Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Can we crowdsource a museum studies course? Of course!

Who's ready to crowdsource a class for next fall? Raise your hand!

Crowdsource. Yes, it's a buzzword these days, but it is also a truly great idea. For those of you who need a working definition, here is mine.

Crowdsourcing: outsourcing a problem or set of challenging tasks generally assigned to one person to a large group or segment of the population in order to gain multiple perspectives, capitalize on group experience, and engage new audiences.

This is not the official definition, but it acknowledges the main concept and practical applications of the idea. Given the current interest in all things related to the concept of crowdsourcing, including its application in museum practice, could we apply these principles to the generation of a brand new college course in exhibition development and design?

The photo above was obviously taken at the University of Michigan, my alma mater, outside of the "Big House", home to one of the largest regularly-assembled crowds. The course in question is being offered in the Museum Studies program at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, home to a much smaller crowd, but fortunately here is a situation where size really doesn't matter. Ideally, the concept of crowdsourcing does not discriminate based on the relative size or status of the organization posing the question, but merely offers up the wisdom, experience, and panorama of viewpoints held within the larger group.

Today, we have an opportunity to prove the concept to young people preparing to enter the museum field. Beginning in August I will be teaching a new course in exhibition development and design at Walsh University. I am currently compiling my ideas for lectures, projects, texts, and specific content to present throughout the semester. As part of my effort to highlight fresh and relevant theories and approaches to museum exhibition, I intend to address the need for greater audience engagement and participatory experience within museum environments. One of the texts I intend to use is Nina Simon's The Participatory Museum, which brilliantly describes the process for creating these intentional spaces.

Pushing the participatory envelope just a bit further, I thought I would engage my own audience for ideas and input. What topics and/or experiences would you include in this course were it yours to develop? So far, the Department Chair has only given me a course title (which I immediately, if unofficially, altered to broaden the scope of the class) and a time slot. Other than these two basic parameters, I am free to construct the course as I choose, designing a curriculum that prepares college juniors and seniors to plan, prepare, produce, and install compelling museum exhibits for our 21st Century visitors.

Putting to work the theory that many minds are better at solving a problem than just one, I am asking for your help. Post your top 5 topics not to be missed in an exhibit development course. Help me help you! Together we can design a course that adequately prepares the next generation of museum professionals for service in your institutions.


  1. I write these from the POV of someone who has built hands-on science exhibitions and seen some rather disastrous history exhibitions. So I share this list with history museums and science centers, and maybe not so much art museums, in mind, though I suspect the list applies to art museums as well.

    1. Importance of understanding audience (esp. with regards to race, gender, ability)
    2. Planning for people with disabilities
    3. Finding good (durable, but useful, attractive, and maybe green) materials to construct exhibits
    4. Writing clear, brief labels--and using a font, font size, and color that is readable by just about everyone
    5. Budget! Be prepared for tiny as well as reasonable budgets. I used to work for a science center that would budget $100 for an 1,100 sq ft exhibition that lasted 10 weeks. We had to reuse whatever was in storage quite a bit--that takes creativity and a good working knowledge of hand tools, adhesives, etc.

  2. Leslie, thank you so much for your insights. While on staff at a children's museum, I too was expected to put together hands-on exhibits, built to take a daily beating, on a shoestring budget. Budgeting for worst case scenarios will definitely be the focus of one of our course lectures and practical exercises early in the semester. Thanks again for the comments, I will add yours to those I received in emails from other colleagues and post throughout the fall about the students' progress.


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