Are permanent exhibitions a thing of the past? - Museums Association

Are permanent exhibitions a thing of the past?

This article was written before the coronavirus lockdown Dear Jon: I think there is a lot of value in permanent …
Collections Exhibitions
Jan Freedman; Jon Sutton
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This article was written before the coronavirus lockdown

Dear Jon:

I think there is a lot of value in permanent exhibitions, both for the public and for the museum. They show a large proportion of the collections that people wouldn’t see otherwise. They are a fabulous way of showing the highlights of the collections to an enormous range of audiences. Permanent displays allow the collections to tell stories; some may focus on local themes, others more global topics. People come back and see something they haven’t seen before, or even to see what they have – like visiting an old friend.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:

I agree that there’s a lot of value in permanent exhibitions, but I think it’s vital to build in flexibility from the start, if possible. Many of our permanent exhibitions haven’t had wholesale changes since we opened in Manchester eight years ago, and one reason for this is that it’s challenging without getting specialist mount-makers in. We have the added problem that a large proportion of our showcases are connected to dated AV that’s really expensive to modify, due to a reliance on proprietary technology and closed-system interactive software. It’s the dreaded legacy of a large capital project where money isn’t a problem.

Best wishes, Jon

Dear Jon:

Interestingly enough, I have been working on a new permanent natural history gallery at The Box (previously known as Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery). I’ve been making sure that this new gallery has longevity, and the global issues facing the beautiful natural world are relevant to people. One section focuses on “Citizen Science”, where a project will be highlighted each year to encourage people to get out and contribute to research.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:

It sounds as if you’ve really thought about how you can breathe new life into your natural history gallery, without it becoming a static space. We aim to fully represent the diversity of football and have recently made a pledge to increase the representation of women in the game to 50%.
This presents a huge challenge when your permanent galleries aren’t that flexible. But to meet the pledge and to respond to the ever-changing nature of our subject, we are going to have to change every section in the museum, and ensure that we build in the capability to rotate objects and change stories in the future.

Best wishes, Jon


Dear Jon:

Diversity was key for me too, and I’ve made sure that many female scientists are included in the graphics, as well as digital media. That’s a great pledge – and so good for visitors to see. Young girls, for example, can be inspired by our displays. By seeing female role models, they will be even more inspired to believe they can do that too. I think that’s one of the main difficulties with older permanent displays: how can they be updated to represent diversity, decolonisation or current issues? But, with passionate curators, permanent displays can be updated in clever ways to engage all audiences.

Best wishes, Jan

Dear Jan:
Increasing diversity so it mirrors our society is key and I agree that updating older permanent galleries that might not have taken this into consideration is a challenge. Things that were acceptable 10 years ago might not be today, even though at the time, curators thought they were doing the right thing.
Societal perspectives change rapidly, so while permanent exhibitions aren’t a thing of the past, we do need to bear this in mind and must not ever think that any permanent exhibit can last for ever. At the same time, there are probably a few key crown jewels at any cultural institution that visitors expect to see or might be the main driver for their visit. But even if the same objects remain, the interpretation for them should not be static.

Best wishes, Jon

Jan Freedman is the curator of natural history at The Box, Plymouth; Jon Sutton is the exhibitions manager at the National Football Museum, Manchester

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