Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 4: Collaboration in Design

Panel Overview:

Sandra Kriebel (Technische Universität Berlin, Germany) ‘Gesamtwirkung’: Wilhelm von Bode’s design for the exhibition of Old Master paintings (1883) as a model for future museum practice

Sara Woodbury (College of William and Mary, US) Exhibition work: Labor networks in the Federal Community Art Center Project

Kate Rhodes (RMIT Design Hub Gallery/Monash University, Australia) Exhibition architecture as curatorial argument

Marina Khémis (Studio Adrien Gardère/ National School of Architecture of Versailles, France) Exhibition design and architecture, inside co-creative processes: The Autun Museum in Burgundy and the Swedish Pavilion at EXPO 2020 Dubai

David Francis (University College London, UK), Luo Pan (Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, China) and Lisheng Zhang (University College London, UK, and PKU Beijing, China) Craft and creativity: (re)making exhibition design in China’s museum boom

Individual Papers:

Sandra Kriebel (Technische Universität Berlin, Germany) Gesamtwirkung’: Wilhelm von Bode’s design for the exhibition of Old Master paintings (1883) as a model for future museum practice

In January 1883, later museum director Wilhelm Bode and an assisting committee of 15 art historians, collectors and state officials arranged an exhibition of Old Master paintings in celebration of the 25th wedding anniversary of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and Victoria, Princess Royal. The loan exhibition was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in order to present a new concept for the projected rearrangement of the Berlin museums, which were suffering from a decrease in public interest. In this context, Princess Victoria published a memorandum to promote her conception of an ideal museum display. She demanded that works of art should no longer be arranged in the current academic manner, which merely focussed on their historical value as examples of certain eras, schools and techniques. They should rather be recognised for their unique aesthetic features. In order to transform the museum exhibition into a veritable school of taste and to provide a lasting experience for visitors, the Crown Princess or rather Bode, who is believed to be the memorandums’ true author, wished for an overall aesthetical exhibition design, a “magnificent harmonious ensemble”. Instead of a strict separation of the art genres, they proposed a combination of various exhibits similar in style, presented within a setting inspired by the interior design of private galleries and collectors’ homes.

The exceptional design of this art show, which combined over 300 works of art from the Renaissance to the Rococo period owned by more than 50 private collectors as well as the German Emperor, has never yet been thoroughly described and analysed. Nor was its complex organisational structure examined, in which several agents from political, cultural, private and courtly areas took part. By presenting recently found photographic material and analysing contemporary reports and records, I will discuss the collaborative exhibition practice as well as the overall impression (‘Gesamtwirkung’) and spatial dramaturgy of this ‘ephemeral museum’ – one of the most influential art shows in the early history of German museum exhibition design.

Sandra Kriebel is a doctoral candidate at Technische Universität Berlin researching in the areas of exhibition history, private collecting, cultural policy and art sociology in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She successfully graduated from Leipzig University with a Masters’ Degree in Art History and Classical Archaeology. For her interdisciplinary Masters’ thesis she wrote on “Modes of adapting antique sculptures in the oeuvre of neo-classical sculptor Emil Wolff (1802–1879)” by applying methods of both her fields of study. Since 2012 she lectured in both disciplines as well as in Musicology at Leipzig University, where she specialized in interdisciplinary teaching concepts involving university museums and collections.

She furthermore coordinated the teaching project “Leipziger Sammlungsinitiative” at Leipzig University funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In October 2016 she started her Scholarship for Doctoral Students at Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst to work on her doctoral thesis on “Temporary Museums and Social Showrooms. Old Master Loan- Exhibitions in Berlin 1872-1914” (working title). For her archive research in London and Paris she received the Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grant from the Max Weber Foundation (2017).  

Sara Woodbury (William and Mary College, USA) Exhibition work: labor networks in the Federal Community Art Center Project

This presentation was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

The Federal Community Art Center Project represented one of the most ambitious arts-related initiatives of the New Deal, a series of reforms intended to alleviate the economic hardships of the Great Depression in the United States. Organized by the Federal Art Project (FAP), these centers introduced viewers to historical and contemporary art by sharing exhibitions, staff, and other resources on a national scale. Between 1935 and the end of the WPA during World War II, approximately one hundred art centers opened in more than twenty states. While many of these centers closed permanently during the war, their influence persists within the American cultural landscape, both through the handful of remaining art centers still in operation, and through the museums and related cultural institutions that took inspiration from the Community Art Center Project.

