Allison Rietz and Kerry Soper, Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
This project deals with museum exhibits, the primary cultural product used to justify a museum’s existence; they are also the face of the museum that the public sees. However, because museums are a mix of visual and literary aspects, the point of an exhibit can often get lost in an attempt to include a “Wow Factor”, which may not even relate to the exhibit. And if the exhibits do not appeal to visitors or are confusing, fewer people will come to visit, making it necessary for exhibits to be clear for their audience.
The purpose of this project was to start a conversation in the museum field about exhibits and their relation to genres: an interpretive device or frame that is traditionally used on literary, artistic, or filmic texts. Through theoretical investigation into literature and film genres, I analyzed the elements and techniques that categorize the work as a certain genre. These findings were then adapted and applied to museums and the exhibits they display through several case studies and evaluations of exhibits. These genre-framed case studies were then used as examples to further the conversation in museums about the relationship between exhibits and visitors.
This project began by looking to various genres and their products—works of literature and film—studying the various rules, techniques and overall style for each genre. I focused on six different genres: poetry, music, literature, drama, visual art, and film. Under each genre was then listed a few of the most common elements or techniques as shown in Figure 1. Once these six categories were made, I was ready to look at exhibits.
While visiting a sampling of museums in Utah and California, the different genres were applied to the exhibits; I called this “reading” the exhibit. Rather than labeling an exhibit as a “poetry exhibit” or a “drama exhibit” I looked for the characteristics of the different genres. This encouraged a focus on the formal elements of the exhibits rather than getting stuck on immediately labeling an exhibit a certain genre. Once a study was completed on the different exhibits, the results were discussed through various conferences in attempts to start a conversation about museum exhibits as they relate to genres.
Through the various case studies, I found that many exhibits shared tendencies toward the same genre elements depending on the museum type. Most art exhibits were very similar to magazine catalogues: they displayed “pictures” of their products (art pieces) with labels that gave information about the “product” or artwork. The layout was very clean and orderly with the majority of the artwork lined up on the walls. Because of the layout there was also a certain rhythm to the entire exhibit. Thus the majority of art exhibits that I saw pulled mainly from two of the created genres: music and literature.
Many of the natural history museums I visited pulled from different categories. Their exhibits displayed many elements that pulled from the genres of drama and literature. Many exhibits from these museums focused on creating a setting to tell the history of a certain time. Often certain “characters” or historical figures were displayed in an attempt help the visitor establish a connection with the time period.
Out of the museums I visited, almost all had elements pulled from each genre. However, there were certain elements in each exhibit that were more common than others, which resulted in its certain genre label.
When visiting the different museums and their exhibits, it was difficult to not immediately group an exhibit into a genre based on the museum type. Even though I did not classify all exhibits from a certain type of museum as a specific genre, there was a definite correlation between museum type and the exhibits they had. One of the main motivations behind this project was to explore the possibilities for new exhibit types. Though I did not find any museums that broke the mold with their exhibit, the various genre types could be used to create a completely different kind of exhibit; for example an art exhibit that focused on elements from drama and poetry to create a unique experience, or a natural history museum that uses genre elements typically seen in an art exhibit.
Due to time constraints this study was done on mainly art and natural history museums. A further study will be conducted that deals with a wider range of museums to create a larger sample. After the various case studies were completed this research was presented at two museum conferences: the Utah Museum Association and the Western Museum Association conferences. Many people were curious about the idea, and it had an overall positive reaction. A further study of this project could be done by creating an actual exhibit using only the formal elements for a certain genre, while at the same time performing a study of visitors and their reaction to promotions for the exhibit and the actual exhibit experience.