Exhibition and Design Prototyping at the Asian Art Museum

By Deborah Clearwaters

Deborah Clearwaters is Director of Education and Interpretation at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, where she oversees the department responsible for creating educational experiences and public programs connecting diverse audiences to Asian art and ideas, past and present.

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The Asian Art Museum seeks to provide an even deeper and more enjoyable visitor experience through prototyping exhibition elements and inviting visitor feedback as part of our exhibition interpretation planning and design process.

Prototyping is a low risk way of experimenting with new design or interpretive elements to make sure they will work and achieve their intended outcomes. The process will help us develop exhibition content and designs based on visitor feedback that include community voices.

Prototyping is innovative within the art museum world. Due to the high polish and perfection sought in traditional art museums and compressed exhibition timelines, low fidelity mock ups are rarely employed in public galleries.

Last summer, we mocked up an interactive element to coincide with the Gorgeous special exhibition. The activity invited visitors to make their own meanings about the artworks through a “curate-your-own-exhibition” activity. Based on our observations of visitors and other staff using the mock up, we simplified the language of the invitation and made it more open-ended.

Before: You be the Curator of Gorgeous prototype

Before: You be the Curator of Gorgeous prototype

After: Which Gorgeous Object Grabs You? Final Installation

After: Which Gorgeous Object Grabs You? Final Installation

In another instance, staff spent a morning in three different galleries to brainstorm new ways of interpreting the artworks there. Using post-it notes, butcher paper, tablet computers, and photo print-outs we mocked up some ideas. That afternoon, we talked with visitors to get their feedback on the concepts in order to test our own assumptions and see if our ideas resonated with visitors. Some of these ideas may be used in future changes to our gallery spaces.

Left: Welcome to Paradise activity mock up. Right: Highlighting a masterpiece concept mock up

Left: Welcome to Paradise activity mock up. Right: Highlighting a masterpiece concept mock up

Thanks to funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Mellon Foundation, the staff members at the Asian Art Museum are reaching out to colleagues at other museums across the country that have implemented prototyping to customize a process that will work in our context and provide room for growth and new ideas.

Discussion

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2 Comments

  1. brian hogarth

    Congratulations on good work prototyping. Do I see you were able to do part of the activities with art installed? Do I detect the hand of Kathy McLean at work here?

    Reply
    • Deborah Clearwaters

      Yes and yes! Thanks

      Reply

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