Regarding the program’s exhibitions, what remains striking about this federal endeavor is the labor underpinning each installation. Although Mildred Holzhauer, FAP administrator and director of exhibitions for the Community Art Center Project, conceptualized the program, each show relied on an extensive network of workers, from the carpenters who made picture frames, to the gallery directors and attendants who configured each installation. Additionally, several of these exhibitions invited community participation, with individuals encouraged to submit artwork, antiques, floral arrangements, and other objects. Extant archives provide substantial documentation affirming not only the labor underpinning these exhibitions, but conflicting objectives among staff and volunteers in terms of labor recognition, exhibition objectives, and changing professional roles. This paper will explore the archives of the Community Art Center Project through the lens of labor. Examining these records in detail provides insight into not only the work that sustained the Community Art Center Project, but more broadly the collaborative nature of exhibitions and the challenges of successfully planning and implementing traveling shows.

Sara Woodbury is a curator and art historian pursuing her Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. She has held curatorial positions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Shelburne Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. She has organized or co-organized more than thirty exhibitions on American art and material culture, including the major retrospective, Magical and Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd, co-curated with the Michener Art Museum. Her scholarly work focuses on the Community Art Center project, a Federal Art Project initiative, and the significance of travel infrastructures to its operations.

Kate Rhodes (RMIT Design Hub Gallery/Monash University, Australia) Exhibition architecture as curatorial argument

In exhibitions of architecture and design, exhibition design is perhaps inevitably foregrounded. Indeed, in large-scale exhibitions and large institutions such exhibition design may be more appropriately called exhibition architecture. Unlike modern and contemporary art, which is generally made for display in a gallery, the work of architects and designers is invariably exhibited out of its intended context. Arguably, this makes the role of exhibition design more consequential, as way to buffer and scaffold and to help audiences imagine the object or system at work in the world. Exhibition architecture is even more important in exhibitions that attempt to display architecture and design processes or research. This paper will explore the hypothesis that what I will call exhibition architecture is an overlooked form of design (and architecture) that warrants close investigation for its role in producing curatorial arguments and mediating audience encounters. Moreover, exhibition architects can be understood as an additional author within the exhibitions they help to realise. My paper will focus on the work of Melbourne-based architecture studio SIBLING who I have commissioned to work on a number of projects at RMIT Design Hub Gallery where I am curator. Embedded within a network of actors producing our exhibitions, SIBLING has created scenographies for a range of architecture and design research projects that have relied significantly on the creation of exhibition environments, or what Terry Smith has called “arenas of experience”. By exploring the processes and componentry, conceptual frameworks, outcomes, and implications of exhibition architecture in selected examples of SIBLING’s work I seek to articulate and theorise its role to better understand the complex relationships between exhibition makers and exhibitors of design and architecture.

Kate Rhodes is curator at RMIT Design Hub Gallery which exists to ask questions about design’s role in the world today. Kate is also currently undertaking a PhD with the MADA Critical Practices Research Laboratory, Monash University. Kate has worked on art, craft, design and architecture exhibitions, workshops and creative activities both in Australia and internationally since 2000. She is the co-creator of several craft and design audio projects including the Audio Design Museum, the Sound of Buildings and Melbourne Unbuilt. Kate was creative director of the State of Design Festival, and curator of its Design for Everyone program. She has held the position of curator at the Australian Centre for Design, Sydney; Craft Victoria and the National Design Centre in Melbourne and was assistant curator of photography and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria for five years. As editor of architecture and design magazine Artichoke, Kate founded Artichoke Night School—a forum for taking design ideas in print into a live discussion. She completed a Masters of Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne in 2002, and a Masters of Design Research in RMIT’s Faculty of Architecture and Urban Design in 2010, where she has also taught.

Kate has been recognised as part of the Design Honours Program at the Australian Centre for Design. In 2019 she co-edited the book An Unreliable Guide to Jewellery by Lisa Walker with Nella Themelios.  


