Engaging visitors through interpretation - Museums Association

Engaging visitors through interpretation

Lifting the curatorial curtain at the Jewish Museum
Caroline Parry
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For Dominik Czechowski, the head of exhibitions at the Jewish Museum London, the role of museums is to foster dialogue between different people.

Museums should be safe places full of difficult subject matter, but allow multiple voices to co-exist without cancelling each other out.

This has informed a series of new approaches to labelling and interpretation across the museum. This has been done while gathering new perspectives on its Judaism: A Living Faith permanent gallery and in the development of the Jews, Money, Myth exhibition (March-October 2019).

“Museums can be viewed as collections of objects from the past – dusty and boring – but, on the contrary, we are harnessing and engaging other voices, and that enhances the experience,” Czechowski says.

As part of a research project into its Judaica collection, funded by Arts Council England Designation Development Fund, the museum invited volunteers and guests to write alternative captions for objects.

“It aimed to give us new angles from which to view these objects and to show how people incorporate those objects into their religious festivals,” Cechowski says.

“It has shifted the hierarchy of the museum’s expertise. It says that your experience is as valuable as mine if it is a lived experience.”

With its Jews, Money, Myth exhibition, which won the Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives Award in 2019, the team faced sensitive and potentially controversial material. This led to many arguments between directors, the curatorial team, designers and other partners.

“This exhibition was not easy for us,” says Czechowski. “We had to really think it through, but because it is taboo, we decided to give visitors unprecedented access to our thought processes.

“We wanted people to know that even when we were sharing images that were shocking, these were not decisions taken lightly.”

Czechowski and his team decided to write additional labels featuring the arguments and decisions they had about the exhibition’s content.

“It was such a contested, difficult and complex topic for us to tackle,” says Czechowski. “Our conversations were so heated but interesting – and they went on so long, with multiple angles. We wanted to encapsulate that energy.”

It was a new way of working for the curatorial team and the museum.

“The exhibition lent itself to being a testing ground for this kind of interpretative approach – it goes back to the subject matter,” Czechowski says.

While feedback from visitors on the captions was positive, the team decided to edit some captions halfway through the exhibition. They responded to feedback where it poised particular questions.

“Because we extended the exhibition, it felt natural and organic to add to the labels,” Czechowski says.

This technique may be used again by the museum, where it can be embedded in particular projects.

Czechowski urges other museums to consider it as an approach: “You have to work more diversely. Start by asking your staff to look at objects in the collection afresh and use their thoughts alongside the exiting labels.

“Edit existing labels and rethink them in light of new research and current issues, or relate them to current debates, political and social. There may be another way to interpret objects without losing your message, especially if those labels are 10 to 20 years old.”

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