An exhibition is a mixtape

The best mixtape is made with love and care.
The best mixtape requires deep knowledge and skill to make.
The messages contained in a mixtape are simultaneously opaque and clear.
A mixtape is an invitation.
A mixtape is not a compilation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exhibitions recently. They are expensive beasts and tend to still be produced with the same models of high risk cultural production as cinema.

As the museum educator has risen in prominence and institutional power over the last three decades, exhibitions have been challenged by the ‘event-driven museum’. So much that exhibitions, themselves, have become ‘events’ – in the most contentious and problematic form of ‘blockbusters’.

At the same time we’ve seen the spread of the verb ‘curate’, and the noun ‘curator’. Some people even want appropriate credit for their online ‘curatorial’ skills.

Researching and then assembling a narrative told by music selections to communicate messages of love, hate, ambivalence, or just to assert your superior (sub)cultural capital – that’s what making a mixtape was all about. Exhibitions, in their most primal form, are not that different.

The mixtape is dead.
The mixtape died with MP3.
The mixtape died with iTunes.
The mixtape died when it became an ‘unconstrained’ playlist.

So where is the new model for exhibitions in a world where mixtapes have been replaced by iTunes and now Spotify?

25 replies on “An exhibition is a mixtape”

Would you compare an analog mixed tape to a printed exhibition catalogue as an outdated distribution method? I am also concerned about a visitor’s relationship with an exhibition. Are museums providing experiences, information and/or products?

I constantly seek to further develop my expressive life through art experiences ( For me, the gifts of exhibitions are the ideas that inspire me to make new discoveries, creations and human connections.

Printed exhibition catalogues are the equivalent of liner notes – and like the best mixtapes the liner notes were studied by the recipient to inscribe new meanings on their tape, the same could and should happen with good exhibition catalogues.

As far as experiences/information/products – it is always a combination of all three.

I’d say the most memorable mixtapes I’ve been given or made for others were heavily inscribed with the meanings and opened doors to new sonic worlds, not to mention, people.

Hi Seb,

Ok, so mixtapes are dead, but are you giving up on exhibitions?  (And I don’t mean “blockbuster” exhibitions— most of which are like an execrable double-disk “concept” album put together by an arena rock band…)

What about the role of clever “DJs” to pull together a gangbuster museum experience? 

I can’t help but believe there is an undeniable power when you combine authentic objects with memorable stories in a communal space like a museum.  Maybe we just need to stop falling back on the stale old back catalog of exhibit ideas and approaches — where are the museopunks?

The urge and need to craft stories from objects, like the stories told by the arrangement of songs/tracks on a mixtape hasn’t’ gone away. (I’m specifically thinking of mixtapes from lovers and friends, not the DJ mixtape which is slightly different – DJ mixtapes are perhaps the equivalent of starchitect exhibitions!).

I guess the storyteller is now so unsure of who they are telling the story for – or perhaps they are trying to tell the story for too many different types of people – that their power is weakened in a negative way.

Now the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.

I think the basic formula remains the same: Interesting/meaningful collection items + historical narrative = an enjoyable experience.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

It’s not so much that we need to allow the public to “curate” our exhibitions. But we need to give them the freedom to explore those exhibitions in new ways, to wander and discover little dark corners of insight that maybe the last or the next visitor didn’t get. Then when that same visitor visits us again, they can take a different “path” through the same collection/exhibition and find a new little corner that they missed the last time. If we could make the experience collaborative (since we often have many visitors at once in the same space) then your experience of an exhibit could be shaped by those around you as much as by yourself. A different crowd gets different results.

I think perhaps multiplayer exploration-heavy video games can teach us a lot about how to shape these experiences. The kinds of games that invite players to explore virtual worlds and piece together fictional histories can become a prototype for a form of explorative play in our galleries. They could also offer us some models for collaborative forms of that experience.

Yeah that’s what I was getting at in my post about Sleep No More.

This and multiplayer games are heavily story-driven – yet their narrative arcs play out in a variety of ways. There is, however, no misunderstanding as to who the author is – or their intent. That’s also what was fantastic about mixtapes – their authorship and intent was apparent, yet they could still be interpreted in a variety of ways. (So which museum is going to hire Rockstar Games to create the sandbox for their next exhibition . . . )

You are most likely correct about crowd-curation – but it might be a few more years until we realise it.

