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PhD Colloquium explored the roles of design in exhibitions and exhibition making

On Friday 25 April 2014, the colloquium “Designing for Exhibitions” brought together doctoral and post-doctoral researchers from design, curation and museum studies to explore the roles of design in exhibitions and exhibition making. It was organised in association with the international summit “Chaos at the Museum”.

Exhibition design is neither a process nor a product that can be examined in isolation; it always engages with and operates within a larger context. The papers selected for the colloquium thus addressed the relationships and contingencies that shape exhibition design as a practice and as an outcome, by focusing on where design is located within the processes of exhibition making, and how it in turn forms exhibitions and museums. From different disciplinary backgrounds and different points in their research, the speakers traversed topics as diverse as the relationship between designers and institutions, experimental display strategies, the role of narrative in exhibitions, and modes of engagement offered to museum audiences.

PhD Colloquium Designing for Exhibitions. Photos by Yan Wang

The day was structured around three sessions Approaching, Staging and Performing, each session followed by a Q&A with the speakers and the audience. The first session focused on the protagonists, on the people involved, designers, curators, museum institutions and the processes of their collaboration. Bridging the perspectives of the designer, the curator and the audience advocate, the speakers across the session considered the explicit and implicit knowledge that is held institutionally or personally by curators and designers and the multiple dimensions of communication this necessitates during the development of exhibitions. They put to question the role and impact of the institution itself, historically and in the practical delivery of an exhibition, as well as the strategies developed to lead audiences through big narratives or to create immersive and playful environments, that challenge boundaries between exhibited objects and their exhibition.

The second session of the day turned towards the specifics of site, content and audience implicit in staging exhibitions. The papers in this session explored how exhibitions and displays emerge from particular constellations. Each discussing a particular (type of) exhibition and its characteristics of design, the four speakers emphasised the role(s) of the audience, examining the properties of the objects on display, their materiality, their possible meanings and thus political dimensions, as well as active or on-going experimentations with display strategies. The following discussion focused in particular on the notion of exhibitions as extending far beyond the display and on the interpretation of objects and their potential to act as vehicles for wider conversations.

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The final session was concerned less with designing for exhibitions than with design in exhibitions or rather designing through exhibitions. The performative dynamic of the paper presentations, and the more open, discursive atmosphere of this session shifted the attention towards questioning the role of the exhibition as a medium of design. Why are designers turning to exhibitions and how is the medium used to express or comment on larger topics? How are these projects instigated and how are they documented? Where are the boundaries between curator and artist? Thus picking up on and reiterating topics that had emerged during the day, the session continued the debate about the purpose(s) of exhibitions and design in exhibitions, what they are and what they might become.

The colloquium speakers – from the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia – comprised designers, curators, museologists and cultural theorists, those that practice design and others who commission or analyse design practice. The background of the 55 delegates was similarly diverse, shaping both the lively discussions around the papers and the chats in between and, as we hope, provided the starting point of much longer, continued conversations.

Download the Programme of Designing for Exhibitions including abstracts and speakers’ bios.

Read Eye Magazine’s review of the event.

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2-DSCF4370[Photos by Yan Wang]

Organised by Jona Piehl (CSM)

Assistance: Claire M. Holdsworth (CSM)

Design: Francisco Laranjo (LCC) www.modesofcriticism.org