Some time ago, I received an email from an Italian student, graduating in Visual Communication, who wished to ask me a few questions related to her thesis topic, i.e. graphic design’s relationship to the exhibition context. It is not the first request I have received of this kind, and probably not the last. A few years ago I served as assistant curator for an exhibition of contemporary graphic design at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, entitled Graphic Design Worlds (2011) and curated by Giorgio Camuffo. The exhibition invited over thirty designers to exhibit their work and demonstrate their approach to the practice of graphic design by creating their own display in the show. Furthermore, in 2012-2013 I had the opportunity to carry out research – collaborating again with Giorgio – on what then appeared to be a rather new phenomenon: the interest and investment on behalf of graphic designers in exhibiting and curating activities. Within this framework we organised a conference in 2012, Graphic design, exhibiting and curating, the proceedings of which were then released the following year under the same title.
Thus far students who have written to me – apart from asking, sometimes, very broad questions about the future of graphic design – usually want to know the following: if exhibitions are still relevant today; if and why it is important to exhibit graphic design; if there should be more exhibitions of design; what works and what doesn’t when you put graphic design on show, or in other words how one “should” do things; if exhibiting and organising exhibitions can be considered as an extension of the design practice; whether and how exhibitions can help design’s visibility and encourage reflection and discussion on graphic design and the role of the designer. Some also seem interested in identifying a “method” for exhibiting graphic design with the aim of concluding their research with the organisation of a show.
Certainly, in the past years I have posed to myself similar questions, although my perspective might be slightly different from design students’ as I am not a designer. Here I would simply like to share, in very plain terms, some thoughts I have developed on some of these issues.
To begin with, let’s talk of experiencing exhibitions.
I do believe that the exhibition continues to have relevance in contemporary society. This belief is based on my own appreciation and understanding of exhibitions as material and immaterial spaces of relationship, encounter and meaning-making. While, in fact, my background in exhibition making is limited, I have gained, over the years, a certain experience as a visitor. I have visited several exhibitions for both research purposes and personal interest. I feel quite comfortable in the context of exhibitions, be they at museums, galleries or other venues. As a visitor, of course my appreciation, evaluation and memory of each exhibition depend on several variables, and especially on the dialogue that, case by case, develops among my motivations and expectations, the information that I collect previous to the visit, and what I actually see, read, observe and am able to do when actually in the exhibit space. Different aspects and factors contribute to affecting my visit either positively or negatively. At times it can be as simple as that of encountering an unusual object, or the presence, or absence, of additional information accompanying works on show (e.g. why this piece lacks a caption? or, why this descriptive text is so long and too obtrusively displayed so that it encumbers an initially intuitive approach to the works on display?). Other factors that affect my visit are the good or poor quality of installation solutions (for example, the feeling of flowing through the rooms or, on the other hand, that of being forced to proceed or, instead, being impeded along the way), and the possibility or impossibility of doing more than just looking (e.g. why can’t I touch this object if its uniqueness lies precisely in its perceptual qualities?), and so on. The use of support materials, on and off site, such as catalogues and leaflets, as well as websites or apps, is also relevant for forming an opinion: how do they integrate with the exhibit or expand it?
Over time, I also realised that my visit can also be enhanced by the actual dialogue I can have with other people, be it a friend or a museum attendant who, for instance, decides to share her/his personal preference for a certain room or exhibit with me (this really happened to me at the Luce Center of the New York Historical Society, some years ago). Observing what other visitors do is also significant when I try to evaluate a show – and especially design exhibitions, which I tend to approach with a higher level of bias. Do other people like it show or not? What attracts them? What do they say to one another in front of an exhibit?
In short, based on my experience, my advice to anyone who wishes to work on, around and with exhibitions would be to first visit many of them. And this, of course, includes exhibitions of all sorts, beyond that narrow equation that too often goes implicitly accepted as a given and that reads “exhibition” as just “art exhibition” (or “art & design exhibition”), or “museum” as exclusively “art museum”. Exhibitionary contexts, histories, traditions, conventions, issues, approaches, discourses and audiences are much more varied. A comprehensive view and understanding of them can help to put issues in perspective.