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Work in Progress: Putting the ‘art’ in Participation

July 9th, 2010

What kind of experiences do you enjoy when you visit art galleries? What do you find the most captivating elements of an exhibition? And what can galleries do to really draw you in, and get you intimately involved with art?

These are some of the things I am thinking about as I continue working on the interpretive strategies that will be a part of At Work: Hesse, Goodwin, Martin. What are ‘interpretive strategies,’ you say? Well, last week I talked about interpretive planning, and these strategies are basically just the components of the exhibition that we use to connect you to the art, to kick-start the process of interpretation, of understanding, that you engage in every time you look at a work of art. We write all of these elements into an ‘interpretive plan,’ which is our road map to exactly how each theme, idea and piece of information contained in the exhibit is communicated. As I mentioned previously, video is one method of interpretation, as are text, audio tours/guides, and hands on activities. Interpretive strategies are even at work (pardon the pun) outside the exhibition space, in the form of events, lectures and online activities.

Drawing station in the Henry Moore gallery

One of the things that we at the AGO think is vital to interpretation is the element of participation. We want visitors to feel involved and active, not just resigned to shuffling through the galleries, diligently looking at each work for the requisite 5 seconds, and moving on. Engaging visitors in the process of interpretation, and even in creating exhibition content, is something that museums and galleries are putting more and more emphasis on. If you’re interested, you can read about some really neat ideas on participation in arts institutions on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog. The AGO already has some great strategies in place to invite visitor participation and engagement, like the drawing stations you may have seen in the galleries. It’s wonderful to see people taking the opportunity to be creative, and the contributions (which we do look at) from our visitors are often amazing responses to, and critiques of, our collections and exhibitions.

Sculpture station

So how are we going to get our visitors engaged in At Work? How about a chance to flip through the notes and sketches of Betty Goodwin, to see how she planned her artwork? What about the opportunity to work with some of the materials Eva Hesse used in her sculpture, and to create and/or collaborate on a piece of your own? Or a contemplative, guided listening experience to help you immerse yourself in the serene world of Agnes Martin’s The Islands? I hope these potential ideas sound interesting to you, as I am very excited by all the possibilities.

But now we have to figure out what we have to do to get them off the ground. What do we have to buy, build, photograph or record? How long is this going to take, and who is going to do it? This is where exhibitions really are a giant team effort, with curators, designers, interpretive planners, conservators, and exhibition services staff all coordinating and communicating with one another on how to make everything happen. It’s a lot of fun, but I suspect I’m going to be very busy…..

Kendra Ainsworth is a Masters student in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and an Interpretive Planning intern at the AGO.

  • Joe Clark

    Well, it would help if the AGO refrained from making legally untrue statements (i.e., lying) about photographing or even sketching paintings and photos in the collection, among other works. There are numerous permissible reasons to make such copies under the Copyright Act, but the AGO tries to ban all of it. Undoing a lie should be an obvious place to start.

  • Margaret Henderson

    Thanks for sharing this process. I hadn't ever thought about how a show is put together before, but this definitely adds a better layer of understanding for me. I will check out Nina Simon's blog, too.

    For me, the audio tour has been a fantastic addition to any show; commentaries definitely add to my understanding of the artist/piece of art. The only part I don't like is the crowds. Of course, as an art gallery I know you want crowds, but as a viewer I would sometimes like to simply see a show at my own pace, perhaps sit a while with a particularly lovely or thought-provoking piece and not have my view blocked by hundreds of others.

    I'm looking forward to some of your upcoming shows!