the relevant communities had approved the final product, they — the exhibition-makers — were happy with it. And that was that.

If we are to judge quality — or even to understand the processes by which quality should be judged — we must take account of at least four perspectives. The first is that of the institution or sponsor (keeping in mind that these two might not necessarily see eye to eye); that is, the corporate mission as it relates to the exhibition under review. This includes the whole range of institutional expectations and constraints, such the desire to showcase a particular collection, to reach a certain audience, and to achieve value for money. Next comes the perspective of the content specialist, someone qualified to comment on the scholarship and research that lies behind the collection, and the significance of the objects and aesthetic quality of the art on display. Then there is the perspective of museum professionals, who draw on all their available expertise (including a capacity to situate themselves as visitors) and probably use a standard set of criteria (for my money it's hard to improve on the Standards for Museum Exhibitions developed by the US National Association for Museum Exhibition The final perspective is that of the visitor, overlapping perhaps with the professional's perspective, but this time focusing squarely on qualitative and quantitative results of evaluation.

The relative significance of the four perspectives will differ from one exhibition to the next. An exhibition on climate change, for example, will demand more attention to content than a children's exhibition intended more for entertainment than education. Likewise, an exhibition that deserves to be called 'great' from one perspective might from another angle be regarded as a disaster (such as the brilliant exhibition that draws in the multitudes but blows the budget). Nevertheless, by taking all perspectives into account, reviewers will at least have a better idea of where they are coming from.

Borrowing from management fashion, we can call this combination of approaches 'a balanced exhibition scorecard', and represent it diagrammatically:

Assessed by the institution

Assessed by subject specialist

Assessed by museum professional

Visitor response
Assessed through visitor research

Once in a while an exhibition might be judged 'great' from every perspective. Perhaps the word excellent might be reserved for such occasions?

Stephen Foster is one of the editors of reCollections.