Exhibition as Dance: An Exercise in Creative Partnering

Article excerpt

I have often described our work, especially the exhibitions on historical themes, as a cross between a scholarly book and a Broadway show, two creative realms that combine my love of history with my love of theatre.

The "scholarly book" part is the historian or curator's point of view that drives the concept of an engaging exhibition. This perspective, typically overtly revealed through texts, is equally powerfully expressed through selections, omissions and juxtapositions. Good exhibitions require a depth of research and attention to detail and accuracy at least equal to a well-respected publication. This authorship, especially for larger exhibitions, may actually involve a team of historians and curators, each with specific areas of expertise. In some exhibitions, these diverse voices retain their individuality and differing viewpoints are an essential part of the concept. More often, the work of many is melded, through editing, into a unified voice. Still, the best exhibitions, whether the vision of an individual or committee, reflect clarity of thought that the audience can readily understand.

In an exhibition, as in a "Broadway show," the plot--the flow of storyline from prologue to conclusion--is the outline for action. Context needs to be established and the characters introduced. Relationships emerge. The characters--artworks and artifacts, events and people--advance the storyline. There are peaks of intensity and pauses for reflection. In a play, the audience is seated and the actors/characters advance the action. In an exhibition, the mobility of the audience sets the pace; the objects/characters are stationary. The goal is to give these objects voice, to create a dialogue among them and with the viewers. Other theatrical analogies, especially to a Broadway show, are the costs--as expectations for quality and interactivity rise, exhibitions are increasingly expensive to produce--and the tension as opening night draws near. Will the vision that has been outlined on paper come together as an exciting, meaningful three-dimensional whole? Dress rehearsals for exhibitions exist only to the extent that prototypes and mock-ups have been tested or reviewed. There is never a point in advance when the whole exhibition can be experienced, and unlike Broadway shows there are no out-of-town tryouts when major parts can be restructured.

I still believe that theatrical forms and metaphors are a useful way to understand the nature of exhibitions, their creation, and their relationship to the audience; yet, more recently I have been looking at the process of developing exhibitions as "dance." In dance there is a plot (or at least structure) and characters, but words are not central to conveying meaning. Dance is visual. Dance is form. Dance is a sensory world. An exhibition can and should be equally immersive. Visitors enter into a story that envelops them and slowly visually unfolds. Words play an important supportive, clarifying role, but if the exhibition truly works, the main messages can be understood with little or no reading.

Similar to dance, exhibitions must be carefully choreographed. Determining the structural, visual, and rhythmic embodiment of the message is the critical design issue. What is the intellectual structure that gives clarity to the ideas being expressed? What is its physical form? Sometimes the message and/or the order of ideas need to be negotiated to reveal the underlining intellectual structure. Sometimes aspects of the concept need to be inflated or conflated to provide a rhythm to the design that visitors comprehend.

This process of finding structure is about partnering. With a perfect couple, two become one as they dance together. Regardless of who actually leads and who follows, they rehearse as a team, searching for just the right rhythms and moves that both feel express the essence of the desired meaning. Traditionally, in the museum world, the historian or curator has led and the exhibition designer has followed. …