Today’s design process of museums and exhibitions involves a great diversity of actors and specialists forming a unique network of collaborators focusing on the visitors’ experience. The paper will focus especially on the co-creative processes and relationships between architecture and exhibition design professionals involved in designing museums and exhibitions. The presentation will explore the upstream work and behind-the-scene of such collaborations, often overlooked. I will also investigate how co-creative culture could become a new model for museum projects in the future. I intend to go beyond the usual design process antagonisms, such as the opposition between architectural envelope and exhibition space, container and content, functions and narrative, in short between architecture and exhibition design.

Rather than considering them as two distinct steps, the presentation will explore co-creative methods that bring together simultaneously both architectural and museographic expertise. More broadly, I will demonstrate how exhibition design goes beyond the sole staging of artifacts and contents within pre-established architectural projects. I will stress how exhibition design should be regarded as the art of weaving narrative within space, the art of choreographing visitors’ wanders.

Based on this assumption, exhibition design and architecture can be seen as complementary and consubstantial in the construction of complex narrative able to transcend the various scales, aspects and time of a project. Such co-creative processes can start as soon as a team — considered as a whole — tackles a program, making both function and narrative meet.

The paper will explore these issues through the practice and observation of two real case studies of collaborative design currently carried at Studio Adrien Gardère, exhibition and museum design agency based in Paris: the future renovation and extension of the Autun Museum in Burgundy and the Dubai Expo 2020 Swedish Pavilion. Though very different in programs and contexts, both projects demonstrate the possibility and benefit of conceiving architecture and exhibition, programming and curating, mediation and multimedia together.

Marina Khémis is an exhibition designer and a doctoral candidate, currently developing her research in partnership with Studio Adrien Gardère, a Museography, Scenography and Design company based in Paris. The Studio carries out major international museum and exhibition projects such as the Royal Academy of Arts in London (arch. David Chipperfield Architects), The Musée du Louvre-Lens in France (arch. SANAA), the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (arch. Maki and Associates), The Narbonne Roman Antiquities museum (arch. Foster+Partners) or the Future Adelaide Contemporary Museum in Australia (arch. Diller-Scofidio+Renfro).  

This PhD is financed by a CIFRE convention, which aims to support doctoral research intricately connecting theory with practice. The research project explores the collaborative methods and co-creative processes that bring together architecture and exhibition design, but also programming and curating, from the very first steps of the creation of museums and exhibition places. This doctoral thesis in Architecture and Design is directed by Annalisa Viati Navone, from the Research Laboratory of the National School of Architecture of Versailles (LéaV), codirected by Nathalie Simonnot (LéaV) and Anne Lefebvre, from the Design Research Center of ENS Paris-Saclay / ENSCI-Les Ateliers (CRD).  

Marina Khémis has been collaborating with Studio Adrien Gardère since 2016. After graduating in Space Design from  Ecole Boulle in Paris, she completed  her Master’s degree  at  HEAD Geneva (Master in Spaces and Communication), and then obtained a Graduate & Postgraduate Teaching degree, the “Agrégation” in Applied Arts, from Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS Cachan).  


David Francis (University College London, UK), Luo Pan (Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, China) and Lisheng Zhang (University College London, UK, and PKU Beijing, UK) Craft and creativity: (re)making exhibition design in China’s museum boom

Using the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology as a case study, our paper explores how the design language of the Creative Economy (known in China as Wenchuang) has proven to be an important source of inspiration for Chinese exhibitions in the first decade after China’s museum boom. Beginning in 2008, China has undertaken an expansive and unprecedented museum building programme with the aim of constructing over two hundred new museums every year (Sohu 2019). In the early stages of the ‘Boom’, the focus was on museum architecture, and the actual time spent on the design of exhibitions was limited to an average of three months (Lin 2017). At the same time, as this ambitious building programme was taking place, China was also shifting its economic strategy from focussing on manufacturing to investing heavily in developing its creative industries.

The Chinese National Museum of Ethnology is one of several museums in China that have begun to collaborate with designers working within the disciplines of fashion and product design to creatively reimagine how they remake exhibitions. Not only does this mean a new process of making exhibitions is adopted using collaborative working methods taken from the creative sectors, it also involves a remaking of the traditional design discourse by which ethnic minorities in China are represented in the museum.

