Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stop 2: Museums of Lima, Peru

The review of museums continues in Lima, Peru, where I spent the first several weeks of the year. Although the primary activity during my time there was to conduct the literature reviews and writing of my academic research (I needed to be far away from distractions), I took a few breaks.
During some of them, I visited these museums.

  • Museo de la Nacion
  • Postal Museum
  • Museo de la Inquisicion

Following are my reviews of them.

Museo de la Nacion (Museum of the Nation) (Wikipedia site--museum does not appear to have a website:  The museum aims to collect and present exhibits on the different cultures of Peru, a hefty mission that’s supported by its similarly hefty building, a hulking six-story concrete structure along the busy Javier Prado boulevard.

Unfortunately, the museum ultimately disappoints—and on so many different levels.  One of its two permanent exhibits—a collection of art from the various cultures of Peru just off of the museum entrance—nicely showcases a variety of artwork produced over the past 2 to 3 millenia, including gold work, jewelry, ceramics, and masks.  On the one hand, it represents the collection well.  On the other hand, when I visited in the summer of 2008, it was promoted as a temporary exhibition while the museum was in the process of remodeling in advance of the November 2008 Asia-Pacific summit.

Given that, I expected that the newly refurbished permanent gallery on the second floor would be a showcase.  I expected either a walk through time (as Peru’s major cultural periods are somewhat sequential) or through the various cultures (as each region has its own culture).  Instead, the exhibit was organized by themes, such as fishing, and religion.  Although thematic organization has its place, it’s not really at place in a permanent exhibition.  Most museums that use it as an organizing theme only use it as a cover for their otherwise small collections, whose limitations would become immediately apparent to even the most naïve visitor under other organizational schemes. That the museum has such a small collection is somewhat surprising as Peru has a rather strict law on antiquities, which I would think would benefit the collection of the museum.

Furthermore, the newer gallery is intended to be viewed on a guided tour by a trained docent.  Although nice in theory, this is essentially an impractical choice.  The exhibit does have some labels for those on a self-guided tour, but the labels are only in Spanish (an issue that did not phase me but did raise a concern among my companion, who is Peruvian, and felt that English labels would provide an important outreach to non-Peruvian visitors).

My concern about the labels was that they were incomplete (each gallery in the exhibition had a label, but some cases had labels, others didn’t, and objects were inconsistently labeled).

Temporary exhibitions addressed costumes used by traditional Limenian (of Lima) singers, the depiction of a pair of mythological creatures in Peruvian culture, and the re-habilitation of a pre-Columbian highway that stretches across several countries and is being promoted for tourism. All were well-presented.  The first two featured exceptional objects, the latter primarily told its story through photographs and reports.  All three were well-described through labels, and did not require a docent tour,  although the exhibition on the highway did seemed to feel a bit too much like a booster project, rather than a critical museum exhibit.

In the end, I felt like I had learned a lot about some discrete aspects of a few Peruvian cultures, rather than having a sense of the breadth of the Peruvian cultural experience, as the mission of the museum promises.

Postal Museum (no website): The Postal Museum is a display about the history of the Peruvian postal service, which is presented in the courtyard of the main post office building in the center of Lima, Peru.

On the one hand, using the term museum  to describe this display probably overstates its mission. Because the exhibit is in an open courtyard, anything displayed must be weatherproofed.  That primarily limits the exhibition to large labels with texts and photos, although they could display a a few hardy objects, including one of the first postal boxes used in the country (made of heavy metal) and one of the first mail carts.

On the other hand, even with these limitations, the exhibit managed to not only report the early history of the postal service in Peru (including some interesting challenges of moving mail between cities) and the design and construction of the post office (which houses this display), but also of the conditions in which the postal service operated.

A few of the display panels in the museum area were set aside for a temporary exhibition of photography and art from earlier times, although the relationship between these images and the postal service is not entirely clear.  The images were reproductions.

More of a display than a museum. But interesting all the same—get a sense of how the correo evolved in the past (though no sense of what it is today). Few artifacts, though the mailboxes are somewhat protected from elements.  Repros of art on display.

Museo de la Inquisicion (Museum of the Inquisition) (  I’ve seen a lot of museums, and I must say, this is one of the most daring, both in terms of the subject matter and its presentation.

As its name suggests, the museum explores the Inquisition—more specifically, the impact of the inquisition on the development of Peru. The museum is located in the Plaza Mayor (central square) of  Lima, and is housed in the building that housed the Inquisition authorities until Peruvian Independence when, ironically, it became a legislative building (I think).

Although I should have known better, I did not realize that among its other exports, Spain exported the Inquisition to its colonies.  The Inquisition was intended to root out heresy.  Among its victims in Peru were presumed Marano Jews (ones who had converted on threat of execution or expulsion from Spain in 1492), but continued to secretly practice their faith, as well as people suspected of being witches (usually single women and who, in the Peruvian inquisition, seemed to be the more likely target).

The subject of the museum, as well as many galleries, are clearly and thoroughly introduced with gallery labels (only in Spanish).  They describe the roots of the Inquisition, how it evolved, how it was exported to the Spanish colonies, and how colonial authorities perpetuated it.  Paintings recorded some of the more significant events of the Inquisition in colonial Peru.

The most significant, though admittedly disturbing, displays in the museum pertain to the torture of those arrested under the authority of the Inquisition. The exhibits not only describe the torture these people experienced, but also recreate it in a walk through the dungeons where authorities perpetrated these tortures.  I can envision the mannequins on the torturous chairs of nails, and the tools used in the water treatment.  (That said, I was surprised by how many parents brought young children to this museum, as well as the lack of warning about the almost graphic presentation . This might be a bit scary for young children.)

The administration requires that all visitors go through with a tour guide, and most of the tours are in Spanish, though some are available in English.  I went through with a Spanish tour, but was slow reading the labels as the group went through. I wanted to return to re-read them after the tour ended.  One staff member—to whom I explained my request in Spanish—was reluctant to let me go through.  But another saw my Canadian Association of Museums card and asked about my request in English, and had no difficulty letting me through.  

If I could offer any suggestions to this excellent museum, it would be: provide more documentation of its objects, as well as a gallery guide in several languages that visitors could purchase.

Summing Up:  A future post on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting:

  • How designers structure the visitor experience in a museum building
  • Exhibiting pasts that we might prefer to forget.  

