Museums communicate information, research results, socio-political messages and more through their exhibitions. Exhibits can range from art-historical overviews, canonizing a certain time period in the history of art or the oeuvre of a particular artist, to specialized exhibitions exploring a theme, event or topic. They can be blockbuster exhibitions drawing long queues or a series of small exhibitions that allow the museum to delve deeply into a specific subject. They can also be exhibitions that explore a certain type of object or material (such as vellum, which contracts violently in dry environments) and have the potential to change the way we see things.
The exhibition is about more than just putting objects on display; it’s about creative visual storytelling. It’s about metaphor and the imagination, but it’s also about giving the viewer a window into the dense research that went into the composition of an exhibit.
A historical exhibit enables visitors to understand and relate to the past by providing context and perspective, as well as interpreting causes and effects, perspectives and significance. It may even encourage discussion of controversial subjects and highlight differing points of view.
Exhibits that explore human issues are a central part of a museum’s mission. They can explore themes that are core to the human experience such as home, freedom, faith, democracy, or social justice. They can also explore abstract ideas like love, beauty or identity, or specific concepts such as racial or religious discrimination or migration.
The modern “blockbuster” museum exhibition is usually credited to the touring exhibitions of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1902 and 1903. Since then, many museums have developed their own version of this formula with great success – think the Tenement Museum, Historic Richmond Town and the Metropolitan Museum Cloisters, to name a few.