Previously displays in ethnographic museums in China were characterised by mannequins and dioramas, which presented ethnic minorities as unchanging and frozen in time (Varutti 2014). Adopting the design aesthetic of the creative economy not only allows contemporary aspects of ethnic minority life to be explored, it also allows the Chinese National Museum of Ethnography to reposition itself as an institution. We will explore how this dialogue between contemporary designers and the inheritors of craft-making traditions combines to create a new future-facing form of exhibition design in China today.

David Francis is a researcher and practitioner who specialises in exploring the relationship between museums and narrative. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Archaeology at UCL where his thesis focuses on how models of narrative from literature, film and architecture can be applied to structuring exhibitions. He is currently a research associate at UCL on the AHRC-Newton-funded project Craft China: (Re)making ethnic heritage in China’s creative economy,where he is part of a research team exploring ways of creating new narratives around ‘otherness’ and ‘weness’ in ethnological museums in China. David has worked as an interpretation practitioner for fifteen years. At the British Museum he worked as the interpretation lead on several major exhibitions including Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam and A History of the World in 100 objects. Recent interpretation projects he has worked on include India and the World: A history in nine stories in Mumbai and Delhi, the Stamford Raffles and Southeast Asia exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Museum in Singapore and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Dr Luo Pan received her doctoral degree in 2011 from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, anthropology major. From 2014 till now, she works as an associate research fellow in Department of Research, The Chinese National Museum of Ethnology. Her research interests include Cultural Heritage and Space, Museum Studies, and Political anthropology. Recent major projects have included “China Craft: The protection, inheritance and innovation of Ethic handicrafts” (National Ethnic Affairs Commission of the P. R. China) She now works at the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology in Beijing.

Dr Lisheng Zhang is a postdoctoral researcher for the UK-China collaborative project ‘Craft China: (Re)making ethnic heritage in China’s creative economy’. His PhD, undertaken at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, investigates the Chinese private heritage entrepreneurship through an ethnographic case study of the Jianchuan Museum Complex, China’s most high-profile nonstate museum. His current research interests include the appreciation and heritagization of the shakuhachi, a Chinese-Japanese Zen Buddhist music instrument, in contemporary China.



Thread: Methods in understanding collaboration

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Panelists,

Thank you very much indeed for all your fabulous papers – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. I was especially struck by the point made – by David, Luo and Lisheng – about the need to take into account the longer temporal framework of an exhibition, analysing the before and after to understand its impact and the exhibition making process itself. I saw that in Sandra’s paper too – the collectors and donors seemed to make their greatest contribution to the collaborative process after the event when they helped secure its legacy.

I have a question about methods of research. I am really inspired by the range of methods you have all used: Marina’s participant observation and wonderful sketches (and Kate, would you call your work participant observation too?), David, Luo and Lisheng’s interviews, all your photographs (congratulations on your find, Sandra!), annotations on exhibition maps, Sandra reconstucting a hang in powerpoint, and Sara’s graph reflecting on the limits of the written exhibition archive. Can you give us a little more insight into your chosen methods, and the challenges that they raised in understanding exhibition making and collaborative processes?

Thank you!

Sara Woodbury   

Thank you so much for your question about methods Claire! I developed that graph while working on a project about the Roswell Museum archive for a digital humanities seminar. Through texts like Roopika Risam’s New Digital Worlds and Bodies of Information, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, I had gotten interested in questions of representation in archives, and how they can potentially reinscribe colonial frameworks and other infrastructures. Going into the seminar, I knew that the Roswell Museum archive had a decidedly federal perspective, but I started wondering whether certain staff members featured more prominently in the written documents than others and created that chart as an exercise in representation.

For that particular chart, I focused on letters written by staff members for two reasons. The first was that these were the most direct forms of expression from staff in terms of voice and perspective. The other was that I had managed to read and take notes on each letter before I left Roswell, so I knew I had a complete body of documentation I could draw on. There are other kinds of forms too, employee timesheets and that sort of thing, but my data on the letters was more complete. 

To create the actual graph I just went through my notes and counted each letter and who wrote it. I then fed that data into Excel and had it generate a graph. Nothing too fancy.

