Monday, November 15, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 1

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Artist Ai Weiwei at the Tate Turbine Gallery   
Despite the weather and some of the strange habits of the natives, London is a wonderful place to live. Particularly if you are a museum person. Every week I head out to some fabulous exhibition and feel very lucky to live in a city with such a rich variety of museum offerings and I always come home having learned and/or experienced something new.

The months of October and November were especially abundant in offerings. The latest crop of exhibitions has been highly interactive and participatory in different ways and has included visitors at various levels. In fact, there were so many great things to tell about that this blog entry became too cumbersome and has been broken into two parts. Look for Excellent Adventures Part 2 in the coming weeks!

Adventure #1: Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern 

First, I went off to the Tate Modern to see the new installation in the Turbine Gallery. I didn’t really know anything about what it was going to be, but have always loved the installations in this space and was prepared for something engaging. Indeed, I really enjoyed the exhibition.

The Turbine Gallery is an enormous, former power plant space and it was filled with ceramic sunflower seeds conceptualized by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. There are over 100 million of these hand-painted porcelain seeds laid out in a giant rectangle pattern throughout the Gallery. Artists worked in small-scale workshops in China hand-crafting and painting each seed, which is overwhelming if you really think about it. The exhibition calls for visitors to contemplate China’s export and manufacture of porcelain and about what “made in China” really means. The exhibition is also timely as Ai Weiwei has been under house arrest in his native China in order to stop him from holding a party to commemorate the forced demolition of his Shanghai art studio. The police were back at his house last Wednesday and Ai Weiwei currently feels that there is a very real possibility that he may go to jail.

The installation during my visit on October 13, 2010 
This was not top in my mind as I was walking and lying down on this vast field of sunflower seeds. The Gallery had the look of a beach. People were lying down, doing cartwheels, picking up the seeds and looking at them and taking a moment to immerse themselves in a work of art. A bank of videos is located adjacent to the installation allowing visitors to send the artist a video message or tweet (to which he will respond) or respond to questions that the artist has posed for visitors.

I came home and told my two daughters about the exhibition and how we should plan a day for all of us to go see it. But it was not to be. It turns out that it was deemed that there was too much porcelain dust being created through visitor interaction and that the exhibition is now hazardous – I was lucky because I happened to be there the last day visitors could see it without standing behind a wire fence. Very sad and I can’t imagine that there isn’t another way to handle the situation. Perhaps visitors could purchase a paper mask in order to interact with the piece as it was conceptualized?

What the exhibition currently looks like
I’m sure there are more complicated ramifications, such as visitors dragging the dust into the art galleries (and I am aware of how hazardous porcelain dust is) but it does make me wonder about our extreme fear of lawsuits these days.

Attempted Adventure #2: Things at the Wellcome Collection

Our next idea for family participation in a museum exhibit was to submit an item for the “Things” exhibit at the Wellcome Collection. My enthusiasm about this exhibition stems from having worked on an exhibition in the early 90s at the Bay Area Discovery Museum called “Kids Collect.” For this exhibition, Bay Area children would submit their collections to the Museum and it was always amazing what came in. There were the usual suspects: baseball cards, troll dolls, erasers, and random rocks. But there were always submissions that were wonderful surprises, such as a collection of items from nature that a two-year-old gathered on his weekly walks with Grandma and a beautiful collection of keys. The exhibition highlighted the basic human need to find meaning in objects, to collects things, and to pause and think about how something that we might view as trivial becomes really beautiful when cared about and curated. For these same reasons, this exhibition appealed to me.

Some of our erasers. 
My daughters really enjoyed creating knit self-portraits for the London Science Museum and they were eager to have another participatory experience.

They both spent a lot of time thinking about what objects were meaningful to them and what might be the best submission for this type of exhibit. After much deliberation, they decided that they wanted to submit their Japanese eraser collection because they both have items that they include and also because they are items that their friends in America collect (and send them) but are unusual here in London. I also have several old Japanese erasers (my favorite being an obento box) that a friend gave me in the early 90s, so this seemed like something we could all get around.

We gathered all our erasers together, but ended up getting foiled by life and the necessary parameters set out by the Museum. The exhibition was ten days long: visitors could drop off items (had to be smaller than your head) between the 12-19 of October and you had to come back and pick your item up between October 21-23. Items could be loaned or donated and my daughters were very clear that they wanted their erasers back. On the day I planned on dropping off our “Things,” I ended up needing to help a friend with her chickpoxed daughter, and we realized looking at the calendar that we wouldn’t be able to both drop off and pick up our erasers the following week. There was an option to submit a photo of your things, but my girls just weren’t that enthusiastic about a lesser level of participation.

I’m hoping that the Wellcome Collection turns this into an annual event and that we are able to participate in the future. We’ve already done the hard work of figuring out which object(s) we’d like to submit and maybe we’ll have better luck next time. We did really enjoy the task of thinking about our objects and particularly liked the videos on the website of selected folks talking about their objects. It’s delightful to be a voyeur into the world of people and their stuff!

Here are some of my take-aways from these two participatory exhibitions:

  • Logistics and process are necessary but try not to make the process too complicated for participants. Keep your audience and their abilities in mind. 
  • You never really know what hazards will present themselves so you need to always remain flexible. 
  • Don’t forget to have fun if you are working with a subject where it is appropriate. Visitors can tell whether or not the developers and designers actually enjoyed themselves during the process. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming to you soon......

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