Syllabus

We live in a society that is obsessed with museums. The American Association of Museums reports that “the estimated 16,000 museums in the United States receive more than 850 million visits per year, more than all the country’s professional baseball, football, and basketball sporting events combined”.[1] The Museum Lab will explore the ever-expanding sphere of interpretive space in our culture, its historic origins, the evolution of museum typologies, changes in the ways that museums serve society and contribute to community identity, and the means and methods by which exhibitions are developed by today’s design practitioners.

The space of exhibition is defined by a broad set of categories including: permanent and temporary exhibitions located in social and cultural history museums, natural history museums, park visitor centers, historic sites, memorials, interpretive trails, living history centers, art galleries, science and technology centers, theme parks, trade shows, retail environments, traveling and temporary exhibitions. The unifying concept behind all of these programs is that they are designed to facilitate and communicate the interpretation of places, objects, people, and ideas.

Museums are increasingly valued as sites for cultural discourse and safe havens for social engagement. They are the stewards of our highest cultural aspirations, vaults of collective memory, and reflectors of social identity. Harvard business theorist B. Joseph Pine II, who coined the term “The Experience Economy,”[2] explains that recent trends in increased discretionary spending on adventure travel and personalized services reflect a new generation’s obsession with “the collecting of experiences”. This trend contrasts the previous generation’s desire for the direct consumption of luxury commodities. The demand for designed experiences has completely transformed the way in which exhibitions are conceived and built. Contemporary museum visitors expect a complete package—to be immersed in a narrative, to come away with a memorable experience that is both personally meaningful and socially relevant.

How do we design an exhibition experience? How do we craft the delivery of carefully scripted ideas with the tools of design? What is the role of the exhibition in society? If every exhibit has a narrative, then can we uncover the politics of its carefully crafted voice? How are exhibitions changing with the acceptance of diverse modes of learning and new technologies for interacting with each other? Are there new hybrid models to consider?

Until the late 20th Century, museums designed their own exhibitions using the in-house resources of curatorial, conservation and exhibit preparation departments. The increased demand for designed interpretive space has led to the creation of a new practice within the design industry—namely, exhibition design. Exhibition design requires many disciplines working together. These disciplines include: architecture, interior and industrial design, lighting design, graphic design, interactive design, filmmaking, educational programming, script writing, and conservation. Although each has their own well-established professions, it is incumbent upon the exhibition designer to comprehend and coordinate all of these disciplines in the creation of an exhibition.

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