I just wanted to add a thought on corners, and on finding new corners – of insight perhaps but sometimes literal new corners. I think that one of the most delightful things about visiting a museum several times, or even just once, is the opportunity to step around a corner and find something you’ve never seen before. Serendipitous discovery creates delight.

Too often, though, exhibitions these days require a visitor to take a single path rather than just wander. And, of course, blockbusters are absolutely the worst for constraining visitors to a single shuffling line.

What I’d love to see, and the video game analogy is relevant here again, is that we move back to designing exhibitions that allow visitors to take their own path and make their own sense of what’s on display. We’ve gone too far along the story telling path so that now we seem afraid to let the visitor wander for fear that they may lose *our* narrative thread, so carefully crafted.

Hi Ely!

I can’t remember the last time I felt a museum exhibition had done the storytelling path too strongly – other than perhaps the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum or the Jewish Museum Berlin (and those were both history museums and memorials with a very specific cultural purpose).

I’ve seen attempts at creating a strong storytelling path in blockbusters but inevitably the actually storytelling craft has been weak and ineffective – the ‘path’ reduced to a series of logistical and operational solutions to manage crowds. Harry Potter is a good example of this – let’s organise the exhibition in the order of the films but entirely without the immersive or exploratory magic that could have been conjured through a less object-oriented approach (compare the exhibition to Harry Potter World in Orlando).

Then again, there’s the broad distinctions between art, natural history, social history and science museums. 

Serendipitous discovery is one of those things that I’ve seen designed cleverly into exhibition layouts – like wormholes. But too often they are only designed into a singular exhibition rather than encouraging visitors to bleed out into the rest of the museum – a problem more of museums considering exhibitions as standalone constructions rather than new organisms injected into an existing living body of the museum as a whole.

Jeg ved ikke, om jeg er helt enig i disse betragtninger. Tanken er interessant, men måske ikke helt sandfærdig i sit udgangspunkt. Mix-tape metaforen indikerer, at museet og/eller kurator er i et forhold til sit publikum, der handler om mere end blot udstillingens objekt/tema, og det er måske dér sammenstillingen halter. Jeg kan ikke se, at det forhold har ændret sig over de seneste dekader; det er stadig en forskningsbaseret platform udstillingen står på, og museets gæster er stadig ‘gæster’. Et mix-tape er en inter-relation mellem to, der har mødt hinanden (i overført forstand). Jeg synes ikke at mix-tape æraen er ovre; den har snarere udviklet sig til, at være en mere total sampling af alle mulige forhold. Facebook er en form for mix-tape, og de fleste sociale medier fungerer som mix-tapes. Udstillingen er stadig udstilling af de resultater kunsthistorisk forskning tilvejebringer, og er som sådan meget mere åben i sin natur. Now you can copy-paste the paragraph i’ve written, and do some google translate; it’s written in danish.

When you are constantly submersed in something, you think things are passe before they actually are. They seem played-out to you because it’s what you are always seeing. Most people aren’t in museums everyday.

I think saying exhibitions are dead is pretty much throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People still love them. I see it when we prototype, and when we watch people in the gallery.

It is so exciting to use new technology and I am all for bold, new concepts, but sometimes I think we have to stop and remember that things have changed, and changed radically, but as Matt said earlier ” Interesting/meaningful collection items + historical narrative = an enjoyable experience.”

(I am also 25, super early adopter/ technology nerd, so it’s not like I hate progress, but I believe some museum folks are totally over museums and there is still a place for some old school stuff that people outside of the museum world are still excited by.)

Nice post Seb. I think the underlying issue is not whether to do an exhibition or not. It is to, using the Sports Illustrated model, taking some content, along with an audience, and determining the best platforms to “publish” (for want of a better term) that content in ways that are meaningful and engaging to that audience. I think exhibitions have their place within audience engagement strategies, but I do believe that museums need to think carefully about their long-term sustainability and expense and the opportunities to re-purpose content for the other uses. And, it is interesting to note that audience research consistently shows that people visit the physical museum for a social learning experience, not necessarily to see a particular exhibition.