Next post:  Museums of Istanbul

Friday, July 30, 2010

Stop 1: Museums of Canada

Since posting a round of  museum  reviews last summer, a few people have asked for more.  Before I could do so, I had to visit some new museums.

One of the highlights of the sabbatical was the opportunity to visit museums in Peru, Turkey, France, Germany, and Spain.  But I start with ones closer to home:  in  my Canadian backyard.
In this review:

  • Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto).  
  • Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec (which featured the Barbie exhibit mentioned in my tweet about this posting)
  • Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) 
  • Textile Museum of Canada   

Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) (  I visited on a Wednesday evening (when the museum is open late and admission is free), with a private group that had our own private docent tour.  As a result, my experience in this museum was different than a typical visit, when I visit on my own, and choose the galleries and objects I prefer to see, as well which galleries and objects I explore in-depth.  As a tradeoff, I benefitted from the selections and insights of a museum staffer, who is far better informed than I am.

Like the nearby Royal Ontario Museum, this one was recently expanded with a major addition by a star architect.  Frank Gehry, the architect of this expansion, is a native Torontonian and that was mentioned several times in the docent talk.

The docent talk highlighted the modern collection, which has its requisite examples of American modern painters, but also a number of works by Canadians.  Frankly, I was more impressed by the gallery of the Group of Seven, Canada’s most famous painters, and an looming open space behind it that acts as a hallway between galleries, a gallery for exhibiting massive pieces, like the wood carvings from the West Coast of Canada, and a resting and contemplation space.  I’ve never seen a space quite like it in a museum and spent most of my time in it with my jaw dropped.

I can honestly say I enjoyed the visit but can’t say I really have much of a sense of this museum, which is the largest in Canada and one of the most significant of its type in North America.  I’ll need a return visit.

Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec (Quebec City) (  My partner and I made the day trip to Quebec to see a pair of temporary exhibits at the museum: a just-opened exhibit on the haute couture of Paris and London, and an about-to-be closed exhibit on design in Quebec.

Although, as I would learn on my travels, the Europeans often showcase the “applied arts” of clothing design, product design, and furniture design (among others) in their own museums.  But North American typically include them as a sidekick to paintings in encyclopedic art museums (ones like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Although on permanent display, these exhibitions often feel like footnotes to the paintings, both in terms of their locations (usually in secondary locations in the museum) and in terms of the emphasis they receive in the promotion of their museums.  (At least, it seems that way to me.)

In recent years, however, some museums have highlighted applied arts collections.  The Metropolitan has been a leader in this area, with well-publicized exhibitions of designer dresses.  The Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts, too, has highlighted the applied arts, both with a blockbuster exhibition of the work of Yves St.-Laurent and to promote its then-newly acquired collection of streamlined art.

But these exhibitions are still more the exception than the rule, so the opportunity to see two special exhibitions of applied arts at once was a unique opportunity for someone interested in design.

The exhibition, Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London, 1947-57, prepared in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, highlighted the golden age of couture following World War II.  Although the clothing was the highlight (and did not disappoint), the well-described exhibition also provided insights into the broader context in which the designers worked.  The exhibition opened by describing the influence of the economic and emotional tolls of the war on the post-war period, and how those translated into fashion.  A significant part of the display explained how the couture industry worked, and another explained both the design and creation process of couture fashions (including the role of small businesses that specialize in items like feathers and beads).  

Coincidentally, one of the museum’s curators had a Barbie collection and, in conjunction with this exhibition, the museum had put together a brief (three- or four-week) temporary exhibition of the collection.  I had read about this in advance and thought the idea was silly.

I was too dismissive.

The exhibition was impressive on three levels.  First, I didn’t think that much of Barbie (admittedly influenced by feminist friends who declared, in vain, that their daughter’s rooms were Barbie-free zones).  Second, the design of the exhibition made effective use of an admittedly unusual space. One wing of the Musee National des Beaux Arts once served as a prison, and the six “cases” of the exhibition were displayed in the six prison cells.  Although the spaces are a bit narrow and dark, they served as perfect backdrops for the cases, each of which depicted a scene with several Barbies from a given time period wearing typical dress.  The third way in which the exhibit impressed was the way in which Barbie’s fashions so closely paralleled those on display in the Haute Couture exhibition. (The excellent labels accompanying the exhibition helped heighten those links.)  In fact, the coincidence seemed kind of eerie.  Perhaps those parallels inspired the curator to propose this temporary exhibition.

The Barbie exhibition was a sidetrip on the way to the exhibition on design in Quebec, which highlighted all types of design—industrial, furniture, transportation, domestics, graphic, and even information design.  The exhibition was organized by period rather than by type of design.  On the one hand, this organization displays several impressive objects, some of which will be familiar, and gives  visitors a sense of dominant approaches (if any) in a given period.  But given the breadth of types of design covered, it felt a bit like flipping channels with a remote.  The period descriptions were brief and provided only the slimmest of insights into what drove design of a given period, and visitors would have to trace developments within any given type of design on their own.  Furthermore, exhibitions in other museums in the region that hard-core visitors (like me) might have visited have suggested that broad social influences often affected design in particular periods, as the Montreal Voit Grand exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which explored how an expansive mood influenced the city in the 1960s.

But I was delighted that the exhibition featured examples of book and pamphlet design (design that’s usually overlooked in other places).  The exhibition also impressed upon me the extent of design work in Quebec, and the worthiness of this topic for future exhibitions, or even a museum of its own.

Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) (Toronto) (  One of the three major museums in Toronto (the other being the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Science Centre of Ontario), this one features an eclectic collection.  To be honest, the collection really defies description.  In Europe, the collections of arts of Oceania and Africa would be described as ethnographic, but that doesn’t explain the extensive collection of Asian art or decorative arts of Europe, including an extensive collection of armor.  Part of the collection might be described as natural history, but how does the textiles collection fit in.  Perhaps this eclectic nature is what makes museum one of the most unique in the world.

Adding to its unique nature is its building: an historic (by North American standards) mansion-like building, to which Daniel Leibeskind added a huge NAME THE THING.  The occasion of the addition prompted the museum to rearrange and re-interpret its permanent exhibitions, and strengthen its program of temporary, blockbuster exhibitions.

Even with visits on two consecutive visits, I barely scratched the surface of the collections in the museum.  One week, I spent the majority of my time visiting the temporary exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls and taking a quick stroll through the natural history galleries; the next week, I spent the majority of my time visiting the European decorative arts collection.

