By Amelia Wiggins, Delaware Art Museum

In the age of Black Panther and #metoo, how can art museum galleries transform into the relevant, representational, inclusive spaces our diverse communities are calling for? The planning process itself holds a key.

Prototyping in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries. Photo by Stacey Mann

As the Delaware Art Museum approached a reinstallation of our main floor galleries in 2020, a primary goal became building relevance for our diverse local communities in greater Wilmington, Delaware. When we started this project, the museum was one year into work toward a community-focused strategic plan. We had implemented internal trainings to develop institutional empathy. Our Chief Curator and Director of Learning & Engagement attended the 2018 MASSAction Convening with the reinstallation in mind. Interpretation of recent exhibitions integrated community voices. It was time for the changes happening within staff, board, programs, and special exhibitions to reach the permanent collection galleries.

Curators and educators working together

The composition of our Reinstallation Team was crucial. Two curators and two educators came together on equal terms to work on the project. Our ability to collaborate across education-curatorial divides required an investment in relationship-building and trust on both sides that was years in the making.

Reinstallation Workshop

An important first step was to convene a one-day Reinstallation Workshop onsite. Each team member invited professionals from the field from whom we hoped to learn. These outside scholars, interpreters, and consultants shared their experiences and recommendations with us, and the workshop helped curators and educators better understand each other’s different philosophies.

Community Salons

Community Salons

Our next step was to host a series of focus groups we called “Community Salons.” We invited a diverse group of partners, stakeholders, and representatives of our local communities to attend and asked each to bring a friend unfamiliar with the museum.

Each Community Salon focused on a single collection area. We invited participants to walk through a few galleries. Then, we gathered for group dialogue, facilitated by consultant Stacey Mann. Successful Salons included these elements:

  • Transparency about what was being asked of participants
  • An intentional list of participants, with clarity about what they bring to the table
  • Compensation for participants
  • A limitation on the amount of staff voices in the room

Dialogue from the Salons, which we recorded, became the foundation upon which we built new narratives for the reinstall.

Prototyping in the Galleries

 Prototyping in the Galleries Photo by Stacey Mann

We were fortunate to be able to learn from consultant Kathleen McLean of Independent Exhibitions, who led a Prototyping Workshop at the museum. Kathy taught us the basics of prototyping, built trust and buy-in for the process, and helped us just start.

Kathy taught us to prototype quickly, cheaply, and continually. We learned that handwritten text communicates “experimental” to our public and encourages participation. We were coached to resist thinking about physical spaces and layouts, and instead to consider clusters of ideas and objects. What we thought might be one month of prototyping has now been more than six, but as we are producing content as we test it, we are still on track with our timeline.

Our prototyping rolls by collection area, just as our gallery closures and reopenings will roll out next year. Keeping the discussions of the Community Salons forefront in our minds, our team works together to draft a main idea. We create “clusters” of ideas and objects within that idea, and even rewrite single object label texts. We prototype all these with butcher paper, painter’s tape, markers, and photocopied images of artworks not on view. Visitors are invited to leave feedback via post-its and pencils left out in the galleries.

The Reinstallation Team meets every Monday to read visitor responses, document them, and respond with new iterations of text and object clusters. Curators often take on research after these meetings to respond to visitor questions. After weeks of prototyping and iterating, we put everything up together within one collection area to test whether it works as a whole and resonates with our public.

What we’ve learned in prototyping

A prototyped text with visitor comments

This process has taught us the value of talking out loud together instead of writing at computer. I’ve seen that contextual images and visual examples can communicate more powerfully than text, even when they are not collection objects. And most importantly: direct, frequent access to visitors’ ideas, questions, and opinions is invaluable.

Visitors disagree.

Some visitors voice disagreement.

Most visitors who comment on the prototyping in our galleries say they like the participatory feeling. An educator noted that the museum is in dialogue with its community. But we also hear from some that find the taped signs distracting. Visitor responses to the new text we are drafting sometimes contradict one another, too. I see this especially when our prototyped narratives counter the largely white, heteronormative stories that have been privileged in our galleries for decades. We reached out to Reinstallation Workshop advisors Kathleen McLean and Judy Koke, asking how to respond to contradictory feedback. Both encouraged us to own the stories that align with our institutional values of inclusion, and to be upfront about that interpretive approach in our introductory panels. I believe that core visitors who are comfortable within museum spaces will find appreciation for the art on the walls regardless of the text beside it. But for communities who have historically been unrepresented and unserved by our institution, we need to work harder to build connections via interpretation.

Challenges of the project

Our team often says that Monday mornings, when we meet, are our favorite time of the week. But the project has not been without its challenges. The new narratives we’re writing to build relevancy are limited by our collection. While recent acquisitions have expanded our holdings of women artists and artists of color, the majority of art on the wall remains by white men. And as a regional museum, our smaller budget and staff size limits our ability to prototype design elements. Finally, we are challenged by the question of how to keep the participatory feeling of the galleries alive after the prototyping ends. We are now working on response areas to give visitors permanent spaces to add their voices to our walls.

Our goal is to reopen museum galleries that are more relevant to the lives and experiences of Wilmingtonians. But this project has helped us learn how to center our community members’ voices within our institutional working processes as well. My hope is that we can take away from this project a continued practice of listening and responding to our diverse local public.

Amelia Wiggins is the Assistant Director of Learning & Engagement at the Delaware Art Museum.