Here’s the project where I first created that graph for context. It’s part of a larger Scalar book about the Roswell Museum’s WPA history and the Federal Community Art Center Project.

Sandra Kriebel  

Thank you for your comment, Claire.

Regarding my method, one has to take in account that before you can analyse a historic exhibition, you would have to reconstruct the display as thouroughly as possible. Since I have to rely on a very heterogenous set of sources like press reports, archival records, catalogues, reviews, and photographs, which are not always accurate, often inconsisent, and by no means exhaustive, I understand the reconstruction of those exhibitions as well as the analytical part of my work as interpretations.

For example, I do know, which exhibits were placed in which rooms, but I can only assume or vaguely tell their exact positions and therefore gain a very limited understanding of their exact curatorial context. But since my research focusses on a rather large number of 19th and early 20th century loan exhibitions (mostly curated by Bode), I am able to take other examples into account, like I did with those booths in the north hall. I learned about Bode’s ideas and preferences regarding the display of Old Master paintings and the combination of genres, what enables me to apply that knowledge onto those cases, where parts of information are missing. Again, this is an interpretation.

In the same way I use information I have about the creation of earlier or later exhibitions, which were organised by the same players, to fill the gaps in my knowledge about how these art shows came to life. This gives me an idea, how they might have been arranged, financed, and communicated.

The visual reconstructions are one of my main concerns right now. I would love to create more graphic, three-dimensional images of the rooms and add pictures of the exhibits. I know, there are many great possibilites and programmes to accomplish that, but at the moment I just lack the practical skills to put those into execution. So for now my rather simple PowerPoint charts must suffice. But I believe they can at least help visualise the display and sometimes it might even be helpful to put the focus on only one aspect, like the combination of the paintings, rather than the whole arrangement.

Marina Khemis   

Dear Claire, thank you very much for your comments and question. And thank you again for organizing this conference, it is a pleasure to discover all the online papers and the rich discussions they raise. I also found extremely interesting all the papers of this Panel. I hope we will have the chance to meet in person.

The question of the method, and how to investigate collaborative work in the making of museums and exhibitions today has been a key aspect of my research. The fact of studying the museum, not as a completed architectural object, but in terms of design process, raises the issue of how the research can generate its own materials and tools of analysis. And it has also been essential, in this field of project theory, to take into account the uniqueness of every project and group of actors, while drawing more general conclusions, and producing a knowledge that can be shared to nourish the discipline and its future practice.

In this regard it seemed essential to use a research method closely connected to the design work, with a participant / active observation within various design teams and within an exhibition design Studio, in order to directly witness and be involved in collaborative processes that couldn’t be grasped or analyzed in the same way by studying afterwards the archives of the project. Thus, one of the questions is also how to produce a form of archive, not only of the project itself but of these interactions and collaborations.

In the investigation method used more broadly for this research, it has also appeared important to combine complementary materials and forms of analysis, as each of them can bring different types of inputs and points of views to the research. The participant observation at the Studio is combined with exterior case studies based on interviews with project actors – both on the design team and client sides – who have collaborated on specific museum projects, as well as the study of archives and documentary sources.

As you were mentioning, drawing has been a key research tool. I am using it for the analysis of the collaborative processes and collective decisions that make the project evolve – these are the type of drawings and schematic plans that accompany the two case studies –, but I have also used drawing as a way to raise new research questions and communicate ideas in an intuitive and direct manner – these are for examples the drawings I used to introduce to presentation. Drawing, in these situations, isn’t an illustration but a research tool that communicates on a complementary level to the text.

Jona Piehl   

@marina_khemis thank you for your presentation, Marina, I can much relate to your points about the role of visualisations as part of the analysis, the argument, rather than illustrations — your drawings are great evidence to this point!

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

@sk Thanks for this Sandra. I have to say, I loved your light maps! They were wonderful. Have you seen this historic reconstruction – don’t you wish Bode had done this for his exhibitions!? 😉

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

@marina_khemis Wonderful – Kate Guy @kguy is about to start some participation observation at the British Museum and would very much welcome a conversation about this, I’m sure. Thanks again for the great paper.

