Methods in understanding collaboration
Thank you very much indeed for all your fabulous papers – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. I was especially struck by the point made - by David, Luo and Lisheng - about the need to take into account the longer temporal framework of an exhibition, analysing the before and after to understand its impact and the exhibition making process itself. I saw that in Sandra’s paper too - the collectors and donors seemed to make their greatest contribution to the collaborative process after the event when they helped secure its legacy.
I have a question about methods of research. I am really inspired by the range of methods you have all used: Marina’s participant observation and wonderful sketches (and Kate, would you call your work participant observation too?), David, Luo and Lisheng’s interviews, all your photographs (congratulations on your find, Sandra!), annotations on exhibition maps, Sandra reconstucting a hang in powerpoint, and Sara’s graph reflecting on the limits of the written exhibition archive. Can you give us a little more insight into your chosen methods, and the challenges that they raised in understanding exhibition making and collaborative processes?
Thank you so much for your question about methods Claire! I developed that graph while working on a project about the Roswell Museum archive for a digital humanities seminar. Through texts like Roopika Risam's New Digital Worlds and Bodies of Information, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, I had gotten interested in questions of representation in archives, and how they can potentially reinscribe colonial frameworks and other infrastructures. Going into the seminar, I knew that the Roswell Museum archive had a decidedly federal perspective, but I started wondering whether certain staff members featured more prominently in the written documents than others and created that chart as an exercise in representation.
For that particular chart, I focused on letters written by staff members for two reasons. The first was that these were the most direct forms of expression from staff in terms of voice and perspective. The other was that I had managed to read and take notes on each letter before I left Roswell, so I knew I had a complete body of documentation I could draw on. There are other kinds of forms too, employee timesheets and that sort of thing, but my data on the letters was more complete.
To create the actual graph I just went through my notes and counted each letter and who wrote it. I then fed that data into Excel and had it generate a graph. Nothing too fancy.
Here's the project where I first created that graph for context. It's part of a larger Scalar book about the Roswell Museum's WPA history and the Federal Community Art Center Project: https://sarawoodburyintransit.com/scalar/the-roswell-museum-federal-art-center/the-archive?path=index
Thank you for your comment, Claire.
Regarding my method, one has to take in account that before you can analyse a historic exhibition, you would have to reconstruct the display as thouroughly as possible. Since I have to rely on a very heterogenous set of sources like press reports, archival records, catalogues, reviews, and photographs, which are not always accurate, often inconsisent, and by no means exhaustive, I understand the reconstruction of those exhibitions as well as the analytical part of my work as interpretations.
For example, I do know, which exhibits were placed in which rooms, but I can only assume or vaguely tell their exact positions and therefore gain a very limited understanding of their exact curatorial context. But since my research focusses on a rather large number of 19th and early 20th century loan exhibitions (mostly curated by Bode), I am able to take other examples into account, like I did with those booths in the north hall. I learned about Bode's ideas and preferences regarding the display of Old Master paintings and the combination of genres, what enables me to apply that knowledge onto those cases, where parts of information are missing. Again, this is an interpretation.
In the same way I use information I have about the creation of earlier or later exhibitions, which were organised by the same players, to fill the gaps in my knowledge about how these art shows came to life. This gives me an idea, how they might have been arranged, financed, and communicated.
The visual reconstructions are one of my main concerns right now. I would love to create more graphic, three-dimensional images of the rooms and add pictures of the exhibits. I know, there are many great possibilites and programmes to accomplish that, but at the moment I just lack the practical skills to put those into execution. So for now my rather simple PowerPoint charts must suffice. But I believe they can at least help visualise the display and sometimes it might even be helpful to put the focus on only one aspect, like the combination of the paintings, rather than the whole arrangement.
Dear Claire, thank you very much for your comments and question. And thank you again for organizing this conference, it is a pleasure to discover all the online papers and the rich discussions they raise. I also found extremely interesting all the papers of this Panel. I hope we will have the chance to meet in person.
The question of the method, and how to investigate collaborative work in the making of museums and exhibitions today has been a key aspect of my research. The fact of studying the museum, not as a completed architectural object, but in terms of design process, raises the issue of how the research can generate its own materials and tools of analysis. And it has also been essential, in this field of project theory, to take into account the uniqueness of every project and group of actors, while drawing more general conclusions, and producing a knowledge that can be shared to nourish the discipline and its future practice.
In this regard it seemed essential to use a research method closely connected to the design work, with a participant / active observation within various design teams and within an exhibition design Studio, in order to directly witness and be involved in collaborative processes that couldn’t be grasped or analyzed in the same way by studying afterwards the archives of the project. Thus, one of the questions is also how to produce a form of archive, not only of the project itself but of these interactions and collaborations.
In the investigation method used more broadly for this research, it has also appeared important to combine complementary materials and forms of analysis, as each of them can bring different types of inputs and points of views to the research. The participant observation at the Studio is combined with exterior case studies based on interviews with project actors - both on the design team and client sides - who have collaborated on specific museum projects, as well as the study of archives and documentary sources.
