Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Completion Anxiety

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience at the Royal BC Museum.

Bring on the microscopic violins and tiny hankies. We are approaching the opening of a new exhibition (Behind the Scenes) and I’m finding it hard being an Exhibition Director. I mean, what can I do to help… other than utter words of encouragement? ‘Well, you could pick up a paint brush,’ I hear you say.

What I’m trying to say is that the final weeks before opening an exhibition are – for me – a mix of pleasure and pain. I have been known to wax lyrical about the glorious symphony that is the last movement before opening - when all the parts come together. But what I feel is tense.

I’ve been part of more than 80 exhibition projects and it never… ever… gets easier. There is always a moment as you tour someone through the exhibition under construction when you just know they are thinking ‘they’ll never get it open in time.’

It’s true that there is a real joy in seeing so many talented people – designer, model makers, fabricators, carpenters, technicians, painters, curators – working toward one objective. But progress is not linear. Progress is in waves and sometimes the tide recedes rather than moves forward. It seems to go something like this:

Stage 1: A Blank Canvas
The hall is empty except for a few forlorn display cases and some apparently discarded light fixtures. All is promise.
Feeling: anticipation – it’s going to be fun to see this come together. (Image below: The blank canvas.)

Stage 2: Construction Site
The exhibition hall is in chaos. Paper, carts, tools, pieces of display furniture. No form… just pieces.
Feeling: trepidation – OK, let’s be honest – fear.

Stage 3: Emergence
Out of the confusion emerges a glimpse of the original design vision. Some large graphics are installed. There is art amidst the chaos.
Feeling: confidence – a response to the waves of relief. Man, this is going to look great. Aren’t we brilliant?

Stage 4: Stasis
What’s going on… days have passed… or are they weeks? Everyone’s working – but nothing’s changing.
Feeling: worry.

Stage 5: Reverse Gear
Cases are dismantled to make changes, display lighting is turned off.
Feeling: return to fear. We’re never going to make it!

Stage 6: Hallelujah!
Display lighting is turned on; some cases are sealed; interpretive labels are even appearing.
Feeling: Salvation. We are going to make it… I knew we would. Aren’t we brilliant? (Image below: an exhibition emerges.)

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