Like most blockbuster exhibits, the Dead Sea Scrolls one was well-documented, sumptuously displayed, built around breath-taking objects, and chockablock with people.  Oh, and it concluded with a large temporary gift shop to purchase a memento of the experience.  What pleasantly surprised me about this exhibition was its successful efforts to put the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into their historical context.

The natural history exhibits primarily relied on displays of habitats and had a strong focus on current thinking in ecology.  Although the display was impressive and the labels heart-felt, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that this exhibition was exploring territory that is better covered by the Field Museum in Chicago and the recently remodeled Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

In contrast, the displays of decorative arts is somewhat unique in Canada.  Although the Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts contains a collection of decorative arts, it displays each piece individually, out of context.  In contrast, the Royal Ontario Museum displays much of its decorative arts in room-like settings, so people get a sense of the use and historical context of the object.  Neither approach is right or wrong; each merely provides visitors to experience the object differently.

The one exception was a temporary exhibition on Wedgewood, which explored the history of Wedgewood china, from its beginnings to today.  Objects were displayed in groupings and by period, but not in context.  This approach lets viewers appreciate the beauty of the objects, and the labels described their manufacture.

The eclecticism of the museum is one of its strengths; its layout is not.  Although—to some extent—a museum like this should let visitors wander and discover new things, but for those who are visiting to see something particular, that something particular should be easily accessible.

That’s not the case of the ROM.  Its Crystal has more floors than the main building, and sometimes. Access is by a single, slow elevator.  (Atlanta’s High Museum had a similar transportation problem before its addition.  Apparently, some architects only see their buildings as works of art, and forget that people actually have to use and traverse them.)  I could raise other concerns but, suffice it to say, my feeling is that, when museums pay 9 figures for an addition, they shouldn’t have to build yet another addition so people can figure their way through it, as will be necessary with this museum.  

Textile Museum of Canada (Toronto) (  On the one hand, this tiny museum, tucked on an upper level of a non-descript building on a side street near University Avenue in Toronto, isn’t the easiest to find.  On the other hand, it’s worth the effort.

The museum collects, studies, and exhibits both fabric and the clothing made from it.  It seems to collect from all of the world, although the textiles of Asia seemed to be most prominently displayed when I visited.  Excellent labels provide a context for the manufacture and use of the textiles, and describe the significance and unique characteristics of individual objects on display.  One part of the permanent exhibition, fibrespace, explains the basic technical qualities of fabric and its manufacture (and even has looms that visitors can use to experience this, although they were not available the evening I visited).

The one limitation of the museum is its size; it’s tiny.  Although the low ceilings and narrow aisles between cases support the low-light atmosphere necessary for displaying textiles, they also make the space feel crowded and hamper efforts to highlight the sumptuousness of the fabrics on display.

Summing Up: Future posts on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting, themes that have particular interest to information, instructional, and experience designers:

  • Designing public spaces for the humans who actually have to get through them
  • The need for a design museum in Quebec
  • Structuring access to the permanent exhibitions in museums

Next post:  The Museums of Lima, Peru

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections on a Physical, Intellectual, and Personal Journey

As some readers might be aware, I was on sabbatical the past academic year.  Although I briefly thought about using the year to keep up with Oprah and All My Children, that’s not what I was given the time off for.  I was given a year off of teaching and committee assignments to devote myself full-time to research and learning.

In search of learning and new knowledge, I embarked on a year-long journey.  As I prepare for the new academic year to begin—and my return to teaching (against advice, I didn’t really give up the committee work, it’s too much a part of my system)—I’d like to report and reflect on my experiences during the sabbatical.

  • The first several posts will focus on some of the highlights of my travels, including descriptions of museums I visited, stores I visited, hotels where I slept, and the experience of traveling to Turkey, Spain, Peru, Germany, and France.  
  • The next set of posts describe some of my work projects in the past year, including my projects devising and piloting a governance review process form for nonprofit organizations, revising the certification programs for the Canadian Society for Training and Development, researching the perception of trainers by IT professionals, writing up old research data, and updating the courses that I teach academically and professionally.  
  • The next set of posts after attempt to synthesize these experiences to the challenges of information and instructional design.  
  • The posts after describe, more broadly, what I learned in the past year, highlighting themes from the literature that I read, conferences I attended, and some project experiences over the course of the year, 

Because I tend to be a macro thinker and a designer, and tend to think of possibilities, I describe possibilities suggested by my experiences for my various home towns, for my university, and for my work environment.

I close this journey of a sabbatical—and of blogging—by describing what I’ve learned from it.

Although the actual journey took several months, this one is condensed into the time between now and the start of the academic year—the day after Labor Day.  Post will appear about once a day and are likely to be interspersed with news—both mine and news from other sources to which I’d like to bring attention.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are We Really Stepping Up to Problems of Teacher Performance?

Teacher performance is a hot issue throughout formal education. Washington DC's superintendent, who instituted a new evaluation system (which seems intended to better reflect actual work performance) recently canned 241 teachers who received the lowest ratings (indicating unsatisfactory job performance). That's over 2.5 times more than were let go last year. Tamar Lewin recently filed a report on the situation:
The issue is also being addressed at the university level. According to University Affairs, the Faculty Senate at the University of British Columbia, which sets educational policy, had voted to actively use student evaluations of teaching in making personnel decisions, like promotion and tenure. The faculty association (union) challenged it, saying that it violated the union contract, and took the university to court. An appeals judge sided with the Senate. Léo Charbonneau's report primarily focuses on the legal issues involved, but the personnel issues are no less compelling. Check out the report at

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Online Universities: "Monsters in the Making" or a Great Place to Study Poker?

A recent article in the Economist suggests that they're the next "boom" about to burst. Their sweet business model--of relying heavily on student loans--is about to sour, as a result of new US regulations intended to address concerns that people who have limited means paying for educations that often do not lead to work in the field or, if it does, results in salaries that are insufficient to pay back the student loan. The tangible evidence of this situation is the high level of defaults of student loans by students in online universities and other private colleges. 

To get a background on this sad situation from the students' perspective, check out Peter S, Goodman's July 18 article, "After Training, Still Scrambling for Employment," at

To get a sense of the situation from the investor's perspective, check out "Monsters in the Making" from the July 22 issue of the Economist at

To get a sense of the proposed regulations, check out Tamar Lewin's report on the regulations proposed at the end of last week at

And to get a sense of an alternative--an open source, low-cost online university, check out Anne Kershaw's "Explore alternative subjects at Peer 2 Peer University" published July 12, 2010 in University Affairs: One of those courses explores poker.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Museums Now and Then

The way it was—now and then.


