Creating Exhibitions by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien

This week’s book is another how-to manual, this time on exhibitions as a whole. McKenna-Cress and Kamien’s book takes a collaborative approach to exhibition creation, breaking down different departments or areas in a museum, and what their respective responsibilities and concerns are. These collaborative elements include those focusing on the institution’s role, the visitor experience, the design, the actual content, and evaluating the exhibition’s success. Because I really only get exposure to one of these roles (visitor experience), it was really fascinating to see all of the other ingredients that go into creating an exhibition.

While I didn’t find this book as readable and accessible than Serrell’s manual, mostly due to the chapter organization by role rather than chronological step, there were two main organizational features that I think will prove extremely helpful in our general careers:

  1. Each chapter, and thus each role within the collaborative team, begins with a set of three critical questions pertinent to that role. These range from “Who’s in charge?” (‘Advocacy for the Institution,’ pg 39) to “How much information is too much information?” (‘Advocacy for the Subject Matter,’ pg 70) to “How are working budgets and schedules best created/managed?” (‘Advocacy for Project and Team,’ pg 194). The overarching goal here – creating an exhibition – can be So Overwhelming on its own, and these questions help to focus each team member towards their respective role and responsibilities. These questions also help to define boundaries; while the book’s main point is the importance of collaboration, setting boundaries can help avoid miscommunication, work being done twice, and disagreement about authority (though these things can also be avoided by the Project Leader).
  2. Each chapter then ends with a small bibliographical section of “Further Reading,” which covers a wide selection of topics pertinent to each chapter/role. This helps cover areas that the book as written cannot; more voices and perspectives are included, and resources for more direct instruction/guidance is provided. The “Visitor Experience” bibliography is also directly useful to me; I’ve been meaning to read more about educational theory and child development, to supplement the solely hands-on learning I’ve had, and so the recommendations of John Dewey, George Hein, and Howard Gardner will be a great place to start!

My one main criticism of the book would be the included pictures, which I found very distracting. Most of the pictures were photographs the authors and their families took of various museums around Philadelphia, DC, and elsewhere, but many were abstract, clipart-like illustrations that didn’t really add to the text. While the captions underneath sometimes related some hidden or emotional comment about that chapter, such as how “it is important that individuals are inspired about the project, and know the plan, how they need to proceed, and that a critical path is set” (pg 214), most of these illustrations seemed superfluous. I even found several instances of illustrations being repeated, such as the person carrying the dollar sign (pgs 32, 194) and the “cheap, fast, good” diagram (pgs 57, 198). I’m not sure if there was an image quota the authors had to meet, but these illustrations, paired with abstract inspirational quotations from Stephen Sondheim (pg 6), Woody Allen (pg 299), and others, made me feel like I was reading a high school math textbook.

Certainly this is an extremely useful book, for its focus on collaboration and its discussion of all the different roles that go into making an exhibition. I think this book would be best utilized “in the moment” of creating an exhibition, instead of reading it cover-to-cover.

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One thought on “Creating Exhibitions by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien

  1. Interesting comment re:images! I too noted how many are of students in a classroom doing projects. What kind of use do you expect these authors expected their book to get? Where do you think it would it most likely be assigned?

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