Museum Practice chap 17: ‘Museum exhibition tradecraft: Not an art, but an art to it,’ by Dan Spock

In my new book Museum Practice (out in July 2015) there are a brace of chapters dealing with contemporary exhibition practice. In the last post, I provided an outline of a chapter on the process of exhibition development by David Dean, and here I showcase Dan Spock’s chapter on exhibition design.

After surveying general trends in design, Spock zeroes in on the specifics of museum display as “tradecraft,” examining the topic from the perspective of a practicing designer. The “tradecraft” of making a museum a special place, as Spock puts it, “is not art, but there’s an art to it.” If “creative design choices” are critical for the success of museum exhibitions, then what are its key elements? Despite a complex and changing professional environment, the museum is still basically a visual experience that visitors look at. Far from a matter of aesthetic style, museum design is therefore a question of creating interpretive context: whether it is the high context of living history museums, the low context of art museums or the anti-context of the cabinet of curiosities and its modern equivalents. Spock illustrates his chapter with examples from his own practice through successful exhibitions at the Minnesota History Centre Museum in St Paul, Minnesota.

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The mastery of this tradecraft is not about personal preferences, or rules, or even wilful rule-breaking, he argues, but a “full understanding of the theoretical and practical implications for the museum visitor experience resulting from each design choice in the complete range of available choices.” Spock then offers a succinct framework for design judgements: excellent exhibitions are captivating, coherent, concrete, condensed, and contextualised.

Dan Spock is the Director of the Minnesota History Center Museum (MHS), in St Paul Minnesota. In the course of his museum career of over twenty years, Dan has worked as an exhibit designer, an exhibit developer and a program administrator. After several years as Exhibit Designer at the Boston Children’s Museum, he was Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Creativity, and then joined the Minnesota Historical Society as Head of Exhibitions. Exhibits developed by Dan and his team at MHS since 1997 have ranged from multidisciplinary, high immersion, interactive and media-rich exhibits designed for a general family audience, to intensive community-based collaborations, to site specific interpretive centers and trails, to art and photography shows. He has consulted and lectured at a variety of museum and learning institutions and has published widely on a variety of museum subjects in books such as The Digital Museum: A Think Guide (2007), and the journals Exhibitionist and Curator.


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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