“Art didn’t change” in the most recent decade.

“It stayed exactly the same. Washington told Americans to spend, keep the economy pumped, and the art industry did its patriotic duty” (Depending on the Culture of Strangers, Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 31, 2009,

A significant amount of that spending went to bigger buildings—some completely new (like Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater), some remade through additions (like Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum). Many reasons have been offered, but most museums were inspired by financial and critical success of Frank-Gehry’s eye-catching building for the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa, Spain. It transformed a modest city in Basque country into an international cultural destination.

But maybe the rush to duplicate the success of Bilboa led to a culture glut, rather than beneficiaries of the Bilboa effect (In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better, Robin Pogrebin, New York Times, December 11, 2009, Visited December 12, 2009).

Sure, the buildings got bigger and museums could display objects otherwise doomed to storage.

But at a cost. Operating costs enlarged with the enlargement of facilities. Some museums adequately planned for the costs through increases to their endowments, others did not. Some overestimated the number of paying visitors, and planned and staffed accordingly. But the visitors didn’t show.

Few planned for an economic downturn, especially one that could eat up their endowments through stock market losses. Not surprisingly, museums have cut back—hours, programming and, of course, staff.

And many projects on the drawing boards have either been scaled back or indefinitely delayed.


Even with their woes, art museums today are still popular today. Many of the secrets of their success were pioneered by past Metropolitan Museum of Art Director, Tom Hoving, who passed away in early December (A Populist Museum Chief With a Sense of Wonder, by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, December 11, 2009,

He is credited for starting the blockbuster exhibit (a major temporary exhibition with wide popular appeal—and the classic King Tut exhibit at that), enlarging the gift shop (a service I personally take advantage of), making some shrewd purchases, and physically expanding the museum.

But he is remembered most for bringing the museum to the people—democratizing the experience so to speak. He was implementing the values underlying the recommendations in the American Museums Association’s 1984 report, Museums for a New Century, the decade before they were published.

Museum Review: Electrium

Sainte-Julie, Quebec
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday. Rain. What to do?

Not in the mood to drive too far and not in the mood to spend too much, we decided to visit Electrium, a free exhibition about electricity presented by Hydro Quebec on the South Shore of suburban Montreal.

Using interactive exhibits and objects, the Electrium provides four perspectives on electricity. One describes the electricity present in all living beings, from electric eels and fish (with samples of each in small aquariums), as well as the human body (with a couple of instruments that measure electrical impulses in the human body).

The second section of the exhibit explains how electricity operates and the third takes a similar approach to the explanation of electro-magnetic energy explaining the central role of electromagnetism in transmitting electricity. The second and third galleries provide an historical perspective, briefly identifying leaders in the discovery of electricity and their roles in the process.

The last section explains how electricity is generated, how it gets to the home, and how to safely use electricity (an issue that HydroQuebec regularly raises in adverts on television and in its monthly billing inserts). An interactive activity in this section helps visitors assess their understanding of everyday principles.

Promotions for the Electricum promise that it demystifies electricity and the museum keeps its promises. The labels were clear but only in French. (Although my oral French is still a work in progress, I could easily understand all of the labels, even the most technical of them.)

Museum Review: Musee des Religions du Monde

Musée des Religions du Monde
Nicolet, Quebec
Recommendation: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

I found this little gem totally by accident. I was at the entrance to another museum, waiting for my partner and, as I always do when I’m waiting and staring at a rack of brochures, I started reading them. One was for the Musee des Religions du Monde (Museum of World Religions). It was nearby and close, and I thought I would visit when some friends visited Montreal. But, when we found we had time on our hands on the way home, I suggested that we drive by the Musee. My partner was enthusiastic about the idea, so we went. (Not that you cared, but that’s how we ended up seeing it.)

The day was June 24, la Fete Natoinale in Quebec, a day which celebrates Quebec culture and, this year, had a special focus on celebrating the cultures of all Quebeckers, not just the ones who had lived here the longest. As it celebrates the many religions in the world much less Quebec, this place had a message for the day. On the other hand, as June 24 was one of the three days of perfect summer weather this year and most communities had large, outdoor celebrations planned, I wasn’t surprised when we were the only people in the museum.

The museum had three exhibits. One was an exhibition on the Jewish community of Quebec City, which was mounted in Gare Central (central station) of Quebec City last year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city, and which I saw there. The original exhibition was curated by community members using private and synagogue collections. I went through this exhibit again and quickly realized this version was bigger than the original. The Musee had added to the exhibit with objects from its own collection, even replicating the sanctuary of a synagogue with items from its collection.

We skipped the second temporary exhibition: a display of artwork by “mentally disordered” people.

What captured our imagination—and impressed us most—was the small gallery featuring the permanent exhibition: religious artifacts from each of the major religions in the world. The collection was small and eclectic: ceremonial pieces from closed Catholic churches in the region; Judaica representative of the Jewish lifecycle; objects used in Hindu and Buddhist practice; and some Christian-themed artwork that had been commissioned.

Pieces were arranged by religion, and each arrangement provided some general descriptions that provided a quick background to the religion and its practices. To someone who is admittedly less informed than he would like to be about some of the religions, the labels provided a great background. I also found the labels accompanying the arrangements of the religions with which I was familiar to be helpful, too—reminding me of the essentials that are often lost in everyday practice.

In addition, all of the pieces were well documented, explaining not only their religious roles, but their artistic significance as well.

Given its location in quasi-rural (and historically Catholic) Quebec, it’s no surprise that the museum started with a collection of Catholic objects and that that collection is its strongest. But the permanent exhibit did not favor that religion. Not only does the museum cover a diverse range of religions, but it also provides non-preferential coverage to any. Each receives equal attention and one leaves the museum feeling that it genuinely seeks to be an institution of promoting learning about different religions and understanding among them.

That this museum is able to do so in a community whose citizens have historically and overwhelmingly belonged to one religion, and in a location that’s somewhat distant to the culturally diverse Montreal, is a testament to this museum’s staff’s and board’s focus on its mission. On a broader scale, this success also inspires hope that the people of different religions can truly learn to coexist.

