Exhibition as communication keynote speech Peppino Ortoleva from Facultad Arquitectura y Diseño on Vimeo.

by Peppino Ortoleva

1. A growing need

According to a research published in the year 2000, only 5% of the museums existing at that date had been created earlier than 1945. In 55 years, there had been a growth of almost 2000%. Even though we do not have reliable data for the following years, it is safe to think that the growth has continued rapidly. In some of the great cities of Europe, like for instance Berlin in Germany, or London in the UK, or Rome in Italy, the rate of birth of new museums is even more than one a year. Similar trends are observable in the Asian South East megalopolises and in other continents. If we shift our attention to temporary exhibitions, their presence has become more and more an essential part of the life, and of the cultural offer, of modern cities, as many observers of cultural consumption have been noticing.

This growth implies an increasing need for professionals in this sector: people able to project the contents, the spaces, the communication of museums and exhibitions, and to manage them. Traditionally, the disciplines that have almost exclusively taken care of educating specialists have been tied to the fields of art and archaeology: museology and museography have a great tradition indeed. But the need for professionals who can ideate and concretely produce art, anthropology, memory museums and exhibitions, and also interdisciplinary ones, is not fulfilled by classic academic institutions. In general, these skills are learned by doing, which is always a good way to knowledge, but a long and often uncertain one.

Our seminar concentrates on these professions as a possible object of a more formalized education, and at the same time discusses the great problems of the field now: the causes of this growth, the variety of the required skills, the cultural and communication implications of the new museums and exhibitions. It will be a dialogue between different continents (particularly between Colombian and Italian scholars and professionals) and also between different skills.

2. Challenges

The growing role and presence of museums and exhibitions in the cultural life of countries in all continents is the fruit of some well known phenomena such as the development of international tourism and the increase in the state and city investments in culture, due also to the general bettering of the education levels. But there are other aspects which are particularly relevant for the people who work, or aim to work, in the field.

First, the weight of these forms of communication in the circulation of culture. This is a phase of general redefinition in the ways in which the knowledge is transmitted. Once dominant vehicles, such as monographic books and journals, are progressively losing their appeal for a non-specialistic audience. The web is a giant repository of all kinds of information and all types of communication, but in fact the ability of people to learn from it is in direct proportion with what they already know. In this situation, media such as museums and exhibitions are getting a growing role in spreading the results of research, historical, anthropological, social research, and obviously in fields such as art and archaelogy, and in reaching a non-specialist public. In some cases, they are strategic: in challenging the consolidated stereotypes on subjects such as local and national histories identities, in favoring intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, in spreading often innovative results of research in fields as diverse as paleonthology, the evolution of technology, the present of future of the cities, etc. This means that the intellectual challenges inherent in creating museums and exhibitions are more and more complex and new, and that their role in the system of social knowledge is becoming more and more crucial.

Second, some types of museums (particularly) have assumed in the last 20-30 years a totally new role, on a level that may go from the single community to the global sphere. A very important case is that of the “memory museums”, many of which are the fruit of collective traumas, such as mass massacres or intestine wars. They have become an essential part of the processes through which wounded societies try to get out of their sufferings, but at the same time a tool for outsiders to understand experiences from which everybody has to learn. There is a risk, on the other hand: that of the museification of horror. Also beside these cases, in general museums are often the subject of cultural fights, in which different self-representations of a community, of a city, of a nation, may confront with each other. The people who are responsible for creating these museums (but also, in different ways, other forms of museums and exhibitions) may face ethical, in some cases political challenges.

This seminar cannot answer all these questions, but may help to understand their relevance, and to start discussing them.

3. Which professions?

Which professional profiles are we talking about? In the institutional literature and in educational practices, we may see an oscillation between two extremes. On the one hand, there has been a tendency to multiply and diversify the professional profiles: so that in 1996 a survey by the Smithsonian Museum distinguished as many as 60 different type of museum workers. On the other hand, there is an opposite and persistent trend, to concentrate on just one figure, that of the “curator”, seen as the museum/exhibition professional, while all the others tend to be considered as auxiliaries to this main subject.

Our seminar is based on four profiles, which will be discussed from Tuesday September 19 to Friday September 22:

  • Content creators
  • Space designers
  • Visual and multisensorial creators
  • Producers and agents

The role of Content creators in our conception is: first, projecting the contents and itineraries for visit, the narration which will drive the public and the experience of the visitors; second, directing and coordinating a variety of skills to obtain a unitary result.

The role of Space designers (be they architects, scenographers, installation artists) is that of designing the setup of an exhibition or museum, that is communicating its content through the places, the lights, the objects, inventing the tridimensional experience that is a strategic aspect of the display as medium and adapting the exhibition to the existing space(s).

The role of Visual and multi-sensorial creators is based on the growing presence in the displays (and also “around them”, as in the websites that prepare promote and often also follow the visits) of a variety of media, which may require both technical, communicative and in many cases artistic skills. Among them: texts, images, videos, installations, soundscapes, tactile forms of communication.

The role of Producers is that of “making the museum or exhibition happen”, concretely driving them from the original ideas to the concrete actuation, and taking care of the whole projects from the point of view of feasibility, of resources, of instruments.

4. Working together

“A painter” said the great film director Orson Welles “works with brush and colors, a writer with a pen or a typewriter, a film maker with an army”. Making films is a social work, which requires the cooperation of many people, more, the integration of many skills. This is true also for museums and exhibitions even though generally (not always) the dimensions of the teams are thinner.

To be a good content creator, or space designers, etc., is not enough if one is not able to interact with the others: museums and exhibition need projects that are consistent, and in which all aspects converge in a unitarian (and possibly unique) result. All forms of human communication are liable to create misunderstandings; this is all the more true for projects in which different ideas and skills converge, if egocentric attitudes prevail, or simply if the dialogue and exchange are insufficient. The lack of coordination among the professionals may multiply the possible misunderstandings at all levels; and (what is even worse) may make it more difficult to solve those which emerge.

During the seminar, we will discuss a variety of concrete cases, taken partially from the personal experience of the scholars and professionals who participate, partially from a variety of countries. We will use videos, slides, websites, etc. to illustrate the cases and the connected experiences. One of the main focuses of the discussion will be precisely the role of the different aspects in creating the general effect: the space, the media, the general design, etc.

The teams that create museums and exhibitions are intellectual communities: they should share all aspects of the projects, including the cultural ethical and political challenges inherent to them. Sure, one of the professionals, generally called the curator, in our language the content creator, generally has a coordinating role similar to that of the film director, but in some cases the coordinating role may be assumed by the space designer or other; and in any case the coordinator is not a general in chief, because the “army” the great film maker spoke of is not a hierarchical one, and the creative process is not a linear one.

“The film maker” said Orson Welles in another occasion “is the person who presides over the accidents”. This is also a strategic lesson: the production of a museum or exhibit always meets with unexpected circumstances, the “army” must be ready to face them moment after moment. In full cooperation.