Ted Talk of the Month: Weaving Narratives in Museum Galleries

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for younger professionals. With a litany of topics to choose from, one can find a talk to suit almost any need. Each month, a TED Talk relating to professional development, museums, education, art, or personal development will be posted on phillyemp.com along with a bit of commentary. As always, we welcome your feedback and suggestions in the comment section below or through email at phillyemp[at]gmail.com. This month’s TED Talks and the accompanying article will take up about 20 minutes of your time.

tedThomas Campbell is the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Campbell’s TED Talk focuses on presenting art and objects in a narrative form. Campbell’s goal in this is to maintain a level of scholarship while also enabling a level of accessibility. Through the lens of his experiences as a student as well as curator and director at the Met, Campbell paints a picture of the ideal manner in which museums curate exhibits.

Campbell begins his chat with a story about a professor of his. The professor was wary of those with any sort of background in art history, as that background often “filled people up with jargon; and then they just classified things rather than looking at them.” His professor brings up an interesting point. Last week I visited the Hirshhorn and the American Art Museum in DC. Alongside the artwork and objects was the obligatory label listing the name, artist, medium, etc. I found myself wanting to know more about the works. Would an additional label with some thoughts from the artist help me contextualize what I was observing? Or on the contrary, should there be any labels at all? Do the labels detract from each observer’s own interpretation?

Campbell continues his talk by reflecting on his own experiences as a curator. To him, an exhibition should be designed to be an experience. In fact, Campbell suggested that a guest’s entire museum experience should be carefully curated. Campbell’s focus was on the presentation of objects, but his ideas are easily applicable to museums outside of the art world whose focus is less on objects and more on education. Is the attempt to “curate an experience” overkill? Does it take away the guests’ ability/freedom to curate their own experience? How do you think guests would respond to such an idea?

Throughout the talk, Campbell heralds the importance of “the presentation of significant objects in a well-told narrative.” Whether a museum is heavily reliant on the presentation of objects, like the Met, or promotes a more interactive experience, like the Franklin Institute or Please Touch Museum, I would agree with Campbell that a narrative is an important feature of any museum gallery. What are your thoughts on this school of thought? As always, we invite you to share your ideas with us here or at phillyemp@gmail.com.

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