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Rethinking Where We Exhibit in Light of COVID-19

It’s November, and the public is still locked out of the museums in Los Angeles.

As an independent exhibition designer, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new kinds of challenges to my work (how to make formerly touch-interactives touchless, how to convert free flow galleries into directional paths, yadda yadda), as well as being forced to contend with all sorts of uncertainties (When will the museum be able to safely open indoors? Can we count on loans from other museums being available? How can the design accommodate these unknowns?).

But as the pandemic drags on into the unforeseeable future, we are gaining new insights into the various levels of risk determined by setting, including one very valuable finding that has tremendous impact on how we safely reopen our indoor museums: COVID-19 is more frequently contracted through the air rather than surfaces. What does this mean for the museum exhibition world? Instead of focusing our energies on unplugging, disinfecting or ripping out every interactive in our exhibitions, we should be exploring exactly where are exhibitions are located: indoors. We know that outdoor settings (with people still masked and physically distanced) pose significantly less risk than indoor settings for contracting the virus. So I pose to you, dear museum professional, the wild idea of moving our exhibitions outdoors.   

A group of museum developers, designers and researchers gathered over the internet this summer to imagine a new way of thinking about the museum exhibition and created the Free the Museum initiative. This initiative challenges the museum world to rethink our traditional definition of the exhibition, its location, format, and objects on display. With the intention of activating the “museum experience” in the world around us, Free the Museum sets out to inspire museum professionals to transform everyday places into sites of engagement, reflection, healing, activism, and informal learning. It is a call to action aimed at equipping museum practitioners with the resources needed to apply their skills, knowledge and creativity to different facets of public space. The initiative, in collaboration with the Omnimuseum Project, produced a set of tactic cards to help inspire new thinking about space and form, in addition to a Pinterest board to get folk’s wheels turning, and an archive to collect these projects all in one place.

There are many benefits to the Free the Museum approach to exhibits beyond addressing public safety issues brought on by the pandemic.

Here are just a few benefits: 

  1. They reduce barriers to entry. As a result of their more fluid placement, Free the Museum projects reduce barriers to entry for people who don’t typically go to museums. With no timed ticket, entrance fee, nor crosstown bus to catch to get to the gallery, these projects meet people where they are at on sidewalks, in parking garages, playgrounds and bike routes, to name a few.

“Community Lost and Found” exhibit organized Andrea Jones is mounted to a chain-link fence in her neighborhood of Brentwood, Maryland and explores what community members have lost and found during the pandemic.

  1. They contextualize their content easily. Free the Museum projects put objects and content in context, bringing added meaning and interpretation to the world around us. They have the exact opposite effect of the white cube conundrum: contextualizing versus decontextualizing content and narratives.

A guerrilla installation by Exhibits of Humanity exploring homelessness at Echo Park Lake installed on top of existing interpretive signage at Echo Park Lake, Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of Exhibits of Humanity.

  1. They can be scrappy. With severe budget cuts brought on by the pandemic, museums must find creative means of doing more with less perhaps more than ever before. The prototypical (and at times iterative) nature of Free the Museum projects lends itself well to museums with dwindling budgets. We know that the nature of the outdoors typically deteriorates exhibits at a faster rate than their indoor counterparts, so why not approach the design of these outdoor exhibits as temporary and therefore less precious?

 

An outdoor exhibit made with yard signs and zip ties by Betsy Loring exploring the value of urban street trees next to the mulched remnants of a 100-year-old silver maple tree recently taken down by the city in Worcester, MA.

  1. They provide obvious reasons to work with and in community. Social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter in 2020 have increased the pressure on museums to address the colonialist nature of their collections and practices. Free the Museum is a new way of doing things. Working in public space lends itself well to working with and coming into contact with the communities in your area.

“Filed Away: the undocumented experience” outdoor pop-up exhibit was co-curated by Emma Thorne-Christy and a group of undocumented students at the University of California Davis. It includes first-person narratives and personal objects that symbolize individuals’ experiences living undocumented in the U.S.

Yes, change is often scary and difficult, but by maintaining an open mind and dismissing our traditionally held values of what, where, for whom, and with whom our museums are about, we welcome in fresh 21st century museum thinking that is more inclusive, dynamic, and refreshing to audiences (and did I mention, COVID-19 safe?). Restaurants, schools and dance companies are doing it, so why not? Let’s free the museum.

About the author – Emma Thorne-Christy

Emma Thorne-Christy is an independent exhibition designer, activist, and artist based in Los Angeles, California. She works with museums, libraries, and cultural centers to design imaginative learning environments that challenge and inspire visitors. With a B.A. in American Studies, an M.F.A. in Museum Exhibition Design, and a previous career in community organizing, she aims to inspire civic engagement and to spur real societal change through her work. Emma is an activator for Free the Museum, and writes and speaks regularly on the role of museums in the political arena. Her work can be found at www.emmatc.com.

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