On the Division of Labor

This week’s reading, Creating Exhibitions by Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien, picks up right where I left off: consensus building. McKenna-Cress and Kamien begin by articulating all of the ways in which collaboration is necessary in exhibit development. For instance, the more perspectives that are included in an exhibit (by involving a team), the more points of entry there are for visitors to engage the material. Most exhibits also require a variety of skill sets, from research to artifact preservation to writing to editing to design to assembling cabinets and applying fresh paint.

Yet once the authors have made their case in such concrete terms, they pull back and re-examine division of collaborative labor in more abstract terms. This abstraction helps the authors provide guidance to a wide variety of exhibit creators and also provide a division of labor that doesn’t fit within the framework of many position titles today. Instead of breaking the work of exhibit creation into discrete tasks, McKenna-Cress and Kamien divide the larger concerns that must be addressed in any exhibit.

For instance, rather than discussing the role of “director” or “vice president,” the authors argue that all exhibits must have a person or persons who advocate for the institution(s) that are hosting, producing, and/or funding the exhibit. Other advocacy needs that McKenna-Cress and Kamien identify are the subject matter, the visitor experience, the design, and the project/team. By freeing these needs from position titles, the authors allow exhibit teams to think about how best to divide up these responsibilities, perhaps with individuals shouldering multiple advocacies in whole or in part.

As the various advocate roles are largely self-explanatory, I will forego a summary of each, but examine more how these various facets of exhibit creation may map onto our 12-person class for our semester-end project.

Given that we are sort of creating a plan for a plan for an exhibit (or something like an exhibit, at least), and that we will identify a partner organization(s) but not necessarily carry out the work with them, much of the advocacy for the institution will be irrelevant. We will all absorb a bit of the responsibility of making our plan meet professional standards and making it attractive to partners/sponsors (and not embarrassing Temple University) but likely not have a higher-up to approve our work on an institutional level.*

Likewise, while we have at least one artist among us and I imagine we’ll do quite a few concept sketches to communicate our ideas to each other, I doubt that any of us will fully take on the mantle of advocacy for the design. This is the piece most often delegated to outside firms and I can’t see us hiring a design firm by mid-December. That said, some portion of this too will fall to each of us, with a few team members perhaps charged with undertaking some design challenges. Most of the design we do take on will probably be centered around advocacy for the visitor experience. There are firms that can handle this portion of the exhibit process as well, but given limited budget and essentially free labor (i.e. us), I imagine we’ll all tackle this. Because it will involve all (or perhaps only most) of us and we all have different preferences and museum experiences, I imagine this may be the most contentious portion of our process. I think we will all feel very invested–as museum goers and, in some cases, employees ourselves–in our guests’ impressions and take-aways, as well as their comfort and interest levels while engaged in our exhibit.

I think the task of advocating for the subject matter will be shared between us as well, but with divisions based on specific themes or topics within the Spanish Flu tent (there’s an image for you).

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic will be who among us takes on the advocacy for the project and team. This managerial role could become a really heavy burden. I can immediately think of one to three people who could be exceptionally well suited to this role (I am not one of them). If our class leader(s) can do this well (and let Dr. Lowe simply act as a safety net), this could be a very interesting project indeed.**


*This is somewhat speculative. I would not put it past Dr. Lowe to introduce a Mazer Rackham-esque character into our classroom sometime.

**But then again maybe I’m unusually enamored of central authority at the moment having just finished Jessica Choppin Roney’s Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, which portrays the pitfalls of collaborative libertarianism.

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