Trends in Permanent and Special Exhibits at Museums

By Karen Appold

A museum’s permanent exhibits are its pride and joy, and give it a sense of purpose. At Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Wash., its permanent collection focuses on connections between object and archive collections and the community, said Kayla Tackett, director of exhibitions and collections. Its exhibit, Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection, uses pieces from the museum’s collection to tell the story of eastern Washington’s wheat industry through beautifully designed flour sacks as well as paintings, quilts, recipe cards, and company records.

The permanent collection at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., highlights the craft and art ceramic works of the Mad Potter of Biloxi, George Ohr. Ohr was a showman, skilled craftsman, and even performance artist who pushed ceramics beyond functionality and into an art form. “His spirit continues to live on by showing his works in context to other artists who push the boundaries between craft, art, and narrative,” said Molly Jo Shea, director of marketing and public relations.

Over the past three years, Susan Gillis, curator at The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum in Boca Raton, Fla., said the museum has undergone a major renovation of its building and constructed new permanent exhibits with five new galleries. It also renovated the research library as well as some temporary exhibition space. “The new exhibits have greatly expanded our ability to share more of our historical stories and museum collections with patrons,” she said.

The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., has a long history of presenting insightful thematic exhibitions of selections from its collection of more than 3,000 works. Oftentimes, these works are presented with works by non-collection artists to provide context, said Susan Galardi, communications director.

Trends for Special Exhibits

The Parrish has long presented solo and group exhibitions of works by artists who have a connection to the region of eastern Long Island. In addition, it has begun to present and curate special exhibits featuring works by contemporary artists who explore important current topics, yet don’t necessarily have a specific connection to the area. “An artist doesn’t have to be from this region to be relevant to this region and beyond,” Galardi said.

Tackett has observed that regarding temporary exhibits, guests want to see something new. “With that in mind, we always try to bring in something different that people won’t see anywhere else in the inland northwest or even anywhere else in the country,” she said. Its current special exhibit, DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition—Journey from Sketch to Screen, delivers just that, as it is making its U.S. debut. The exhibit features more than 350 items including rare and never-seen-before concept drawings, original artifacts, interactives, film clips, and more.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art’s rotating shows support many artists in Biloxi with its community gallery. “The museum also features artists who push the boundaries of materiality and artistic scope,” Shea said.

Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles, Calif., is unique in that it’s a non-collecting institution—all of its exhibitions are temporary. The museum does three exhibition rotations a year, and there are two to three exhibitions on display for each rotation. “Because we don’t have a permanent collection, we have a lot of freedom to create exhibits that include a diverse range of artists, particularly emerging or underrepresented artists,” said Holly Jerger, senior exhibitions curator. “Many visitors remark that they really appreciate finding artists and artworks that they didn’t know about through our exhibitions.”

The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum mounts two temporary exhibits annually in its changing exhibit gallery and has a travelling exhibit program. The latter are generally recycled versions of the former. “Topics are all focused on some aspects of local history and are a chance to display even more of the museum’s collections,” Gillis said. “Topics are often inspired by patrons’ and members’ interests but also topics of importance that are little known or have been underrepresented in past publications, exhibits, and so forth.”

Goals for Exhibit Experiences

Artists who have a deep sense of materiality are central to Craft Contemporary’s exhibits. “That sensibility is tangible in the lush textures and patterns the artists create,” Jerger said. “It’s also symbolic and evident in the meanings each material carries for an artist. We want visitors to form their own connections to an artists’ materials and ideas through the information presented in exhibitions and through making their own art projects in interactive areas in exhibitions and our public workshops.”

The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum’s guiding principle is that sharing local history leads to a sense of place and community. This applies to both newcomers and old timers alike. “Boca Raton is constantly expanding and is full of newcomers,” Gillis said. “We also want to make local history relatable, relevant, and entertaining.”

Moving forward, Tackett said the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture wants to continue to offer thoughtful exhibitions, but with newer approaches to accessibility and technology.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art has a myriad of activities for people of all ages. Every third Thursday it hosts an after hours’ program in which guests can see shows for free and dine in the café. Musical guests from all over the coast perform. The museum also offers classes for adults and kids in a beautiful ceramics studio. Workshops, cooking classes, artist lectures, and craft competitions pop up throughout the year.

Changing the Museum Experience

The experience at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is becoming more customizable; there are more options in terms of how people want to engage with the material, whether it’s through a careful study of objects, audio-visual presentations, or making activities, Tackett said.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art has a variety of work on display alongside the Ohr collection. “Our curatorial ideology is to represent a vast array of art from sculptural installations, abstract painting, portraiture, folk art, and contemporary craft,” Shea said.

Gillis said the museum’s new and travelling exhibits have greatly enhanced its attendance numbers. They have also increased financial support through increased membership and donations.

The Parrish has always provided additional materials beyond artwork to enrich the visitor experience, and it intends to expand on that moving forward, Galardi said.

Hands-on, or Off

While some museums have a lot of exhibits that allow touching in order to engage visitors, others are more focused on reading and are hands-off.

The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum has a lot of things to read, although it makes every effort to be as brief and to the point as possible. “Most history museums have far too lengthy captions; we have tried to avoid this,” Gillis said. “We have general information captions but also IDs for each image and artifacts on view. We also integrate captions for students on a fourth-grade reading level into every gallery. New exhibits are much more animated and interactive than in the past, with young visitors in mind.”

Craft Contemporary offers both hands-on and hands-off exhibits. “Each visitor has their own distinct experience of an exhibition,” Jerger said. “We offer multiple ways for visitors to interact with and interpret our exhibitions, so they can choose the best way that works for them.”

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture also likes to strike a balance between reading and hands-on activities. “People of all ages have different ways they want to learn and engage with exhibitions; we want to have something for everyone,” Tackett said.

For guests who want to read and learn about a work or the artist, The Parrish provides wall text and “chat labels” for context and added insight. Many exhibitions have QR codes with extensive information.

Sometimes The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art has interactive installation pieces, but primarily it focuses on displaying works of art that speak for themselves. “We provide lots of opportunities for interacting with our museum by hosting workshops, as well as kids’ classes and programing that provides more help for understanding and interactivity,” Shea said.

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