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Delight in Learning

posted Feb 16, 2015, 3:47 PM by Samantha Cutrara   [ updated Apr 8, 2015, 9:22 AM ]

Last week I visited two local museums: the Bata Shoe Museum and the Textile Museum of Canada. Both mid-sized museums specialize in a particular
collection and can often be forgotten in lieu of Toronto’s large museums that are very close by. Both museums had a permanent exhibition as well limited run, specialized exhibitions.

There is often a tension in history education – whether that is history taught and learnt through a museum, classroom, or archives – between providing education, entertainment, or the oft quoted “edu-tainment,” for 

Returning to the Bata Shoe Museum and the Textile Museum of Canada, I was interested in seeing their collections but also, in this visit, to be attentive of their curatorial exhibition choices in their permanent and temporary exhibitions. As a museum visitor, I visit with my eyes. I read the introduction in an exhibition and then walk around, identifying a visual narrative, and allowing myself to be drawn to specific artifacts that I am interested in knowing more about in the context of the narrative. I don’t visit an exhibition by reading, or listening if there is an audio-guide; I visit by exploring and looking, trying to make sense of the new ideas presented through object and knowing that, because I am there by choice, I can look and explore at my own pace and with my own agenda unencumbered by curriculum or mandate. Thus for me as a museum visitor, the bells and whistles of display play a large part in my reception of an exhibition. Am a delighted to be here? Do I look around and want to know more because I am in a space that has, without even showing me anything, changed my perception of this topic and the objects that will be presented? I immediately think of the trench in the Canadian War Museum: I am not interested in war, war fare, technologies of war, World War I, (nor is trench warfare a delightful topic) and yet through this exhibition design, I found delight in learning about an undelightful topic. The form of exhibition enchanted me to want to explore the exhibition, to know more and see more than I would with a traditional display.learners and visitors. There is an inherent assumption that if something is entertaining that it immediately loses educational value. Exhibiting artifacts without the ‘bells and whistles’ of entertaining displays can, it may be argued, put the artifacts at the centre stage and not the curatorial bias of specific content and context. However, we as museum professionals have an opportunity to use the bells and whistles of entertaining display to enhance the educational value of the artifacts we want people to learn from. This is the value of an exhibition: to do what cannot normally be done, learn what cannot normally be learnt, and display what normally cannot be displayed to provide new learning and new understanding about the world, culture, past and present.

I enjoyed the Textile Museum and saw their temporary exhibitions Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City and From Ashgabat to Istanbul: Oriental Rugs from Canadian Collections. There were some nice moments in the museum, but by and large I wasn’t compelled to know more or learn more. There were some beautiful pieces on display and their exhibition Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City clearly tried to broaden the definition of textile and appeal to a different a more urban, art-focused visitor than perhaps they usually get, but there was nothing about my visit that was delightful: that compelled me to know more and know deeper because I was enchanted by what I saw.

In contrast to that visit was my visit to the Bata Shoe Museum. I have visited the Bata Shoe Museum before and while I enjoyed my previous visits, I never
felt that it was a museum I needed to visit multiple times. In my most recent visit, I quickly walked through their permanent gallery, noticing that there were a few artifacts that had been rotated since my last visit, and moved up to a temporary exhibit they had on entitled: 

Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. 19th century fashion was a topic that I am familiar with because of my work at Black Creek Pioneer Village, so I wasn’t expecting to learn a great deal more than I already knew. However, here was where I found delight in learning. Walking into the exhibition I was immediately taken into another world. The exhibit was created to look like a 19th century department store with each exhibit case enclosed in a wooden box that made the exhibit case look like a department store window. There was a vestibule with a bench, (fake) greenery, and a clear introductory panel you had to walk into the exhibit to read. I was delighted. I was enchanted. I wanted to learn more. Walking further into the exhibit were full-sized glass cases with clothing displayed in situ. The presentation of this exhibit, designed by Origin Studios, compelled me to learn more, read more, think more, and spend more time. This delight in presentation sparked a delight in learning and enhanced the objects, rather than detract from their value.

While budget, collection, and audience are considerations in exhibition design and one’s definition of delight or experience as a museum visitor can vary widely, these two visits demonstrated to me the importance of designing an exhibition for delight. For me, delight lead to exploration and exploration lead to learning – and learning by choice. This means that design of exhibitions need to be part of the curatorial vision of the exhibition. The design needs to tell the story in the same way the artifacts and the exhibit labels need to tell the story. Design isn’t secondary to the exhibition, it is the exhibition, and needs to be considered as such.      

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