Sandra Kriebel   

@claire-w Thank you Claire! I hadn’t seen the Shipping Galleries 3D scans – they are very impressive! I aim for something much simpler, though, like the “What Jane Saw” reconstructions of the Pall Mall exhibition rooms. I did some case studies on historic loan exibitions, which would allow an almost complete reconstruction of all the show rooms. Alas, I’d need much time for that.

Marina Khemis   

Thank you very much. I would be extremely happy to exchange with Kate Guy about our research projects and I would also be very interested to hear about her work with the British Museum. I think we already have each other’s contact from our previous email exchanges, so we could get in touch in the coming days.

Marina Khemis   

Dear Jona,
Thank you very much for your comment. It was in fact very important for me to use the graphic aspect as a key element of the analysis and argument and as designer tool to address research questions. This is also a way to connect very closely design and theory. It is also essential for me to get some feedbacks about how my drawings communicate and are understood, so thank you again.
I also found your presentation extremely interesting, and it made me think about a reference, so I will Switch to the panel 1 Q&A.

Kate Guy   

Thank you so much for your brilliant presentation! I use to be a secondary school history teacher and the New Deal was one of my favourite topics to teach, much to my shame, I had no idea about the Federal Community Art Center Project initiative so found your presentation absolutely fascinating! Your graph has really made me consider representation in the archives I will be using, I will certainly check out the two texts that inspired your approach. As you highlighted in your presentation, I was struck by how much can be learnt and taken from the Federal Community Art Center Project especially in light of current events. 


Kate Guy   


I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation! I admired how you articulated the design process eloquently through a critical lens. As Claire has stated, I intend to undertake participant observation, which will be supplemented by archival material and oral histories, as part of my PhD project. My research focuses on exhibition designers and their practice at the British Museum. Therefore, I will conduct participant observation within the British Museum’s Exhibition Department. I wondered if you had any tips? What unforeseen issues or challenges did you face?

Any advice would be most welcome. 


Sara Woodbury   

@kguy Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! No worries, I had never heard of the CACP before I started working at Roswell, and even then, I didn’t start understanding the program and getting interested in the archive until I’d been there about three years. There was so much going on with the New Deal in terms of art that I’m still wrapping my head around.

As for the archive and representation, I didn’t start thinking about it critically until I took a Digital Humanities seminar at William & Mary and did a project on the archive. I knew going into it that the Roswell Museum’s documents had a federal perspective, but I’d never fully realized how much certain voices dictated the institutional narrative until I took that class. I’m a visual person when it comes to data, so making that chart really helped me understand the issue of representation in the archive. It was tedious because I basically had to count all the letters, but it was worth it in terms of getting a better handle on the materials. 

I still need to watch your video; I’m looking forward to seeing it and learning more about your work!

Thanks again for your comments.


Marina Khemis   

Dear Kate, Thank you so much for your comment! I was also extremely interested by your paper on Margaret Hall, the new perspective that you bring with a focus on exhibition makers, and the way you connected the case of the British Museum with a more global recognition of the role of the designer in the museum, in coordination with a complete museum team.

I would also be very interested in hearing more about your participant observation at the British Museum, the professionals you will work with, to method you have planned to use to combine the participant observation with the analysis work and the other sources of archives and oral histories you will be using.

On my side, the participant observation has been an extremely rich field of research which allows me at the same time to be part of the design process on ongoing museum projects, but also to study past projects of the Studio. In order to keep a balance between research and practical work it has been very important, and challenging, to keep a good schedule organisation. As the challenge is to be able at the same time not to miss the steps and overall progression of the projects, while keeping time for all the research work. The creation of Museums and Exhibition often requires a very intense and continuous work especially considering the great number of actors interacting and coordinating at every step. In terms of organisation, it is also important to take the time to keep, from the beginning, a report of all the inputs brought by the participant observation, in order to be able to get back to them later with a more critical perspective, which is hard to have during the intense moment of the design process. All these inputs can then be progressively used to start drawing hypothesis and conclusions that can feed all the other aspects of the research.

I hope this can be helpful for your research. I also wondered how long you will be doing your participant observation at the British Museum ? I would be very happy to exchange more with you by phone or visio after the conference if you are available.

