Thursday, November 25, 2010

Further Excellent Adventures in Visitor Participation, Part 2

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London 

Last week brought you part 1 of current visitor participation exhibits in London and here comes part 2!

Adventure #3: MOVE: Choreographing YOU at the Hayward Gallery 

A few weeks ago I went off to the Hayward Gallery to see/dance my way through their current exhibition of sculptures and installations created by artists and choreographers. The exhibition had some great things, my favorite being a series of small rooms you go through filled with balloons and ball-pit balls that did really force you to move and think about your movements as you tried to navigate the space. 

 There was also a section of ceiling with gymnastics rings of different heights that posed the challenge of crossing the space without having your feet touch the floor. Loved this, but for some reason the day I was there you couldn’t hang from the rings. Wish this had been available! 
Sadly, the exhibition wasn’t very crowded on the day I went and I seemed to be suffering from a little too much self-awareness. Each area had Gallery staff posted there and one area actually had professional dancers dancing in the space. Because it was so quiet, I felt quite shy about using the objects with the Gallery staff staring at me as the only participant. I walked through all the exhibit areas a few times and there were some spaces that were empty the first time I visited but then had a visitor or two interacting the second time I was in. 

When the space was empty, it wasn’t necessarily clear what one could do there and it took some imagination to think about how the pieces might be used. Upon my return, I could see visitors climbing on and doing different things which provided some inspiration for thinking about what you might do with the items in the room. 

Among my favorite things were small items made of mesh and scrim that were used in dance productions that you could manipulate. I found these very approachable and interesting as you could pick them up and test the many ways the material could be manipulated in your hands (or with your feet..or head) and imagine how they could be used on stage by a dancer. 

I longed to return with my children because I knew they would run around using all the equipment but we have been unable to find a day to go downtown due to extra-curricular commitments on the weekends. Maybe during the winter break we’ll have a chance to go and I’ll have to write an addendum. 

Here’s a photo of one of the rooms – I found it hard to figure out what to do without models and when the objects were all static. The exhibition ended with a computer area that housed an amazing collection of videos, interviews and performances by various dancers and choreographers. I spent quite a bit of time going through a small percentage of the material, which is something I never would have been able to do with two children in tow. 

Adventure #4: The Museum of Everything 

OK, so the exhibition I went to last week wasn’t very participatory, but the concept of the Museum of Everything is so I thought it belonged in this round up. The Museum of Everything advertises itself as a space for artists and creators outside modern society. The first exhibition was a selection of 800 works by naïve and unknown artists and curated by leading art figures in London. The second was an exhibition at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in which the Museum of Everything invited unintentional, unseen, unexhibited and unknown artists of Greater Britain to bring their work in for display in one of the greatest museums in the world. In three days, they were able to display over 200 works to over 100,000 visitors, which provided exposure to artists who would otherwise not be seen by this audience at this venue. 

What is very participatory about the Museum of Everything is that they will take any idea from the world out there and consider it. Their website asks that “If you are a non-professional, non-traditional or non-exhibited artist, or if you know one living or long-gone, or if you have some work you think might float our boat, even if you're just a chancer who wants some work displayed in The Museum of Everything, please email us at” 

Which brings me to yesterday’s exhibition. Exhibition #3 is curated by Sir Peter Blake, a British artist and collector who has an impressive collection of naive art. This large exhibition, all based on a circus theme, includes collections of photos of circus freaks, Punch and Judy and puppet displays, miniature fairgrounds and large-scale side-show banners. Peter Blake’s best known work is the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and taking a look at that will give you an idea of the aesthetics of the exhibition. 

The interesting and approachable labels were written by Peter Blake and gave detailed explanations of who the artists were and why the objects were special to him. My two favourite collections were the needlework of Ted Wilcox and the dioramas by Walter Potter. Ted Wilcox was an ex-serviceman who learned how to sew while he was in the hospital recovering from injuries. He created embroidered versions of pin-up girls from magazines and also several versions of Alice in Wonderland. Ted Wilcox embroidered pin-up girl Walter Potter’s dioramas were really something to see. Walter Potter was a famous taxidermist and people would bring him animals that they found or that died on their farms. At some point, Mr. Potter became interested in creating dioramas that include stuffed animals in scenes mimicking human life. In other words, his dioramas are a lot like 3D versions of those paintings of cats or dogs playing cards. 

While he was a well known taxidermist at the time, some of the taxidermy is actually pretty bad and the whole thing has an amazing kitsch element to it. The gallery was full of children sketching different dioramas as they are in turn hilarious and grotesque. My favourites were a series of squirrel boxing scenes as well as a large diorama with squirrels sitting around a living room.

Every once in a while it’s important to attend an event like this because it reminds you that some of us in the Museum business can get a little too stuffy (no pun intended) and take ourselves too seriously and sometimes exhibitions should just be fun and open to whoever wants to make them. 

I would have taken more photos but these signs were posted throughout the space 
Here are some of additional take-aways from these adventures in participatory exhibition: 

• It is wonderful to encourage participation, but consideration should also allow for visitors who might be intimidated and not want to participate. Plan for voyeurs, too. 

• If you are advertising a participatory exhibition, make sure you let people know what they can and can’t interact with. It’s a disappointment to arrive at a Museum and something you are looking forward to trying is unavailable (at least put a sign at the front desk so expectations are in line before entering). 

• 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. 

Thanks for following along!

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