Designing to decolonise
Thank you Beatriz Martínez Sosa for your presentation. Working for a design company I totally agree that many museums downplay or even ignore the role of design in exhibitions. I like your description of it as 'an essential ally'. In our experience, few museum visitors want to read texts on walls, so there is great power in the 'wordless communication' of design.
I completely agree!
Thank you, Beatriz, for your presentation -- your conclusions speak to many of the questions that I am trying to grapple with also… I particularly liked this notion of the exhibit as a spatial melody, as a sequence of notes and pauses, I think you talked about this in the example of Rivière's exhibitions, and the possible analytical frame this offers! J
Thank you very much for your comments, Kirsty. As designers, our job is to communicate visually and I think this function is particularly important in museums, where, as you say, few visitors want to read texts. I am interested in seeing the exhibition as a visual text written in the space, and from this viewpoint, design is essential.
Thank you, Jona. I enjoyed your presentation very much. The “strategies of annotation” you presented are relevant for my research in many ways. As a museumgoer, and as a designer, I prefer annotation instead of the complete redesign of exhibition rooms or dioramas, at least as a transitional stage. I appreciate when museums make the process transparent for the audience, when rather than conceal or erase the past, they assume their voice and address to us saying “see, we are changing,” allowing us to read the different layers of meaning.
Thank you Jona Piehl for your video. I just finished watching it and I really appreciated your discussion of visual reflexivity as rhetoric in decolonizing exhibition design. More specifically, I appreciated your articulation of how it's not just the content, but the placement, legibility, and engagement with extant exhibitions that convey meaning to visitors. When you were at the Field Museum, did you by chance encounter the Malvina Hoffman sculptures? They had a new interpretive exhibit on them a couple of years ago, but your discussion on placement resonates with me, as they seemed to be located in a pretty far-off section of the museum. If you saw it, what were your thoughts on where it was situated? Also, I just learned about Carl Cotton for the first time a couple of days ago so I appreciated your inclusion of his work as a case study!
Thank you Jona Piehl and Beatriz Martinez Sosa for your presentations. I particularly enjoyed your critical perspectives on how museums underestimates the implications of the aesthetics of both graphic design and exhibition design. It very much resonate with what I partly discussed in my lecture. As Jona said in her lecture, ''design in inherently political'' and everything we do as designers embeds meanings that are not always visible. It was a pleasure to listen to your lectures and learning that a debate on the role of design in the process of decolonizing museums has started. I wish we will find a way to continue this discussion!
@beatriz_mtzsosa yes, precisely -- I am interested in this simultaneity of content next to each other and how these layers of meaning, of interpretation, of framings can be shown. Something that Nina Oberg mentioned, talking about the nature of the specific set of objects they were working with, as having no past or future (if I understood this accurately, Nina?), is really interesting in this respect as well, the idea of an object itself as the 'timeless' core of a display and the various temporalities of interpretation around and in dialogue…
@scwoodbury I didn't see the Malvina Hoffman scultpures -- we only had (too) little time at the museum, unfortunately, always too little time! I would be interested to hear more about the story behind these…?
The Carl Cotton exhibit had just opened when we visited, I think -- I really enjoyed how the insertions interrupted the existing narratives and how it functions on multiple levels, both the biographical story but also prompting a discussion about museological topics such as preparation and construction of exhibits. There is a lot of documentation online about the process of developing the project, which is great to delve into!
@liuni yes!!! Your talk really spoke to this, the architectural codes of display that evoked through even the most seemingly 'neutral' displays. I only very briefly touched on that, but from a graphic design perspective, I would include in particular the visual language of object labels, the genre conventions of how information is structured, presented, what information is included or left out, etc, here…
Thank you Jona for your presentation –great discussion and the examples made the problems/solutions very real. Towards the end of your presentation you spoke of the danger of a temporary fix and the necessity of embedding design strategies, of trying for this work not to be understood as messy, inconsistent design- but I feel surely this is a central part of both design and decolonising work. The search for solutions, the temporary fix, the sharing of it with audiences – the messiness is a part of the design process and also part of the solution – the main issue is whether institutions are able to commit to this work in an authentic way.
