Brown Bag 4th May: Collaboration in Theory and Practice

It's been a while, my little Atticites. I hope you have not missed me too much...In any case, here's a treat for you - a lovely Brown Bag for you to read about!

“Museum Exhibitions: Collaboration in Theory and Practice”

Polly McKenna-Cress, Chair, Museum Studies and Programme Director for Museum Exhibition Planning and Design, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia

‘Collaboration’ is one of those words which gets bandied around a lot, often without a true consideration of what it actually entails in practice, or even means in theory. It has been, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill or Bruno Latour might have said, ‘black-boxed’.* There is widespread assumption that we understand collaboration, that we know what it is, and a concomitant expectation that it can be nothing other than inherently good.

But it is nowhere near so simple, as Polly McKenna-Cress from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, informs us. Collaboration can be defined in various ways: some more positive than others, as any reader of spy literature could probably tell you. Here, we take collaboration in the less traitorous sense, as ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’. Currently working on a forthcoming book on the topic, McKenna-Cress came from a background in industrial design, but has worked on projects as diverse as ‘Mermaids, Mummies and Mastadons’, a historical exhibition on the development of the American Museums at the Peale Museum in Baltimore, MD, ‘Seeds of Change’ at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, and at the Smithsonian Institutions’ National Postal Museum, Washington, DC as an external consultant. She worked for an architectural and landscape design firm developing and designing zoological gardens and was then employed by the Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia, PA as a permanent staff member. All of these must have involved collaboration, to some extent: but it is this latter which is particularly interesting, for McKenna-Cress was employed by a scientific institution precisely because she was not a scientist but brought a diversity of skills and knowledge to bare on this new discipline. We shall return to the issues this raises later on.

Museums are facing, and are already within, an exciting period in their evolution. The development of technologies of various kinds, the plethora of subjects which they can cover, and the increasing willingness to accept polyvocality mean that they are, as McKenna-Cress said, ‘evolving at an incredibly rapid rate’. But along with this evolution come issues and opportunities. One of these issues is documentation – or perhaps a lack of it, for we fail to document our exhibitions and how they are developed to a satisfactory extent. This issue is intrinsically involved in the main subject of this presentation, for without documentation, without records and information, the professionals of today cannot hope to collaborate across space and time with the professionals of yesterday and tomorrow.

And it is collaboration which provided our main topic of conversation, for this Brown Bag was itself a collaborative experience, as we wrote down on postcards our own experiences of collaborative working. Don’t you love it when things get meta?

What precisely does collaboration mean and entail? We know almost without having to think about it that museums and their exhibits cannot be built by one person. Collaboration is often taken to mean working with the communities outside the museum, but I maintain that it is a poor hope to expect such communications to truly succeed if the institution themselves cannot cooperate internally. Even if they do functionally succeed, it is somewhat duplicitous for the museum concerned to lack a collaborative inner structure itself. Perhaps it’s a case of practising what you preach. It is all very well, in my opinion, to publicize those external collaborations, but I maintain that some serious ethnographic studies of the internal workings of museums are needed to assess, and perhaps fundamentally change if need be, the health of the workings of their in-house cultures. As institutions, it is important that we are self-reflexive, and that, from time to time, it is worth remembering to navel-gaze.

However, collaboration with the outside world is important. But what is it, actually, that people collaborate upon. Projects such as Minnesota 150 at the Minnesota History Centre and Click! at the Brooklyn Museum are prime examples of the focus that many ‘collaborative’ projects have: the generation of content for the exhibition. Whilst both these projects are interesting and valuable, they do not preclude the existence of other forms of community participation. The principles of ‘visitor driven design’ were used at The Tech Museum in San Jose, CA which allowed their public to create interactive exhibit models in Second Life, which were then transferred to physical form within the museum. This, unfortunately, resulted in a number of unforeseen problems, including the impossibility of translating some of the Second Life imaginings into actual material existence, leaving their creators somewhat disenfranchised.