When Being Leader Is More Important than Leading the Organization

The article “A Heated Campaign for a Ceremonial Post” in Saturday’s New York Times talks about the high-stakes sweepstakes for the top position in a community organization.
  • As a total outsider, the situation seems to suggest a few lessons for other organizations:
  • When the combined expenditures of campaigning to be president of the organization nearly exceed the annual budget of the organization, something is way out of whack.
  • When the organization spends that much energy choosing a leader, it has few resources left to do anything meaningful.
  • When being leader matters more than the organization, the organization ultimately turns off the constituency it was designed to address.

See the entire article at

Museums, Missions, and Qualified Board Members

The cash-strapped National Academy sold two paintings to cover its operating expenses. That’s a no-no in the museum world. If they sold a painting every time they ran into difficulty, they’d have no collection left.

More significantly, it’s completely antithetical to their missions. Museums are established to collect paintings (and other valuable objects), document them, store them, conduct research on them, and preserve them for the public and for future generations.

To call attention to this breach of trust, the Association of Art Museums censured the National Academy and the New York legislature is further responding with proposed legislation to make such acts illegal.

But how did the National Academy get into this place? Bad governance—and a focus on issues other than the greater good of the organization. This emphasizes, once again, the crucial role of the board in governing an organization—not only by thinking of the greater good over ideology or personal need, but by taking an active and informed role in the running of the organization.
More seriously, as one former treasurer of the organization reports here, Boards also need to recruit qualified members.
View a New York Times article describing the challenges at

More Ups and Downs for Facebook

For those with an interest in social media, check out Susan Feinstein's recent article about a new use for Facebook: telling teachers how much they meant to us. Visit the article at Times at

And speaking of Facebook, a recent news analysis of the company explores the view by Facebook officials that it is a "utility," and what that means to the way that public officials should approach that company--especially in relation to the company's flawed privacy policies. As one expert cited in the article notes, getting the metaphor right plays a central role in getting the relationship right.

Among the interesting tidbits in that article--Americans are more satisfied filing their taxes online than using Facebook, and the choice of 'metaphors" like ut for
Check it out at

Museum Review: New York Transit Museum Annex at Grand Central Station

New York Transit Museum Annex at Grand Central Station
New York, New York
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

I learned about this tiny outpost by accident, I read about it in some tourist publication. As it was just a few blocks from the hotel and it had a number of souvenirs I might be interested in (like paper plates printed with a map of the New York Subway system), I thought—what the heck, why not check it out.

And am I glad I did. It had a terrific half-exhibition on new transit projects in New York and their potential impact on the public transit experience. And the gift shop offered the most unique selection of items, including paper plates, cups, and napkins with maps of the New York Subway network.

Next trip, I need to visit the mother ship in Brooklyn.

Museum Review: Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum
New York, New York
Recommendation: 5 stars (out of 5)

To be honest, although I have visited New York City many times, I’ve never ventured beyond Manhattan in search of culture. And to be honest again, I wasn’t sure I would find any.

How wrong I was. The Brooklyn Museum, which I first learned about many years ago when I heard its director speak at a museum conference when I was living in Georgia, is the second largest art museum in New York (after the Met), and has a collection that, in many ways, is as strong if not stronger.

But I’ve wanted to visit the Brooklyn Museum for about a year or two, ever since I read about its a new front entrance (its back entrance admittedly still has a back entrance quality to it) and learned about the treasures buried inside. Today, I finally did that.

What struck me first about the museum was how empty it was in comparison to the Met and the MOMA. Although the museum has its own subway stop—and on a line that’s easily accessible to most tourist hotels in Manhattan—few people ventured across the river.

What struck me next was the power of its exhibits. I could have spent the entire day in the decorative arts collection, which—in addition to period rooms—features full-size houses, reconstructed in the museum. The rooms reflect a broader range of the American experience than those in the Met, including farm houses from early Brooklyn, a southern plantation, a New England salt box home, and an Art Deco study from a fashionable Manhattan apartment. (The Met has no twentieth century rooms.)

Other examples of decorative arts include several cases of twentieth century furniture (including Italian modern design), stained glass, and an exquisite collection of jewelry.

My partner commented that he thought that the quality of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum exceeded that of the Met. I agreed.

One of the most unique collections at the Brooklyn Museum is its feminist collection, whose centerpiece is Judy Chicago’s the Dinner Party, a “gathering” of 1038 noteworthy women, most of whom were forgotten or undervalued in history. I became familiar with The Dinner Party years ago; some of the poetry written for it became part of the liturgy at the synagogue I attended at the time. I had since read descriptions of the artwork, but nothing prepared me for something of the scale, artistic quality, or intellectual depth of that which confronted me. A welcoming hall with stunning tapestries greets visitors, and prepares them for the massive, triangular dining hall, which features a triangular table large enough to seat scores of guests. It includes a large number of settings, which—in addition to common silverware and globlets, feature a custom designed plate in the spirit of the guest, as well as the guest’s name embroidered on the table cloth.

Another exhibit that caught my attention was an exhibit on light and Sufism in Islamic art and culture. Although I knew that the Sufi sect is the mystical sect of the religion, beyond that, I knew very little. Thanks to the exhibit labels, I learned where Sufism comes from, some of its basic tenets, and some of its basic practices. One surprising example for this ignorant person was that dervishes are followers of Sufi, and the dances they perform are part of their spiritual practices.

This being a museum—especially one that focuses on displaying art—artwork formed the centerpiece of the exhibit and the artwork in this one did not disappoint. Among the many impressive objects were illustrated manuscripts with exceptional calligraphy; a manuscript etched into glass, and a beautifully gilded and decorated alms bowl. (That’s not the correct technical term, but the one that comes to mind now.)

The centerpiece of this museum is its Egyptian collection. It contains nearly 1,000 objects that are engagingly displayed and clearly and extensively documented. Because the collection requires several dedicated hours to fully digest, we merely skimmed it.

It’s too bad that many New York visitors don’t venture to this museum in Brooklyn; it’s worth the visit, and lacks both the crowds and the gift shop annexes of the mega-museums in Manhattan. (And the single gift shop it has features many one-of-a-kind items, in sharp contrast to the many widely duplicated items in the MOMA and Met stores).

But for me, I’m glad I made the journey, and cannot wait to journey back.

Museum Review: The Met and the MOMA

Metropolitan Museum of Art (
Museum of Modern Art (
New York, New York
Recommendation: 4 stars (out of 5)

Rather than focus on the exhibitions at the museums, what’s worthy of note is not the size of their buildings or collections, but the sizes of the crowds visiting them and their gift shops.

