Examining the flexible museum: exhibition process, a project approach, and the creative element
Dr. Jennie Morgan
In this session of the Brown Bag Seminar, Jennie Morgan presented us a section of her larger PhD research devoted to a case study of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland.
Kelvingrove Museum was founded in 1901 and has symbolized since then, the efforts to improve the image of a strongly industrialized city such as Glasgow; a phenomenon which has gained a new impulse since the last decade of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. During this period, Kelvingrove museum underwent a renovation project designed to increase its public relevance and achieve a better engagement with the diverse communities of the city. The process, which lasted from 2003 to 2006, implied not only a set of physical changes and adaptations but, above all, a deep reconfiguration of its work procedures, staff relationships and vision and mission statements.
It is in the aftermath of this context that Morgan’s research took place. Her study is of the greatest relevance because it analyzed in detail the process of reconfiguration of an institution, which in itself is a challenging topic. But what makes her work even more exciting is the fact that she carried it out through a process of one year ethnographic research, in which she participated from the inside, getting to know all the different departments of the museum. As a result of this, she gained a deep insight into the institution. This is indeed a difficult and infrequently used research method, perhaps because of its strong ethical, practical and even political implications; which Morgan seems to have dealt with quite effectively.
In her presentation, Morgan focused on the concept of flexibility as one of the pillars of all her research. It was particularly inspiring and mind-opening to see the way in which her consideration of the concept of “flexibility” served as a starting point for reflection about more complex topics such as the nature of change and adaptability. While defining flexibility as one of the most desirable characteristics of an institution aimed at surviving in an increasingly economically and socially limited context, her study surpassed a mere operational view and reached a performative point in which creativity, continuity and multiplicity were a fundamental part of it as well as being one of its subjects. Her notion of flexibility became a kaleidoscope of concepts which allowed her to assess the spontaneous and ambiguous way in which institutions work, and that managerial literature sometimes fails to address because of the static and linear view in which it frequently assesses institutional change.
By focusing on the making of a display about Darwin, Morgan analyzed in more detail the notion of flexibility and its implications in everyday activities at the museum, especially in the exhibition domain. One of these implications was, for example, the adaptation to new procedures and even coexistence among the different teams of the museum. Curators began a closer and more dialogical relationship with the education staff – as happened in a large amount of museums throughout the Western world after the turn towards the visitor-centred museum since the 1980s. There is a constant negotiation between communicating to diverse audiences while preserving the main academic features of the content displayed. Exhibition design also reconsidered some of the display techniques and started bearing in mind issues such as visual aesthetics, physical intuition, spatial harmony and even common sense arrangements, in an attempt to produce a more engaging and “natural” visual prospects. Therefore, flexibility within the staff has meant the acquisition of new skills and learning in order to become more effective as a visitor-centered institution, for example, managing better interpersonal relationships within the museum’s staff, exploring new ways of telling stories (and not only informing) at the museum, taking care of the visual meaning process in all its detail and responding more creatively and spontaneously to the unexpected.
So far, it must be said that the processes analyzed by Morgan are not new within the existing museum literature. What is indeed revealing is the micro-level in which she dissected the every day struggles, negotiations, expectations and actions undertaken to deal with those processes. Change and flexibility are complex and even abstract concepts or processes to grab on; but Morgan’s work shows how everyday innovation, creativity, adaptive practice and improvisation are words that can help us name those complex phenomena that take place in the ever-changing museum. After all, museums are a fantastic point of reflection about change and continuity.