I thought about working in a museum. But I’d rather create than regurgitate. – Random guy at a party. I’m pretty sure I went, “Hah!” and then walked away
Don’t stress over the labels. Just list the information. – former coworker
Ideally, museums are spaces full of examples of and opportunities for creativity. And, I believe, most of that creativity is expected and appreciated. Great works of art, avant garde installations, invitations to contribute through personal expression are all parts of the collective creative museum experience.
But as much creativity happens behind the scenes as does on the museum floor. When I first began in museums, the “those who can’t create, work in museums” attitude of many outsiders frustrated me. Why was I spending so long tweaking the wording of a label, or repeatedly pacing a program, if it didn’t matter to anyone else?
I was thinking about it backwards.
I don’t rewrite a label just to fulfill my own artistic sensibilities. I rewrite a label to make it strong, to give it flow, to make it clear, to give it purpose. I rewrite a label thirty times so a visitor only needs to read it one time. That creativity is invisible – part of the process, not the outcome.
I was reminded how many places this invisible creativity exists while reading last month’s excellent New York Times article on Jerry Seinfeld. Not being a comedian, I had never given much thought to the anatomy of a joke. Either you were funny or you weren’t. But Seinfeld is obsessive with his material – crafting, editing, and reworking jokes for years to get the rhythm, timing, and meaning right.
I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke…There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water’…What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’?…The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
And so it is with most successful things. A four-sentence label took four months; a two-minute joke took two years.
But there is value in making the invisible visible. Audiences love, and now often demand, the chance to see the internal gears and bones of the things that capture our imagination. Museums are already finding ways to do this. Visible collections, windows into prep labs, and behind the scenes tours all do this. But if we want to highlight our invisible creativity, if we want our audience to understand our behind-the-scenes passion, transparency is key. Not just showing what we have or do, but why we have it and do it. The audience of museum connoisseurs to appreciate the exposition may never be as large as the audience to appreciate one of Seinfeld’s jokes, but it’s worth the effort. It matters to us, and it might just matter to our audience, too.