Whose exhibition? was the question I asked myself when writing my Master’s thesis. Posing this question led me to a heated debate that has been ongoing for many years about the purpose of museums, the role of curators in exhibition-making and a museum’s responsibility towards its public(s).
It also led me to multiple participation initiatives by museums around the world. One of the leading institutions in the quest for public participation, in my opinion, turned out to be the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. Through a number of projects this museum explores issues of curatorial authority, exhibition design and visitor expectations. The participation initiatives, mostly started by the education department, have become deeply embedded in the museum’s exhibition policy and are regarded as valuable additions to the more ‘traditional/art historical’ exhibitions.
During my research the ‘Expose’ exhibition series of the Kröller-Müller Museum stood out as an exemplary participation project in which a museum and its visitors are brought closer together.
Through ‘Expose’, visitors are encouraged to become users of the collection by taking on (a small part of) the role of the curator. The Expose concept is fairly simple: a selection of a hundred works from the collection (works on paper / landscapes/ small sculptures) is published online a few months before the opening of the exhibition. The public is then asked to select a personal Top 3 and include a short motivation for each object.
Out of all top 3’s a final selection of 50 works is made, which constitutes the physical exhibition in the museum. Personal stories and quotes of participants are used as labels for the objects. The first exhibition ‘Expose – The most beautiful works on paper’ was a great success and was rewarded with the Dutch Interactive Award in 2010.
When visiting ‘Expose III: 50 small sculptures for a grand departure’ (2012), I noticed that visitors behaved differently in this exhibition. I heard people laugh when reading the labels, I saw them move back and forth between the objects and the ‘label-wall’ and I found people photographing their own name on the back of the introduction panel where all participants were listed. This exhibition clearly contributed to a positive experience of art and I was curious to see what the next step could be.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to become involved in the setup of a new participation experiment at the Kröller-Müller Museum. Inspired by Expose, we wondered if it would be possible to ask participants for more creative input; a fictional story rather than a personal comment or opinion. Another issue that we wanted to tackle was the fact that participation, through the act of selection, only took place before the opening of the exhibition on a website, instead of at the museum. Wouldn’t it be great if the flow of creative input could continue throughout the exhibition? Onsite and online at the same time?
These concerns and questions led to our latest public participation experiment aimed at children (ages 7-12): ‘10 Masterpieces – 1001 Stories’. We decided to leave out the selection process and focus on obtaining creative input from our public. For this purpose children’s book author Lydia Rood wrote a thrilling story: ‘The boy with the box’ in which the bizarre life-story of a young boy (from one of the paintings in our collection) could be discovered through 10 of our Masterpieces.
But this was only the start because the story was not finished yet. Next to each artwork a big empty ‘tapestry’ was reserved for input by children that would eventually fill the gaps in Rood’s story. Encouraged by viewing questions, children wrote and illustrated new adventures for ‘The boy with the box’. They could do so in the exhibition space but also online, without even visiting the museum. Our aim was to reach out to schools and children all over the Netherlands and encourage them to make use of our collection in an entertaining and inspiring way.
The result of this experiment was overwhelming. About 500 children participated (both online and onsite). Each week the story grew bigger with scary adventures that gave me goosebumps, beautiful poems that made us silent and surprising comics that made visitors laugh. In six months’ time ‘The boy with the box’ became a grand narrative with hundreds of new adventures and a variety of (un)happy endings, visible for everyone: onsite and online.
With this experiment we had moved from short personal comments and memories stirred by artworks to a rich variety of fictional stories (10 – 300 words) inspired by artworks. Lydia Rood’s story encouraged both children and (regular) visitors to look differently at artworks and realise their never-ending potential to inspire. The next step will be to see if adults can participate as freely as our young participants have done.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.