I arrived at the Met about 40 minutes after it opened, and was surprised that I still had to wait in line 10 to 15 minutes to “purchase” my ticket. (Technically, I didn’t purchase tickets; I made a suggested donation. But let’s face it; when they said that they did not offer a complimentary ticket to when I showed them my membership card for the Museums Association, I knew that the transaction was no different than had I purchased a ticket to a movie.

Signage in the Met was almost as confusing as in the LACMA. However, as the Met has reinstalled most of its galleries, the signage should be more complete now. In particular, directional signs to the new American wing were a bit difficult to follow outside of the lobby, as were signs to the temporary exhibit on Afghanistan.

What was easy to find, however, were the countless gift shops . One in the lobby, with several entrances (probably one per department) in the main hall as well as upstairs. (With more to come—the gift shop is being expanded.)

Satellite stores existed at the end of each major temporary exhibit, next to the cafeteria, and at a couple of natural rest areas on the second floor.

I didn’t know whether I was at a mall or a museum. And just in case I forgot to purchase something, the museum has annexes in the Newark Airport, Rockefeller Center, and Macy’s Herald Square Store.

By those standards, the MOMA almost looks like a shopping-free zone. Rest assured, it’s not. A gift shop greets in both the lobby and as one exits the elevator on the 6th floor. There’s a bookstore on the second floor and a design shop across the street (which carries the same merchandise as in the main museum store, plus a collection from Japan’s Muji store).

Spending time in the MOMA Design Store across the street was one way to avoid a half-block lineup for the museum, a line-up that persists for several hours after the museum’s opening.

Both museums were chockablock with visitors. As a researcher of, and consultant to, museums, I’m delighted that so many people are showing interest in museums. But as a visitor, all of those other visitors limited my options. Studying labels closely becomes a challenge when some other studious visitor is in front of you and an impatient one anxiously awaits behind.

But I still managed to catch a few interesting exhibits. The Afghanistan exhibit at the Met shows 2,000- to 3,000-year-old artifacts of different Afghani communities, including one that was an outpost of Alexander the Great’s Greece, another that was a trading post that was heavily influenced by Roman culture, and the grave of a high-ranking nomadic tribe leader and his entourage. The craftsmanship was superb, the artistic influences were startling for their breadth, and the stories told by these objects were captivating.

Although not likely to happen, this exhibit should travel to Canada, so Canadians who are supporting military and civilian efforts there can learn more about the people and their history.

Two exhibits impressed me most at the MOMA. One was a display created by a Chinese artist of all of his mother’s worldly possessions. He grouped like things together, like nearly a dozen tubes of nearly used tooth paste and scores of empty beverage bottles. He laid the objects in an orderly, organized fashion across the entire gallery, and it surprisingly (to me) packs an emotional whallop.

The other exhibit was one on what made good design, a retrospective look at objects that were exhibited in a series of exhibits on good design at the MOMA in the mid-twentieth century. These exhibits not only introduced concepts of design to the general public, but benefitted retailers who carried the products. The exhibit explored, in part, the inherent elitisim underlying such approaches. But I have to be honest; my design sensibilities were shaped by these elitists and walking through this exhibit was like walking through the aisles of a design store looking at my favorite objects, wondering which ones I would buy.

Museum Review: Grammy Museum

Grammy Museum
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

At the end of 2008, the organization that produces the Grammy awards opened a museum at the new L.A. Live complex next to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. I had not heard about the museum before coming to the area, but when I saw a mention for it in a travel magazine, I thought, “What the heck. It’s two blocks from my hotel, I ought to see it.”

That they were offering discount tickets cemented my interest in visiting.

Although I’m a pop culture junkie, most of my interest is in television, not music. And I was ultimately indifferent about the other museum of pop music that I visited--Seattle’s Experience Music Project. It seemed a little too focused on impressing the visitor with its high-tech headsets and stations and overwhelming visitors with its depth of music trivia. I visited late in the day and felt overwhelmed by both the quantity of information and its excessively high price.

Based on that, plus my belief that the Grammy Museum was really just a creation to fill a space in the LA Live project, I wasn’t expecting much. Given these low expectations, the museum more than exceeded them.

The museum had a clear and simple story to tell: how records get made and recognized. The museum opens with a dramatic video welcome, which leads into the story of the background of the Grammys—that is, how music gets recognized. But the rest of the bulk of the permanent exhibition really focuses on how records get made. Part of this explores the different genres of music and how they emerged. Part of the exhibit focuses on the technical aspects of recording, and includes a room that presents the major innovations in recording by playing simulations of recordings in the gramophone, mono, stereo, surround sound, and MP3 formats. That seemed like an effective use of exhibition technology, as was the simulation of some of the most famous recording studios in the world. Another part of the exhibit explained the recording process, and still other parts explained the contributions of different professionals to the success of a record. Although the exhibit did not go deep, it did provide complete coverage.

What was most interesting, and pleasantly surprising, was that the museum provided balanced coverage of the subject—that is, it provided not only the good part of the story, but the less than pleasant parts. For example, the display on 50 years of the Grammy awards explained some of the controversies that arose over the years, including boycotts by artists in genres who felt that their genres were ignored by the Academy. Similarly, a temporary exhibit on controversy in recordings acknowledged some of the less than pleasant moments in the history of records with a cause.

All in all, the museum provided a clear, well-explained overview of the recording industry and provides the average listener with the background needed to understand the Grammys and appreciate all the effort that goes into recording. And it does this by making effective use of objects and photos, appropriate integration of technology (without some of the gizmos that don’t really seem to add much at similar facilities), and without overwhelming the visitor.

As a visitor, I was entertained and as a student of museum exhibitions, I picked up a few tricks.

Museum Review: Getty Museum

Getty Museum:
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 5 stars (out of 5)

The last time I visited the Getty Museum at the Getty Center, I visited on a Saturday night because it had extended hours. I was attending a convention at the LA Convention Center and could not leave the site during daytime hours. I took a friend with me, we had no problem getting into the site, and we had a delightful evening.

So I thought I’d try again during my most recent trip to Los Angeles, but this visit did not start as smoothly as the last one. Traffic was backed up for half an hour just to enter the campus, much less get a parking space.

Turns out, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Getty offers free music concerts and open picnicking on its grounds every other Saturday. And when that happens, people come out of the wood work to see it.

This was one of those Saturdays.

But the Getty experience was everything the LACMA experience the previous evening was not. Despite the long wait, the Getty has a large team devoted to getting people in and out of the site, so what seemed like chaos from the street proceeded with order once I drove into the complex.