I love this post, I love the idea … but I totally disagree. Thank you Micah, the “mix tape” IS coming back, like (dare it say it out loud?) vinyl records. And thank you, thank you, thank you Lynda – like live theatre (or any place where people persist in gathering together) they come and participate because of the physical/social interaction. Perhaps, in the pursuit of the larger and larger audience we are trying too hard to get too many visitors in the door or to our website and have fallen victim to confusing quantity for quality?
I recently had a delightful experience with a group of 8 – 12 year olds who were running (literally) through our museum – parents in cold pursuit. When I asked them what THEY (the kids not the parents) wanted to see at their museum the answers were two-fold:
A) Nothing electronic or internet or multimedia. They have that all day, every day and carry more up-to-date technology in their pocket then we could ever get into our museum – yes a 12yo said that.
B) They went on to say that what they want is to interact directly with something and museum staff – build something (you know, like a giant Lego castle) and touch something (you know, like, it would be cool if you could open that glass case and we could touch that thing). Actual words, from actual patrons visiting a real life regional cultural heritage museum. Well, you know, knock me down with a feather.
I think where we, as museum curators, have gone wrong over the centuries is making our institutions (I hate that word) bastions of academia and “please don’t touch the glass” reverence. We removed ourselves from any form of authentic learning and human interaction. So, the reaction was to go all “Disney” on our collections and now we cram the hordes into digital-media-rich-multi-dimensional-high-octane-BazLurhammesque- extravaganzas – not a stuffed bird or dusty case for miles. When what people really crave (and where I think our place really is)  is the ability to interact with each other, share their story and physically interact – even if only to be part of that communal experience. So, no, I don’t think exhibitions are a thing of the past. Poor visitor service and non-inclusive museum experiences are a thing of the past. Well, at least that’s what I think. I am sure this will all come back to haunt me at some point. Thanks for letting me vent and the opportunity to interact

Hi Padraic

Vinyl (and cassettes) have returned for a small niche of the music market – but for most this is indeed, as the Mungo’s HiFi tune goes, the ‘computer age‘. (Even the criticality of the 7″ vinyl single to modern Jamaican music disappeared a while back – whilst the dances are still as full as ever).

But I know that’s not your main point.

You are totally right – we have confused quantity with quality. 

The joy of a mixtape was that it wasn’t for everyone. Explicitly not for everyone in fact. At the same time, as I said, it was an invitation (to a conversation).

I’m not surprised your younger visitors reacted as they did. That’s what I’ve been hearing from visitors for a while – both young and old. 

And I think exhibition designers would do well to heed their words. 

(I’ll point back to my last post on Sleep No More – here we had an amazing immersive no-tech experience, highly social in a special way, highly crafted and authored, and enormously successful, but also with no advertising whatsoever.)

Less extravaganza. More craft

Like a mixtape.

Taking the long view globally it has definitely been the case. Even in the US. Even at the Getty. This shift from curatorial to education has been happening since the 1970s, gathering pace with the New Museology in the 1980s and 1990s.  Whatever individual institutions might do now, the horse has well and truly bolted.

I like the idea of comparing the museum exhibition to music metaphor – it always aids the digestion – but I’m not convinced the mix-tape (even with a fast forward and reverse button) is the only musical style appropriate for museums. The mix tape’s … ‘I’m going to take you on my journey’ kind of exhibition is one but there should be plenty of others.  

Already there have been a few suggested (the prog-rock triple concept album is particularly poignant ) and after wracking  my brains I thought another could be the old ‘brackets and jam’ sessions held here in Sydney in the late 80s early 90s. This saw people come along on the night with instruments and plug into the sound system set up on the floor and improvise – chaotic yes – fun yes – for everyone -no.

Thanks for a great post. I still believe the verb ‘curate’ has been apropriated by the world. Everyone can curate, everyone can create stunning mixed tapes.

That means museum curators have to move beyond that, to as you say do more than just mixed tapes. Very important challenge I believe!

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