‘What would you make?’ – how can we help adults engage with exhibitions?

A good exhibition inspires a creative response. When adults take time to leave creative responses to an exhibit, that is worth celebrating. Here are two examples from The Lighthouse in Glasgow, Scotland and The National Craft Centre in Kilkenny, Ireland.

For most visitors the impact of a heritage visit is invisible and ephemeral. It leaves the building with the person, in their thoughts, conversation or camera. It may subsequently stimulate new artworks or writing, but the museum or gallery is unlikely to be aware of the link.

Sometimes, indeed increasingly often, there is space within an exhibition for visitors’ creative reflections and responses. (This is different from their feedback or critique of the exhibition, which is also important.) This is where visitors can create, at whatever level of skill, their own reflection of how the gallery inspires them.

These areas are often, by design, accident or custom, seen as the preserve of children. This is possibly particularly true in my UK culture where I know from experience, as a trainer and educator, that if I ask a group of seven year olds to draw, say, a place they love, they will all leap to the task. If I ask a group of 27 year olds to do the same, most of them will be hesitant, tense, resistant and apologetic.

But let’s not give up on the adults. Look what they can do.

I have already said that I thought OUT OF THE MARVELLOUS was a fantastic exhibition. The responses of other visitors both in the visitor book and in the Read, Reflect Respond space demonstrates that they agreed.

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National Craft Centre, Kilkenny

National Craft Centre, Kilkenny

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…. start doing??

This seemed to work particularly well and I wondered why. I think the tone of the invitation was important both in the care with which the tidy table was presented and the informal yet very clear written instructions.

 The books show this is not just a kids corner, the art materials that it is not just for research.

The books show this is not just a kids corner, the art materials that it is not just for research.


Good instructions model the message.

Good instructions model the message.

The gallery staff reinforced this relaxed yet serious approach.

The  books make clear this  is not just a kids' corner, the art materials show it is not just for reading.

I too was inspired to leave my mark.

I had been musing on the success of this for some time and yesterday came across another example of adults taking some time to respond to the thinking in an exhibition.

What an exciting idea! On Saturdays (like the day I was visiting) it is public open space .Maklab in The Lighthouse, Glasgow

What an exciting idea! On Saturdays (like the day I was visiting) it is public open space .
Maklab in The Lighthouse, Glasgow

So, what would you make?

So, what would you make?

These have worked. They have created the permission, the relaxation and focus where creativity can happen. The responses in both cases are personal, sometimes quirky, witty or revealing. They are not flippant or simply intellectual. There is engagement here.

So why? What can we learn, steal and replicate from these examples? I am not sure but have a few thoughts.

1. Although very different these are both about ‘craft’, not ‘Art’. Maybe craft is more democratic, comprehensible and welcoming. It feels more familiar so we can have a go at it. Could be.

2. I think the tone of the suggestion/instruction is important . In both cases these combine informality with unlimited possibility.

3. It may not be irrelevant that the media in both cases are clearly transient and ephemeral – even though the creations may actually be around for some time.

4. Maybe, just possibly, social media is enabling us to be more relaxed about expressing how we feel about the world and our place in it, the wisps of ideas that pass through our minds and the glimmers of vision that light our way. I wonder. ?

Does anyone else have thoughts, ideas or examples of this?

Click here to find out more about  TellTale and our work.

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About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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2 Responses to ‘What would you make?’ – how can we help adults engage with exhibitions?

  1. Regan says:

    Hi Susan,

    I know Nina Simon has written extensively on this in The Participatory Museum, regarding the types of frameworks that give people ‘permission’ to contribute and participate. To crudely summarise, it seems that there is a structural sweet-spot: too little structure and choice paralysis sets in (What do I do? Where do I start?); too much structure and the activity becomes trivial.

    To share my own example, have a look at the pictures of the comment wall in this post about an exhibition on the Queensland Floods. http://reganforrest.com/2012/01/review-bouncing-back-from-disaster-queensland-museum/
    Keep in mind, this was less than a year after the floods hit and it was freshly seared onto the local psyche. There was a level of structure, but it was also open-ended and allowed people to share something that had deep emotional resonance. I’ve posted an example of one comment (since they gave permission for tweeting the comment I felt it was OK to reproduce online). I should tell you that it comes with a Kleenex warning though.

    • Hi Regan

      Yes I think that’s absolutely right. But I think there is more to it than just the degree of choice. There is, I suspect, something about ambience too.

      Thank you very much for posting that link to your post re the Queensland museum. I hadn’t seen that, it predates my following your blog. Your post is really good, the video in it is fantastic. Moving stuff.

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