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Biomedicine in museums

Taking down exhibitions can bring us closer to the objects than building new ones (and create more fun)

I wrote the other day that taking down museum exhibitions could be as much fun as building new ones.

BAuNwoaCEAA5KjvThat was a pretty spontaneous tongue-in-cheek comment triggered by our conservator Nanna Gerdes’ enthusiastic twitter series of images (see @NaGerdes and storified here, here and here) from the process of taking down three old exhibition rooms in our museum’s Tietkens Gaard building.

But the more I think about it, I feel this spontaneous remark has some deeper truth to it. Here’s the way I reason about it:

Most curators will probably think the design and building of an exhibition is more fun than taking it down afterward. Especially if you are interested in ideas and concepts, and in constructing new unseen worlds.

Sure, it can surely be forbiddingly exhausting to design and build: conceptualising and physically constructing a new exhibition in the interfaces between history and the present, between images and material artefacts, immaterial ideas and three-dimensional physical spaces can at times be frustrating and anxiety-provoking.

But all in all it’s a pretty satisfying creative process. And I think it is this combination of hard work and immersion in creative processes that make us think of exhibition making as being ‘fun’.

And in contrast, the taking down an exhibition after closing day sounds, from an exhibition curator’s point of view, like a pretty dull and boring activity. The opposite of having fun. Like cleaning up after the party rather than planning and taking part in it.

However, I think there is another and more fun side to taking down than the immediate connotations of boredom, deconstruction and cleaning up.

Whereas the building and construction process has certain similarities with being on speed (especially in the last couple of weeks and days before the opening), the post-closing process is much more relaxed. If building up is associated with fervour, even hysteria, taking down is more characterised by tranquility, even melancholia.

Now, paradoxically, the creative and conceptual focus in the building phase draws the curator’s attention away from the artefacts themselves. When you build an exhibition you are 110% focused on how to find the right objects and images, and how to make them fit into the overarching theme of the show. You concentrate on the meaning of the artefacts — their history, their social context, their cultural significance, how they play together with other artefacts into a meaningful whole. The concept and the idea are sovereign, the artefacts its subjects.

After closing down, however, the conceptual frame is dead. The curator’s ordering mind has since long continued to other storage room hunting grounds. Now the remaining artefacts are no longer subjected to the powerful mind of the inquisitive and sovereign curator, they are no longer props in the curator’s script. And suddenly we can see them for what they are, as artefacts pure and simple.

So if you really want to see, smell, touch and contemplate artefacts, you’d better not get too involved in the constructive building up of a new exhibition, but rather wait until the last visitor has left the rooms and the catalogue has been removed from the shelves of the museum shop. When the show is over, the curator in the original sense of the word (the one who cares about artefacts) enters the scene and takes a renewed and more intense look at the artefacts.

That intense dealing with the artefacts can be pretty ‘fun’ too. My online dictionary defines ‘fun’ as “a source of enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure”, and that’s what a less hectic and conceptual dealing with artefacts can be: enjoyable, amusing, pleasurable, playful.

Actually, even if we talk about exhibition making as ‘fun’, there isn’t really much time for pleasure and play in the process. Deadlines must be met, budgets kept, many different wills must be negotiated, and conflicts avoided. That’s hectic fun. But packing the whole thing down afterwards gives us a chance to engage with the things in a more free and relaxed way: that’s playful fun.

And after all, that’s what fun is about, isn’t it?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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