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A back-to-basics manifesto for creating museum exhibitions

Posted Feb 06 2011 11:49am

Ken Arnold’s and my Dogme-style “manifesto” for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions has just been published as a feature article in the last issue (#2/2011) of the Museums Journal.

We’ve been inspired by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who spearheaded the now 15 years old Dogme 95 manifesto for purifying the art of film-making. They wanted to engage audiences more profoundly and make sure viewers weren’t distracted by over-production, and therefore ruled out special effects, post-production changes, and other tricks in order to focus on the story and the performances.

Since then, writers, theatre directors and other arts practitioners have all found inspiration in Dogme 95’s back-to-basics philosophy. Surely, Dogme has been criticised, as have some of the films made according to its rules, but as exhibition producers, this classic vow of chastity has been an inspiration to us as a way of guiding and sharpening the creative practice of making science, technology and medicine exhibitions.

So last August we sat down to discuss the possibility of making a Dogme-inspired manifesto for museum exhibitions in our field. For example, could we translate the idea that ‘props and sets’ must not be brought onto a film set and that filming must be done on location? Actually, this was pretty easy to relocate in exhibition terms. Dogme 95’s determination that sounds in a film should not be produced apart from the visual aspect was also suggestive to us, as were the ‘commandments’ that filming must take place where the action takes place, that there should be no artificial lighting, and that the film takes place here and now.

Other Dogme 95 proposals prompted us fundamentally to disagree – for example, their insistence that the director of a film should not be credited (in contrast, we are very much in favour of the notion of the auteur in exhibition making). A number of the other rules that we have come up with more narrowly relate to exhibition making in the specific context we are concerned with.

Our museum rules are deliberately provocative prompts for further discussion. This manifesto is not a definitive set of working proposals, but a draft, which will no doubt be modified and sharpened through challenge and feedback. And anyone who knows the institutions we are based at (Wellcome Collection in London and Medical Museion in Copenhagen) will be aware that we have often not followed one or more of these rules.

Furthermore, this manifesto is almost reference-free. This does not mean we think the ideas are purely our own. There are vast bodies of literature on science communication, exhibition making, art history and museology; we have read some of this literature and been influenced by it. We also have learned much from other museums. For example, the Industrial Icons show at the Danish Museum of Art & Design (2004), which borrowed dozens of instruments from Medical Museion’s collections, opened my eyes to the aesthetic dimension of contemporary medical technology. And Ken had been inspired by exhibitions like Spectacular Bodies (2001) at the Hayward Gallery in London and a show on Walker Evans’s postcard collection (2009), at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

See a list of the dogmas here and  a short video presentation here . The full dogma text is behind the Museum Journal‘s paywall.

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