The museum as a medium

In the museum I work every week or so we discuss the relevance of our existence as a museum. This discussion takes mostly place at the lunch table, a the coffee dispenser, staff meetings or sometimes in a more broader academic setting like a conference. In my personal opinion it is always good to discuss why we do what we do. We often conclude that our core business is exhibition making, next to conserving objects and academical research. But lately I have my doubts about the conclusion that exhibition making should be our core business. Why choose to make an exhibition and not make a book, or a documentary, or a website ore use any other relevant medium to cover about the same topic as the exhibit? Or even better use all those media or a combination of media to cover a subject?

Actually it comes down on your mission (statement) as a museum. If these leaves any room for interpretation (in my experience it always does) it is only a matter of choice if you want to go cross medium or just stick to one medium (the exhibit).

What could be the arguments to use several media? Every medium has a certain advantage in telling a story. They engage different senses and are bound in place and time in different ways. For example the sensory experience of an exhibit is quit different then a book. While visiting an exhibit your body is in motion, there are lot of showcases to choose from and to experience the exhibit your are bound to premises of the museum. The sensory experience of book is mainly visual, it is more or less logical organized and is bound to how much weight you can carry.

All the different media can enhance each other. Not everyone can visit an exhibition physically, but they can see it on in the internet or read about in a book. On a website you can show extra things where there is no room for in the exhibit. You can let visitors interact with each other and share their thoughts about a topic. There are more examples then I can think off.

At the Tropenmuseum we have used different media for the same topic. Our famous children’s museum (Tropenmuseum Junior/Kindermuseum) has at the moment an exhibition called ‘Bombay Star’. In this exhibition children experience the city of Bombay India and the people who live there. But next to the exhibition there is also a book to read in the class or at home, a website where you can get extra information but also see a movie of yourself after your visit, a traveling theatrical performance for children who are not able to come to Amsterdam and a documentary series.

But wait a minute I hear all the concerned curators say: ‘How about that great collection?’ Most of the art collection has the intention to be experienced physically. I have to say I agree with the curators a bit. The choice of an exhibition as medium depends on the collection on display and money. But I do think that the main theme of most the exhibitions can be told in many ways and with a lot of other media. So when considering to build an exhibition, consider first all other possible media and use those media in way that they enhance the overall story you would like to tell as a museum.