Teaching from the Collections: Part 2

Failing is what I enjoy most about the creative process.  Let me clarify lest I sound like a masochist.  Floundering and feeling frustrated are not especially pleasant but leaping without expecting a net can lead to exhilarating and informative results.

Now, when I talk about the creative process I include research and exhibition development as well as more conventional creative pursuits such as art-making.  Screwing up is no fun but growth comes from mistakes and missteps.  If you’ve failed as often as I have and still haven’t given up, then you’ve probably figured out how to learn something from your failures.  You’ve probably learned that failing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

This is a conversation I’ve found myself having again and again this semester with students in my writing-intensive fashion history and culture course.  We just completed the twelfth of fifteen weeks.  Since week three, students have been working on original research projects that require them to use primary sources and scholarly texts, synthesizing the information into a paper and presentation that introduces their own critical perspectives.  Students have panicked as they’ve run into dead ends or found that something was not what they thought it was.  For example, one student spent half the semester learning about 1880s dress styles in order to be able to comment about a Charles Worth gown in our collections.  I had never inspected the gown so I was especially excited about the student’s research project and looked forward to the day we’d visit the collections together.  When we examined the gown in week nine, the student was horrified to discover the gown did not appear to be from the 1880s as the museum records had indicated.

“This is wrong!”  she exclaimed.

I, on the other hand, was thrilled by the discovery and praised her for helping identify the gown as being more accurately dated to the 1890s or early 1900s.  She’s still not convinced that all her research was for naught but we’re working on remedying that.

1890s-1900s Charles Worth gown from the Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library incorrectly dated to the 1880s in museum records

In my own curatorial work, a major leap I took with the Teaching from the Collections exhibition was in making the decision to develop an exhibition app.  Mind you, I do not know how to code nor have I ever made an app.  I figured, so many people are doing it, it can’t be that difficult, right?

Our graphics budget was modest and the exceptional student who was my graphic designer for the past two years had graduated.  I needed a graphics plan that wasn’t going to be costly so I came up with the idea of creating a free downloadable app that even remote users could enjoy.  Cut costs and increase our audience—great!

Over the summer I found a “free” platform that turned out not to be free after the initial trial period had ended.  After losing all my initial work, I went back to the drawing board in August and found another free app-building platform.  It seemed straightforward and so I moved ahead by creating content that included a curator-narrated tour of the exhibition that users could skip, fast forward through, or enjoy as suited their tastes.  Boy, did I underestimate how labor-intensive it was to create a decent app!

A week before the exhibition was scheduled to open I realized my app was not user-friendly and looked terrible.  I’m grateful never to have abandoned the plan to keep laminated gallery guides on hand for those uninterested in downloading an app to their phones.  Still, I felt pretty crummy about disappointing the students and colleagues with whom I’d already shared the idea.  I put out a call for help to School of Design faculty and students: was there anyone who could take the raw content I’d already created and put it into a visually appealing, user-friendly app?  Unfortunately, my timing was bad and no one was able to help out.

I still think a free museum exhibition app is a great way to reach a broader public even though it didn’t work out this year.  What have I taken from the experience?

  1. I am deeply humbled and have new regard for those who can create an app from scratch;
  2. Just because the app-building didn’t work out this time doesn’t mean the idea should be scrapped for future exhibitions.  Next time I’ll plan better and turn it into a class assignment to be completed well in advance of the exhibition opening date and;
  3. When leaping without expecting a net, it can’t hurt to wear plenty of padding.  In this case, moving ahead to create a physical gallery guide turned out to be a life saver.



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