Field Notes: 19 museums in 5 weeks

I counted them. During my recent trip to the United States, I visited a total of 19 museums across 7 different cities. That’s a lot more museums than I’ve ever visited in Australia, even spread over several years. 10 of them were art museums and the rest were a motley collection of themes including science and technology, music, sex, transport, news, and coin-operated amusements. If you want the full list, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Visiting such a variety of museums in a relatively short period of time gave me cause to consider the design of museum buildings and exhibitions, and the opportunity to compare different approaches. The art and science of directing both visitors’ attention and physical progression within a curated experience is an interesting area to study (I just discovered it’s called museology) and while I find it interesting for its own sake, it also has potential implications for both theatre and visual art, for example:

-Manipulating attention, particularly visual attention

-The choice of media in communicating information

-How to move people around a space without explicit instructions

-How to construct a cohesive experience with information transfer

-Levels of interactivity

As is the case in most fields of design, the best examples appeared effortless and escaped conscious attention of the visitor. Conversely, badly designed experiences caused frustration, irritation and boredom. Some of the more poorly curated and designed exhibitions (I’m looking at you, EMP Museum) made me very aware of just how much (unnoticed) work must go into the curation and design of exhibitions at museums like the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which I have enjoyed and admired so much in the past.

Obviously museology, space syntax and curation are fields with greater depth that I, the casual visitor, am aware of, but I wanted to critically analyse the design and organisation choices involved based on my own experiences.

Initially, this was just going to be one blog post about my experiences. But then I sat down to organise my thoughts and notes, and section it out and I realised it was going to get a bit large. So my plan is to break it down into more palatable chunks (though they will inevitably overlap):

Physical structures, space design and how people move

Exhibition intention, organisation of content and content forms

-Target audiences and communicating with different demographics

-Historical progression in museum and exhibition design


Museums visited (in chronological order):
The New Museum (New York)
The Museum of Sex (New York)
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) (New York)
The International Centre of Photography (New York)
Dia: Beacon (Beacon)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
The National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)
The Newseum (Washington DC)
The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum (Washington DC)
The Museum of Science & Industry (Chicago)
The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago)
Musée Mécanique (San Francisco)
De Young Museum (San Francisco)
Cartoon Art Museum (San Francisco)
San Francisco Railway Museum (San Francisco)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (Los Angeles)
Arizona Science Museum (Phoenix)
Experience Music Project Museum (Seattle)