The signage and maps at the entrance quickly orient the visitor. If that weren’t enough, there’s both a huge information desk and an orientation video greeting people in the first building that beckons visitors in.

The exhibits were spectacular, though I was surprised that a few galleries were closed for renovation. Part of the surprise was that the printed materials and signage admittedly did not advise this. But most of the surprise came from the fact that it feels like the Getty Center just opened; how could they be renovating it? “Just opened,” however, occurred over 10 years ago.

The Getty takes its educational function seriously; not only does its web address sport a .edu extension rather than the .org extension used by most museums, but it is recognized as a leading research center for museum specialists, and for groundbreaking approaches to exhibitions.

That commitment to education was evident in a pair of exhibits on French sculpture. One exhibit explained how lost-cast sculptures are made. I’ve seen other exhibits tackle this topic, but they do so exclusively through signage, and usually in the context of an exhibit on sculpture.

The Getty staff actually made models of a lost cast sculpture at each of the major junctures in the process, so visitors could see what was actually involved. Each model was clearly explained in plain language, so even the least technical visitor could easily comprehend what was being presented. The exhibit used a single Dutch sculpture as its point of reference, but linked this exhibit to a larger one on 300 centuries of French bronzes.

The exhibits of French bronzes was superb. In both quantity and quality, the artwork was exemplary. But it was also well explained, with clearly written labels for each room of the exhibit, each major theme within the rooms, and each sculpture. Reading just exhibit, a visitor would understand not only the meaning of the group of sculptures, but also their significance in the French context. The labels on the artwork carried that explanation from general themes to meanings and historical and artistic significance of the specific pieces of art.

What was equally impressive was the music. I can’t say we sat and watched it closely, but we did pay attention and found the music to be both unique and entertaining, a contrast with the more conventional sounds at the LACMA.

But to be honest, even if the exhibits were not amazing, the grounds and the building are works of art of their own, and some of the time we spent appreciating the sky-top view of the Los Angeles area, the magnificent landscaping, and Richard Meier’s building.

Museum Review: Centennial Olympics Exhibition

Centennial Olympics Exhibition
At the Atlanta History Museum
Atlanta, Georgia
Recommendation: 2 stars (out of 5)

I admit I’m sentimental for Atlanta. I lived there for the ten years leading up to the Olympics and watched the city transform from a wanna-be world-class city to one that truly embodies it. One of the most significant transformations I witnessed was the transformation of all of the major cultural institutions in the city during those years. As it had done in Los Angeles, the Olympics prompted and funded rebuilding of each major museum in the city, including the Atlanta History Center.

Even in its limited original facility, I liked the Atlanta History Center, because it told the history of the city and helped me understand the intense civic pride that guides and pushes Atlanta, the lingering effect of the Civil War, and the complex role of race and ethnicity in building the city. When the Center moved into its new building about two years before the Olympics, its permanent exhibits included a comprehensive exhibit on the development of Atlanta, which represented not only the different periods in the history of the city, but also how that history was seen from many perspectives—black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native. One could feel the excitement of the city and, at the same time, recognize that circumstances of ethnicity, race, and class would channel expectations arising from that enthusiasm.

Its Battle of Atlanta exhibit (opened after the Olympics) is one of the most thorough and sobering exhibits on the Civil War that I sought. Although it attempts to present the war from a Southern perspective, it acknowledges the many viewpoints on the war, presents the difficult experience of serving on both sides, and the aftermath. Telling this story is one of the most extensive collections of authentic Civil War-era objects that I’ve seen.

In the past couple of years, the museum expanded to include the collection of the permanent exhibit of the Centennial Olympic Games, which had been housed in Underground Atlanta until the decision was made to move them to the History Center (as a decision was made to close a satellite History museum in that complex a decade ago, for a lack of visitors).

On a personal level, I was disappointed that the exhibit had moved. Underground was supposed to be the one of the central venues for the public during the Olympics (it’s between several of the athletic venues), and I always thought that the presence of cultural institutions in the center adds reasons to go there. But few people were going there, so I guess the only choice was to move the museum to Buckhead, where it would attract more visitors.

The exhibition itself was also a disappointment. On the one hand, it provides a lot of good background information about the history of the Olympic games, with a small section of the exhibit providing a quick summary of each set of games—including the years when the games were cancelled in World War I and II, and when participation was limited during the 1980 and 1984 games. One of the highlights was examples of official symbols and torches from many of these games. Even this section could have benefited from more of a background on the Olympic movement.

But the biggest disappointment was in the description of the games themselves. In terms of presentation, the designers took the approach of a timeline on a wall, which focused more on a play-by-play of the events leading up to the games as well as a daily report on the games themselves (including daily reports of the games, along with related memorabilia).

In doing so, the exhibit glosses over some of the true highlights and low-lights of the experience. In terms of the highlights, that Atlanta—a first-time applicant—earned the games when Athens was favored to get them is still shocking. That could have been explored further. One of the most exciting parts of the Olympics was their effect on the psyche of Atlanta, including the spirit of volunteerism in the Atlanta community (not the games) it engendered, both through formal efforts like the Carter project and informal ones. The volunteerism is mentioned, its effect isn’t.

Similarly, the difficulties during the games receive only limited coverage, especially the bombing. That was a serious problem, and deserves more coverage, even though it’s not one of the more pleasant sides of the event.

Most significantly, the exhibit nearly ignores the lasting effect of the Olympics on the city. Development in areas where the Olympics occurred sped up afterwards, resulting in total transformations of downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, and the Perimeter area, as well as the cultural institutions in the area.

I left feeling like the exhibit—which had the objects to provide a compelling and positive view of the Olympics—was more of an ode to the boosterism that got Atlanta the Olympics, rather than an exploration of the impact of that boosterism, which would have made for a more compelling exhibit—and one that would have integrated more effectively with others in the museum.

An Explanation for Out-of-Touch, Protectionist Boards

In his OpEd piece, “We’re Not the Boss of A.I.G.,” Carl Icahn describes the surprisingly limited rights that share holders of public organizations, and corporate laws in most states generally favor the sitting board and its management team.

More significantly, he finds that “With some exceptions, our public corporations are increasingly unable to compete globally, they pay excessive compensation to top brass and they are generally unaccountable to shareholders.”

Although he exclusively focuses the discussion on for-profit organizations, it suggests that laws facilitate the insularity and lack of transparency among boards, which is a known problem for nonprofit boards.

