The decay cycle of an exhibition

One of the more memorable scenes from the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, sees Miranda Priestly lambast Anne Hathaway’s character for failing to recognise that her lumpy blue sweater stemmed from the dilution of a high fashion product, a product that employed many months and many minds in the making. Whilst not quite comparable to a misshapen jumper, short term museum exhibitions share something of this metamorphasis.

The largest cultural institutions will be currently working on an exhibition programme up to five years in advance, and nearly all museums are constantly looking two to three years into the future of their displays. It struck me today as I was assisting in the de-install of one exhibition in particular, that for each of the 118 days it was open for general viewing there had been around six days of planning of both the theoretical and nuts and bolts kind.

By the time the anticipated hordes of general public get to feast their eyes on the displayed works the underlying creative minds have long since moved on to further projects, leaving behind the husk of their endeavours. But before this abandoning of ship (at around the time of the press preview) there have been hundreds if not thousands of decisions which have shaped the content of the exhibition. What people must rarely think about as they walk the pathways of a temporary display is what isn’t there.

Perhaps an interesting thing to document for public viewing would be how an exhibition gets off the ground, from the seed of the initial idea right through until the gallery hang. Key themes and overarching strategy could be explored, works which were requested but not lent could be cited, discarded design plans and mock-ups of the hang could be catalogued. In reality this would be just an extention of the blog posts and time-lapse videos which explore the inner workings of the museum on many institutional websites (http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/blog/). A lively and bold accompaniment to the finished, polished exhibition product, this type of display could perhaps even prove to be more interesting than the real thing.

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