@h_will2 Hajra, thank you! Yes, this is a good point and I probably condensed it a bit too much in my conclusion. I think the messiness is at the core, actually, and the need to show this messiness and make it transparent as that, as an open-ended negotiation of interpretations, or rather, in these instances, as addressing, grappling with past interpretations. The question that arises for me, though, is how this is legible as intentional messiness, if you will, in contrast to an accidental messiness. I would be the first to argue that sometimes texts (referring to the exhibition as 'text') aren't meant to be easy, cannot be simple and straightforward, have to be as complex and potentially as complicated as the matters they represent, the stories they tell. At the same time, considering inclusive exhibition-making, there is the point where texts become inaccessible.
The other point, about the temporary fix, again, absolutely. I would always stress that any temporary fix is better than waiting around until some time when perhaps there might be funds to redo something. And as a graphic designer, especially, I would point to the many very simple fixes available (demonstrated by the example of the diorama, which, just in terms of production, is a very easy thing to do). As you say, it's a question of how institutions commit to creating such 'open' moments, where a discussion begins, where things are visibly in progress and under negotiation (rather than, curated/designed, built, opened to the public). J
@jonas thanks Jona- I understand where you are coming from now. Yes, it is a balancing act between many things, including legibility in terms of ensuring inclusivity and curation and design aspects. But in many ways, I feel the first hurdle is intentionality - the institution has to make those first steps and make them in a meaningful way.
@jona I totally understand about not having enough time to see everything, especially at a place like the Field Museum. They're bronze sculptures that the Field Museum commissioned sculptor Malvina Hoffman to do as part of a "Hall of Man"-type exhibit in the 1930s. She ended up creating over a hundred different pieces intended to illustrate different races and ethnicities as understood at the time. The original exhibit was dismantled in the 1960s, but they're on view again in a new interpretation: https://www.fieldmuseum.org/exhibitions/looking-ourselves-rethinking-sculptures-malvina-hoffman . I happened to run into them when I was visiting with a friend a couple of years ago, and while we both agreed the museum was right to address the pieces and their problematic history, we thought the exhibit wasn't in the most accessible location.
I'll definitely have to check out the Carl Cotton materials online. Thanks so much for letting me know about them!
@scwoodbury thank you, this is really interesting!
I can't of course comment on this specific exhibit (though, yes, I would say placement/location/accessibility in terms of visibility as part of a museum visit are certainly key considerations…), but overall it seems that the Field is making an effort to address their history as it is manifest in the displays and are working with different approaches – it would be interesting to hear whether they have any audience evaluations on this.
Loved the papers Jona and Beatriz, I am new to this field, and I am so excited, and I have already learnt so much, so thank you. @jona and @Beatriz, I watched both of your videos one after the other, and what you said in your conclusion Beatriz made me think of Jona's graphic interventions. You suggested that restitution may deny museums of the ability for self-reflection and criticality, but the potential absence of the objects, along with a graphic intervention, could well allow for reflexivity and self-criticism in their absence. Restitution is an increasingly febrile debate, and whilst I think we all agree that design has been an underestimated tool in decolonising the presence of these objects in Western museums is an extension of their colonial violence. Just a thought. Really loved the papers in this panel, and thank you all.
@samaylett thank you, this is a good point: this could constitute another category in my attempted typology, the use of graphic interventions/annotations in tandem with restitution, serving to ensure that a removal does not result in the disappearance of the issue along with the objects, by pointing to and reflecting on the act of restitution, its necessity, its context in the history of the collection, the institution.
@jona this is exactly what I though when I saw both presentations back-to-back, and it made me think of the recent activism that saw Colston dumped in Bristol docks (and the removal of other statues in Europe, South Africa, North American and elsewhere. The removal and subsequent absence of the statues both act as history and meaning making, and a creative act, which in turn allow for creative interventions to highlight the purpose of these acts going forward. I think your graphic interventions can help to achieve and sustain similar results. I am based in Berlin, and I would love to discuss this more at some point.