View the entire column at

Museum Review: LACMA

One of my favorite summer activities is visiting museums. (I like to do so during the rest of the year, but the academic schedule limits the time available to do so.)

As some of you know, my dissertation research explored the design of museum exhibits. More recently, I’ve done some consulting for museums—developing a three-year plan for exhibits and educational programs for one, and online learning programs for another.

Over the next several days, I’ll be posting entries about some of the museums I visited and share what I found interesting about them. Note that my reviews tend to primarily focus on the ability to learn from an exhibition, as opposed to other characteristics, such as the quality of the objects or the scholarship evident. The first is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (better known as LACMA)
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

For those unfamiliar with the museum, this is the largest encyclopedic art museum in the western US, and is in the middle of a huge transformation, which involves linking all of its current buildings in a more comprehensible way (they were built one-by-one and no one seemed to have thought about a way of making the parts interact well as a whole, kind of like Lenox Mall in Atlanta before its 1995 remodeling). The transformation also involves building new pavilions to house different parts of its collection, like the widely reviewed Broad pavilion.

I visited on a Friday evening. To attract visitors that night, the museum offers “pay what you wish” tickets, free jazz, and the option to purchase cocktails and food. It certainly attracted me and my partner, as well as thousands of other people. The place was wall-to-wall people. It seemed that the majority of them stayed outside to hear the free jazz.

To be honest, I was less than impressed with the collection. On the one hand, the museum has tons of space and the largest collection in the West. So I expected to feel overwhelmed by the size of the collection. I wasn’t. For example, art represented in the Latin American art collection really seemed to stop at the northern border of South America. I saw no art of the Inca, Mochico, Sican, and other cultures of Peru, and similar culture in Columbia and Ecaudor. (They might have been there, I just didn’t see them. I certainly would have noticed the impressive gold produced by these people.)

The galleries themselves were eye-catching. The wood paneling throughout the exhibit was among the most spectacular I’ve seen for a gallery, comparable to the Asian galleries in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But that collection overwhelms the visitor with its depth. This collection didn’t.

Similarly, the American decorative arts collection seemed a bit shallow. One might expect that the collection of objects from colonial and early federal periods in the US might be light, as this was from the East, the collection of California decorative arts seemed a bit limited.

Part of the problem might be that the museum is still undergoing its transformation, and perhaps many important pieces are missing. But the galleries I visited were supposed to have been remodeled already.

Similarly, the wayfinding in the museum was poor. On the one hand, the museum is still under reconstruction, so investing in permanent signage isn’t a great idea. But as long as the museum is open, visitors have a right to know where to buy tickets and be advised that, before entering a gallery, tickets are needed (especially important in an open campus setup like the LACMA).

Similarly, with an open campus setup, visitors need to see a map of the campus at the entrance, just as shopping malls provide at their major entrances and universities provide at theirs.

Last, printed material should be up to date. For example, the printed maps and the available signage all indicated that the textile exhibit was open. Only the website and a “closed for reinstallation” sign at the entry to the exhibit advised otherwise.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Museum Review: Da Vinci Traveling Exhibition

Da Vinci Exhibition
Traveling, private exhibition.
Viewed in Montreal, Quebec
Recommendation: 1 star (out of 5)

After closing its cinema, and interested in providing a non-retail attraction in the complex to not only generate revenue but also important foot traffic to its upper levels, the management of Montreal’s Eaton Centre converted its top floors into exhibition space. It leases the space to private companies, who produce traveling, blockbuster exhibits that, under other circumstances, would have been displayed in the special exhibitions galleries of museums.

And when they present these exhibitions, producers generally charge more than they would charge for similar exhibitions at museums—and don’t have to share the revenue for them.

Wanting to see how the Eaton Centre handled a privately mounted exhibition but being too cheap to pay the $25 or $30 entry fee for the Titanic exhibition, I decided to see a less expensive exhibition on Leonardo Da Vinci. (Since then, both exhibits have departed. The Titanic exhibition is now on view in a gallery in Times Square owned by the Discovery Channel.)

And I sincerely wanted to learn more about Leonardo Da Vinci, someone who has always interested me because of his diverse talents in, and influences on, art and technology. Until now, though, I apparently wasn’t sufficiently interested to invest much time in this learning.

But I wanted to find out, so I checked it out. Although the promotional materials warned that the machines in the exhibition were constructed from his models (and, therefore, not built by DaVinci, nor from his time), at $13 admission (the reduced afternoon rate), my expectations were still high.

Too high.

This exhibition was a disappointment. Everything in it was a replica, including the artwork, thus violating one of the first rules of museums: the centerpiece is the object and what makes the object special is that it’s the “real thing,” the one that the master himself touched and created. The crux of this exhibit, of course, was its ability to digitally reproduce the paintings, but the significance of this was lost on me, other than it was cheaper than transporting and securing the real ones. There are other advantages to the digital reproduction, but I only learned about those from exhibits at other museums. This one sure did not explain.

The exhibition could have recovered with stronger labeling, but it lacked that, too. In fact, the exhibit’s designers seemed to have no sense of the visitor experience. Visitors were thrust into a gallery of paintings. All were replicas (I think they were digitally produced), some were replicas of copies. Although the paintings subjects and techniques were thoroughly documented, as were some of the tidbits emerging from conservation (such as sections painted over), the gallery thrust visitors into the paintings without putting them into perspective or relating them to the inventions, which were the primary promotional item for the exhibition.

A background on DaVinci’s life is presented about one-third of the way through the exhibition, in a hall with a timeline presenting the highlights of DaVinci’s life and relating them to current events of his time. This was helpful, but a narrative that put DaVinci and his plethora of talents into context would have been helpful, too.

Next were the inventions, which were ostensibly grouped by use—such as flying machines, military equipment and so forth. These groupings had nominal labeling, but I would have appreciated more information about why he proposed most of these inventions, and which ones were actually built and tested and which ones remained solely proposals on paper. (I guess a true DaVinci scholar would know, but I’m not one, nor were the majority of people visiting the exhibition.)

One of the biggest disappointments of the exhibit was the “Do not touch” signs on many of the models. One of the benefits of using models is that visitors can use them. The producers ignored yet another principle of effective exhibit design.

Although I started this experience hoping that I would have an excellent opportunity to learn about DaVinci and see how private producers adapt museum exhibition techniques, I left feeling disappointed on an intellectual level and an elevated respect for museum exhibition designers.