This points to an important issue: what is the role of the expert? In collaborations, there are invariably parties with different experiences and skills, and it is important to clearly know where these skills lie, and to be transparent from the start about the parameters of the actual possibilities. Perhaps there is something to be said for training public collaborators in museum design, sharing the nomenclature of the field or at least giving them a glimpse into the operative world of museums. Whether this would be successful or not I do not know, but it is critical that at some point, expertise, knowledge, and experience are used to prevent potential disaster and disappointment. You need to know where you stand.

Many of the collaborations which were spoken about were certainly revolutionary. But McKenna-Cress questioned whether they were evolutionary in any sense of the term? Evolution, I suppose, might be considered a collaborative act in itself, for it builds upon the work of the past to create the future. The issue of recording and documentation arises here, for if projects do not keep records of themselves and their work, and publicize these documents, then they are inherently setting up a barrier to their correspondence with the future. Where, then, can museum professionals and their partners look for models of collaborative working which can be truly powerful and create long-lasting legacies?

The answers might lie in other disciplines. Certainly, ‘collaboration’ has been important (though perhaps not always comfortable) in politics, University Design courses and research projects such as those at the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art suggest, are often heavily based upon collaborative working, outwith their own sector and beyond purely aesthetic merit, to develop civic, economic and social benefits. The same is true of the sciences: institutional laboratories and Universities have found critical benefits in working together and are often funded by the US National Science Foundation that emphasizes collaboration to its funding applicants, as do many other funding agencies in the US and the UK. And these two, often falsely opposed, fields, the arts and the sciences, can collaborate to create such benefits too, and a stunning example of this is the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin. And even the corporate world has embraced collaboration, moving largely from a world of private financial and intellectual property, to one of commons, sharing and interlinked resources.

It is critical, then, for museums to further understand and engage in collaboration. As they become more socially relevant, they need to make themselves accountable to the outside world, for the people whom they are for, about, and paid for by. They need to accommodate polyvocality, but they need to do so in a way which does not agglomerate all these voices together into a single, homogeneous mass as McKenna-Cress points out. They are naturally open to interdisciplinarity, and they need to take more advantage of this fact, in the way that the Science Gallery has done. They need to be intrinsically inclusive, rather than managing or sanctioning inclusive acts to shore up their ‘accountability quota’, as it were. They need to be innovative. As Michael John Gorman from the Science Gallery put it, “Three people in a room cannot dream this big.” Museums need to evolve, and to evolve they need invention, and to be inventive, they need different thinkers thinking different thoughts, different dreamers dreaming different dreams.

Collaboration needs to involve all parties: core exhibition teams, core stakeholders, audiences, communities, the next generation of professionals, and indeed the subject matter and its people itself. There need to be clear goals, roles and outcomes, mutual gains, transparency and honesty, communication, flexibility and resilience. In the museum, and more broadly, it is vital that we collaborate. As McKenna-Cress says

‘Collaboration is not just a fad or simply fundamental, it is an intrinstic imperative if we intend our museums to be current, innovative, and relevant advocates as well as culturally and socially responsible’

Certainly, it is not free of problems. How do we, McKenna-Cress asked, collaborate with visitors without losing the value of museal authority? What is the role of visionary and individual thinking in group projects? Finding a common language, defining authorities and, importantly, not being afraid to admit those authorities, and understanding that in collaboration things are lost as well as gained are all issues which it is important to raise. Collaboration is not the solution for everything. As anyone who has worked on collaborative projects in the past will know, truth is a relative concept, created in the spaces between team parties, and it is fleeting and ephemeral. Collaborations play on this relativity, and thus we must acknowledge that there are times which are more appropriate for individual creativity. Yet whether individually, or as part of a collective, ultimately, what matters is the dream.

*Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (Routledge, London and New York, 1992) p. 3; Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Massachusetts and London, 1999) p.304.


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