An exhibition is a “vehicle for the production and dissemination of knowledge.”  It is a site of exchange between the works of art, the museum, and the public. It is also the result of collaboration between numerous individuals, including curators, designers, educators, museum directors, preparators, and sometimes artists and/or representatives of their estates.
How do you look at an exhibition?
- What is the exhibition’s title? What is the exhibition’s stated purpose?
What does the title tell you about the exhibition?
- What is the subject? Why was the exhibition created? What is its thesis?
- Who is the target audience?
- How are the artworks arranged? (Chronological, thematic, formal similarities, etc.)
How are the artworks hung, mounted, or displayed? How close or far apart are they? How does their arrangement and display affect your perception of the artworks, both individually and collectively, and in relation to each other?
- How is the gallery space organized? Is it open or do walls divide the space? How does the layout affect the way you move through the exhibition? Are you directed to follow a particular path? How so? Or, if not, what influences which way you go? Observe other visitors for a few minutes to see how they move through the exhibition.
- What color(s) are the gallery walls? Why do you think the color(s) was chosen? (Does the wall color affect your movement through the space? What mood does the wall color create? How does the color affect the way you see and interpret the art?)
- What is the lighting like? Are all of the artworks evenly lit? How does the lighting affect your perception of the artworks? Does the lighting impact how you proceed through the exhibition? In what way?
- If there is wall text, what information is provided? What font(s) is used and why do you think it was chosen? What information do the font design and/or size communicate? Where is the wall text located in the exhibition? How do the content, design, size, and placement affect your experience of the exhibition and your perception of the art?
- What do the labels tell you about the individual artworks? Where are they in relation to the artworks? What font and font size are used? What do you think these elements communicate? How do the labels affect your perception of the art? Are you drawn to the artwork or the text first? Why do you think this is so?
- If there is an audio guide, what information is provided? In what languages is the audio guide available? How many and which artworks are highlighted in the audio guide? How does this affect your perception of these artworks in relation to the ones not discussed? If there is an audio guide but you chose not to listen to it, do the visual audio guide prompts affect how you move through the exhibition? If so, why do you think this is so? Observe other visitors with and without the audio guide.
- If there are works with sound, does the sound penetrate throughout the exhibition? If so, how does this affect your experience?
- Are there benches in the exhibition? If so, where? Why do you think they are there?
- How does your physical experience of looking, reading, walking, and sitting affect your experience of the exhibition and the art in it?
- Does your experience of the exhibition match the exhibition’s stated purpose and thesis? Was the exhibition effective? If not, why not?
Want to know more?
Duncan, Carol, and Allan Wallach. “The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis.” Marxist Perspectives I (1978): 28-51.
Frascina, Francis, ed. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. Second ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Greenberg, Reesa, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, eds. Thinking about Exhibitions. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Haskell, Francis. The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Expanded ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. (Essays originally published in Artforum in 1976.)
O’Neill, Paul. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012 (forthcoming).
Sherman, Daniel J., and Irit Rogoff, eds. Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Staniszewski, Mary Anne. The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
Vanderlinden, Barbara, and Elena Filipovic, eds. The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennals in Post-Wall Europe. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.