Thank you


Kate Guy   

Thank you for your kind words; it means a great deal. Also thank you for these thoughtful insights. I will be undertaking a participant observation within the British Museum’s Exhibition Department. I will observe the development of a temporary free exhibition, from conception, design, install, and delivery. At present, due to the pandemic, I don’t have specific timings yet. But I would very much like to discuss this further with you. I will email you after the conference as I am keen to know more about your experience as I have found few examples of practitioners conducting participant observation to observe museum exhibition design. 

Marina Khemis   

@kguy Perfect ! looking forward to discussing more


David Francis   

Dear Claire,

Thank you so much for your question about methods, which is a really interesting one for me in terms of the Craft China: (Re)making ethnic heritage in China’s creative economy because of the different disciplinary genres the project spans. Working with the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology means that the project is rooted in ethnography and so when we began participant observation was our main method. Along with this, I also brought my previous research into museum design and exhibition narratives, some of which has been undertaken in collaboration with fellow conference delegate Jona Piehl, has typically utilised a critical reading of the museum space in the narratological tradition of Mieke Bal.

What’s interesting for me about the example in our case study is that it’s the designers themselves, Jenny from Atlas, who have done something closer to the long term ethnographic fieldwork spending years in the Dong ethnic minority village to build up a relation. This kind of in-depth ethnographic research is something that Li and I were supposed to be doing as part of our research. However, Covid-19 has meant that for the second half of the project we’ve been based in the UK.  

As a result, we’ve had to shift our methodology to an online ethnography following the exhibition planning as it unfolds in online meetings. In some sense this has its benefits as you can easily sit in on meetings during the exhibition planning process on TenCent, the Chinese equivalent of Zoom, and be quite unobtrusive.  

Thankfully we were able to attend the exhibition Tradition@Present Jenny spoke of earlier and walk around with the curator Luo Pan constructing the same kind of first-person critical reading of the narrative space that we would usually undertake. However, coming from an interpretation background my critical reading is necessarily subjectively attuned to the textual (even if this is in Chinese) and object qualities of the exhibition. 

What is interesting I think is that our interviews with the designers grew out of our interviews with the craft makers themselves. I’m not an anthropologist, so the long form ethnographic interview has its own peculiarities as can be witnessed here in Alan Macfarlane’s series of interviews with his fellow anthropologists.

What was also important I feel was that prior to the online interview we’d visited the exhibition and the commercial shop Klee Klee in which many of the products created from the Dali project were stocked. Possessing a cushion created by the Dong women in collaboration with Jenny and the Atlas Designers gave a tangible quality to the interview as were separated by timeszones. In this way, it related to Helen Chatterjee’s work on how physical objects allow us to narrate and articulate the world around.

Thank you again for your question.

  • David


Thread: Exhibition work: labor networks in the Federal Community Art Center Project

Harriet Atkinson Topic starter

Sara – thank you – this was such a well-articulated and interesting paper! I really appreciated your focus on labour networks and all the unacknowledged work and collaborations that go on within exhibition-making, including, for example, the work of gallery attendants and your uncovering of the working backgrounds of staff. I was so struck, particularly given your focus on labour and how far travelling shows would evidently have had to travel across the US, by how short-lived these exhibitions were, only staying in situ for two weeks. Why was this the case, do you think? I was intrigued by your images of the Roswell site – particularly the Spanish revival furniture and the performance stage – and by how different this architecture was from models of classical gallery architecture. Do you know what the thinking was behind these particular architectural forms?

Thanks again and all best, Harriet


Sara Woodbury 

Hi Harriet, and thanks so much for watching my video!

Those are both great questions. Regarding the short turnaround time, I think the main impetus was to get as much art out there as quickly as possible, especially since a lot of the shows featured FAP artists. With the solo exhibitions especially, the exhibit texts and promotional materials emphasize the importance of artist exposure and introducing their work to different audiences. One of the aims of the Community Art Center Project was to get visitors to see themselves as potential art consumers as well as appreciators (Victoria Grieve discusses the intersection between education and consumerism in The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture), and eventually buy art of their own. Having a variety of works on view likely encouraged not only repeat visitation from locals and tourists, but encouraged viewers to imagine what these different works might look like in their homes, which styles they preferred, etc.