As you were mentioning, drawing has been a key research tool. I am using it for the analysis of the collaborative processes and collective decisions that make the project evolve – these are the type of drawings and schematic plans that accompany the two case studies –, but I have also used drawing as a way to raise new research questions and communicate ideas in an intuitive and direct manner – these are for examples the drawings I used to introduce to presentation. Drawing, in these situations, isn’t an illustration but a research tool that communicates on a complementary level to the text.
@marina_khemis thank you for your presentation, Marina, I can much relate to your points about the role of visualisations as part of the analysis, the argument, rather than illustrations -- your drawings are great evidence to this point!
@claire-w Thank you Claire! I hadn't seen the Shipping Galleries 3D scans - they are very impressive! I aim for something much simpler, though, like the "What Jane Saw" reconstructions of the Pall Mall exhibition rooms. I did some case studies on historic loan exibitions, which would allow an almost complete reconstruction of all the show rooms. Alas, I'd need much time for that.
@claire-w Thank you very much. I would be extremely happy to exchange with Kate Guy @kguy about our research projects and I would also be very interested to hear about her work with the British Museum. I think we already have each other's contact from our previous email exchanges, so we could get in touch in the coming days.
@jona Dear Jona,
Thank you very much for your comment. It was in fact very important for me to use the graphic aspect as a key element of the analysis and argument and as designer tool to address research questions. This is also a way to connect very closely design and theory. It is also essential for me to get some feedbacks about how my drawings communicate and are understood, so thank you again.
I also found your presentation extremely interesting, and it made me think about a reference, so I will Switch to the panel 1 Q&A.
Thank you so much for your brilliant presentation! I use to be a secondary school history teacher and the New Deal was one of my favourite topics to teach, much to my shame, I had no idea about the Federal Community Art Center Project initiative so found your presentation absolutely fascinating! Your graph has really made me consider representation in the archives I will be using, I will certainly check out the two texts that inspired your approach. As you highlighted in your presentation, I was struck by how much can be learnt and taken from the Federal Community Art Center Project especially in light of current events.
I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation! I admired how you articulated the design process eloquently through a critical lens. As Claire has stated, I intend to undertake participant observation, which will be supplemented by archival material and oral histories, as part of my PhD project. My research focuses on exhibition designers and their practice at the British Museum. Therefore, I will conduct participant observation within the British Museum's Exhibition Department. I wondered if you had any tips? What unforeseen issues or challenges did you face?
Any advice would be most welcome.
@kguy Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! No worries, I had never heard of the CACP before I started working at Roswell, and even then, I didn't start understanding the program and getting interested in the archive until I'd been there about three years. There was so much going on with the New Deal in terms of art that I'm still wrapping my head around.
As for the archive and representation, I didn't start thinking about it critically until I took a Digital Humanities seminar at William & Mary and did a project on the archive. I knew going into it that the Roswell Museum's documents had a federal perspective, but I'd never fully realized how much certain voices dictated the institutional narrative until I took that class. I'm a visual person when it comes to data, so making that chart really helped me understand the issue of representation in the archive. It was tedious because I basically had to count all the letters, but it was worth it in terms of getting a better handle on the materials.
I still need to watch your video; I'm looking forward to seeing it and learning more about your work!
Thanks again for your comments.
@kguy Dear Kate, Thank you so much for your comment! I was also extremely interested by your paper on Margaret Hall, the new perspective that you bring with a focus on exhibition makers, and the way you connected the case of the British Museum with a more global recognition of the role of the designer in the museum, in coordination with a complete museum team.
I would also be very interested in hearing more about your participant observation at the British Museum, the professionals you will work with, to method you have planned to use to combine the participant observation with the analysis work and the other sources of archives and oral histories you will be using.
On my side, the participant observation has been an extremely rich field of research which allows me at the same time to be part of the design process on ongoing museum projects, but also to study past projects of the Studio. In order to keep a balance between research and practical work it has been very important, and challenging, to keep a good schedule organisation. As the challenge is to be able at the same time not to miss the steps and overall progression of the projects, while keeping time for all the research work. The creation of Museums and Exhibition often requires a very intense and continuous work especially considering the great number of actors interacting and coordinating at every step. In terms of organisation, it is also important to take the time to keep, from the beginning, a report of all the inputs brought by the participant observation, in order to be able to get back to them later with a more critical perspective, which is hard to have during the intense moment of the design process. All these inputs can then be progressively used to start drawing hypothesis and conclusions that can feed all the other aspects of the research.
I hope this can be helpful for your research. I also wondered how long you will be doing your participant observation at the British Museum ? I would be very happy to exchange more with you by phone or visio after the conference if you are available.
Thank you for your kind words; it means a great deal. Also thank you for these thoughtful insights. I will be undertaking a participant observation within the British Museum's Exhibition Department. I will observe the development of a temporary free exhibition, from conception, design, install, and delivery. At present, due to the pandemic, I don't have specific timings yet. But I would very much like to discuss this further with you. I will email you after the conference as I am keen to know more about your experience as I have found few examples of practitioners conducting participant observation to observe museum exhibition design.