Selection & Display: Research

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Liz Smith: Curating an exhibition takes different forms on each occasion, so sometimes a gallery will work with a guest curator, with expertise brought in from outside, quite often it’ll be a curator who leads an exhibition in-house with a team drawn from the gallery.
Tarnya Cooper: Yeah, I don’t think people necessarily know what people do to curate a show, or how you put a show on. There are lots and lots of different stages involving lots and lots of different people, so it’s usually a team of people working together. The curator is one part of that, often the first part, coming up with ideas – what’s the show’s going to be about, what’s it going to include, and how you go about choosing your objects, and those sorts of things. First of all, it’s research: what do I want my show to be about, and what are the right things that are going the tell that story to the public?
Paul Moorhouse: It begins with an idea usually from the curator, me, where we propose an exhibition, and we have to persuade colleagues, we have to convince them that it’s worth doing and we have to give reasons why it’s important to do a particular exhibition, a collection of an artists’s work, or for example a particular theme.
Sarah Tinsley: We try to have a balanced programme, so we’re looking across the periods that the gallery covers, so from historic to contemporary, but also across media we have here, so paintings, photographs, multimedia. Also what the themes are. What we try to do over a three year period is to balance that programme out because we can’t achieve everything in one year. But essentially you start with an idea, and if it captivates us, if it’s interesting, if it’s something different, if there’s new research then that’s what interests us.
Tarnya Cooper: There are lots and lots of different of putting a show together but the idea of pulling your material together, first of all: why choose this image, and not that image, and some of the most exciting things I’ve done in the past have been including quirky things, thinking what is it about, how can I explain this particular thing to the public, to make it less academic and make it easier for people to understand immediately.
Sarah Tinsley: For each exhibition we’re likely going to need to borrow from other people. It could be in this country or it could be overseas, so the curator will come up with a list for us of key loans at the first stage, without which we feel we cannot do the exhibition. So you focus on those first of all. But a longer list will follow. And in the early assessment of an exhibition, whether it’s viable, what it’s going to cost we will be looking at where things are coming from.
David McNeff: We do lend out constantly, we do get requests from all over the world, principally because this is really a British history collection, it tends to be mainly in the UK. The way we decide is why they want that particular work for that particular exhibition or that particular display, is it promised to someone else, is it being used here, what state of conservation is it in, can it withstand a long, taxing journey to Japan and back in the course of three months. That’s basically what we’re looking for – why do you want it and can it stand the strain?
Neil Wressel: We have to understand the history of the objects, what the fabricator meant the object to be, and what history the object’s gone to before it comes to you to repair and clean. You really need to do a little bit of research before you undertake any cleaning and you need to know what there is on the surface, and that’s where the science comes in.
Ambrose-Scott Moncrief: What we do, I’m not very fond of it, it’s like murdering paintings. You stab them where there’s a damaged bit, and you get a tiny, tiny, tiny, microscopic bit of paint. You set it in resin and then you can look at it under that microscope and you can see the layers of paint. It can give us the confidence that we won’t do the wrong thing. It’s really just to prevent mistakes.
Sarah Tinsley: When I go to se other exhibitions elsewhere, I’m trying not to think about my job, I’m trying to enjoy the exhibition for what it is. But inevitably I am thinking about how the idea of the exhibition is communicated to me, how they’ve installed it, what the design is, because one can learn an awful lot from exhibitions elsewhere, to think about creatively how that would work, perhaps, for us. But as much as I’m thinking about what I like about it, what is interesting and challenging and different about it, I’m also thinking about what I might not like about it and what I can learn from that.
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What we do, I’m not very fond of it, it’s like murdering paintings.

Ambrose Scott-Moncrieff, Conservator

Find out online what exhibitions are on at your local museum or gallery. Visit one and analyse it critically. The research phase is a chance for you to get inspired, and to learn from what others do well… and not so well.

What is the exhibition about?

  • What story is the exhibition telling? Can you write down a summary of the story in a notebook?
  • Is the story told chronologically or thematically?
  • What is the key message of the exhibition? How is this communicated to you?
  • How does the way the objects are displayed help tell the story?
  • How does the exhibition leave you inspired and wanting to find out more?

How can you tell who the target audience for the exhibition is?

  • What audience do you think the exhibition text is aimed at?
  • What are the different types of interpretation in the exhibition? Does the interpretation follow a text based approach with text panels and captions or are there multimedia elements, videos, books or trails that provide other layers of interpretation?
  • Are there different layers of interpretation for different audiences?
  • Is the interpretation effective? Do you think it provides the right amount of information or too much or too little?
  • What are the different types of interpretation in the exhibition? Is text the main way to communicate to the audience in the form of panels and labels? Are there multimedia elements, videos, books or trails that also provide interpretation?
  • Count the number of words on the introduction text panel and the captions. Try and think what is the most interesting and exciting thing you can tell someone about each object? How will the audience feel if the panel or caption is too long, or too short?

If you were the curator how would you have done things differently?

  • How did the look and feel of the exhibition design help support the exhibition story?
  • Was the exhibition busy?
  • How do you think the curator would know if the exhibition had been popular and enjoyed?
  • Check online to see if there are any reviews of the exhibition? What did people say?
  • Write your own review of the exhibition.
  • What do you think the strengths or the exhibition were? What were the weaknesses?