Process and Product

The last six weeks have been winter break at Brown. And it’s been an incredibly busy time at the Haffenreffer Museum.

Good? Yes, in terms of product. We’ve accomplished a great deal. Two new exhibits installed, a lot of design completed. It’s easier to get things done when there are no classes to teach and no students around.

But not so good, in terms of process.  After all, with no students around, we’re missing our most important goal: to give students learning opportunities through their participation in museum work.

More done, but less student involvement. It’s a conundrum.

Here’s what we did, and some of the things students might have learned:

We’ve took down the last piece of the old exhibition

(Taking down the show is good practice in object handling. Mostly, though it’s hard physical labor that’s good exercise, and the students are in better shape than I am! There was an interesting discussion of what objects should be moved into CultureLab for a spring semester class on mesoamerican archaeology.)

Put up a new show, on Mein Taoist paintings.

(Some interesting design decisions, mostly about how to keep the production clean and cheap. But this show includes our first computer interactive, a touchscreen system designed by Brown computer science students. There was a great deal of discussion about how to use it, what works and what doesn’t, and what modifications we might make. Some of this was technical, some more about design, visitor experience, even presentation philosophy. Most of it was over email, and so students could have participated; they can see the discussions. And this design process will continue; there’s time for students to work on this.)

We completed the design of CultureLab and installed a good bit of it. Our designer put the finishing touches on a new entry graphics, and those will be installed this week or next.

(This would have been a valuable experience for students to participate in. Good discussions about the right objects to include, about the details of the hands-on projects there. It will continue, though; there’s time for students to be involved.)

We installed a spectacular Chinese imperial robe in our satellite exhibit case, in the student center.

(All of the usual logistics challenges, the object-handling challenges of a very fragile object, and the last-minute design work of making the exhibit look good.)

Because these projects took place over the holiday break, the absence of students was particularly noticeable, and led me to think about how students might be more involved, not just over the break, but at other times, too. So much happens when students are not around: decisions are made on the fly, in a quick meeting; design deadlines need to be met on the designer’s schedule, not on a class schedule;

And there are reasons not to involve students in everything, not to make everything a learning experience. Things need to get done, especially when the museum is working with outside contractors or vendors. Having public programs and exhibit openings means that there are deadlines to meet. And while part of the learning process is to see how things really work, there are some things – personnel issues, cut corners, mistakes – that seem best not used as a teaching moment.

One might imagine a radically redesigned university museum that, instead of balancing the museum’s role in teaching process with its role in teaching with products, went all the way toward process. A museum that has no external deadlines, but which opens exhibits as students created them. No outside contractors, or only ones whose contracts are flexible enough to work on student time.  Where every project moves at the speed of the class working on it, or the student whose project it is. Where student projects are presented, whether or not they are up to the standards one might desire.

Or, perhaps there’s a way to continue that balance or process and product, but to increase transparency in such a way that even when things have to more ahead when students can’t participate, they can see what happened, how, and why. What if the museum’s website included not only product but process? No email, but open exchange on a blog, or project management system, so that the discussions and disagreements and alternatives were there for all to see. Post all of the sketches and alternatives that the designer proposed, the curator’s draft labels, the object lists with the real reasons that objects are included or excluded. Include real budgets. Post the memorandums! Dull, most of it, but educational.

Radical transparency has its appeal as a real-world education; with my professor’s hat on, it’s quite exciting. What great case study material! Switching to my director’s hat, it’s scary, though. Museum work isn’t quite sausage-making, but complete openness – well, it opens us up. None of us want to be on stage all the time, or worry about documenting and defending our decisions to a large audience.

The balance between process and product, between the staff work needed to keep the museum humming along, and exhibits opening on schedule, on the one hand, and working to a student schedule and learning needs, on the other, is a challenge for every university museum. It’s also, I think, a source of strength. Considering both process and product as learning opportunities gives us an opportunity to think about the many dimensions of our work, and not to take any part of it for granted.



  1. martha morris

    Great and thoughtful posting! I encourage you to experiment with the idea of students being a more engaged and aware of what is happening…good and bad! They might add some great new ideas to both product and process.

  2. Congratulations on your provocative post! The issues that you pose about involving students in the exhibition development process are, of course, issues that all museums face in one way or another as they grapple with how to involve their communities in their museums. How flexible can one be? How much authority to cede? How to do so and still maintain the integrity of the museum as a museum? I wonder if the radically redesigned university museum as you describe it could be a laboratory for us all? Or at least for all of us thinking about how to restructure museums for the future?

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