That’s how I understand it, though as a curator, that schedule sounds exhausting to me, even if the works are arriving framed, etc.

As for the Roswell Museum’s architecture, that’s an interesting story that I didn’t have time to talk about in the video, so I’m glad you asked. The Roswell Museum, from what I understand of its early history, wasn’t conceptualized as a federal community art center at all. The Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society had initially only asked the FAP for money to construct a building for their collection of historical artifacts. The plan was to establish a collections-based museum highlighting Roswell’s history and archaeology, so from the outset, the Roswell Museum is a little unusual as far as federal community art centers go because it was designed expressly as a museum, rather than a commercial or private building retrofitted as a gallery. Regarding the Spanish Colonial Revival style, Frank Standhardt was probably looking at similar examples in Santa Fe, and more broadly playing into ideas of historical revivalism that was popular in a lot of New Deal-era art and architecture. One of our regular museum attendees strongly suspected that Standhardt actually modeled the museum off of the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art, though I haven’t verified this.

Anyway, construction ended up being more expensive than anticipated, leaving the A&H Society with little to no funding to cover daily operations. At the recommendation of the local WPA representative in town then, the A&H Society applied to become part of the Community Art Center Project. The benefit was that the FAP took care of staffing and supplied exhibitions, but it also caused a lot of tension between federal staff and the A&H sponsors because they had fundamentally different ideas of what the museum should be for the community. In 1942, tensions finally came to a head and the museum officially departed the FAP. Personally I think this is a major reason why it survived though, because by the time the FAP closed permanently, the Roswell Museum had already gone its own way in terms of covering expenses and programming.

Thanks so much for your questions!


Tim Satterthwaite 

Sara, I’d be interested to hear about how the visiting exhibitions related to the art classes and other educational work at the CACP. Was there a self-conscious, unifying programme in all this – the promotion of a certain ideal of American vernacular art, as a counter to European modernism? I’m thinking of the FSA photography and Walker Evans’s American Photographs from the same period, and their fascination with handicrafts and small-town America.

Sara Woodbury 

Hi Tim, thanks for watching my video and for your great question.

From what I’ve seen of the exhibition checklists at the Roswell Museum there was definitely an emphasis on American vernacular art, though I wouldn’t go so far to say that it was the unifying focus. The Index of American Design was shown there at least three times between 1938 and 1942, each with a different set of plates. Children’s art was exhibited on at least a couple of occasions, including a national exhibition and local shows. There’s also a Regionalist bent to several of the exhibitions, prints from Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc., and a solo show of Precisionist watercolorist Edmund Lewandowski featured rural subject matter such as barns, etc. There was more urban subject matter too though, such as Berenice Abbot’s photos of New York. Regarding your question about European modernism though, there was an exhibition called Facsimiles of Modern Drawings that featured images by Picasso, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, and other European modernists of the 19th-20th centuries, so the exhibition program wasn’t entirely focused on American vernacular forms.

As for how the exhibitions related to the classes, what I know comes from the Roswell Museum, so this could have been different at other art centers. Overall there was a didactic bent to the exhibitions, especially in terms of educating visitors about form or technique. A lot of exhibitions explored how artists made their works, whether they focused on printmaking, tapestries, mosaics, etc. The classes tended to focus on traditional subject matter such as painting, drawing, sculpture, through there was a class on interior design too. So far I haven’t found any direct references to students looking at artwork featured in shows and then emulating them in their paintings, nor have I seen special workshops on mosaics, printmaking, or other techniques on view in the gallery. Probably the most interesting reference I’ve is to the interior design class. The instructor apparently went to the local hardware or department store and brought examples of toasters and other appliances in other to demonstrate examples of good industrial design to students, something along the lines of MoMA’s Machine Art but on a more modest scale.

This is a question I’ll definitely need to look into more deeply moving forward, not least because the Roswell Museum may not offer the best case study with respect to the CACP’s educational ambitions. Classes were always a controversial topic at Roswell, not least because the A&H Society had envisioned their institution as a traditional, collections-based history museum rather than an education art center, so they weren’t always offered consistently. The situation was likely different at other art centers that planned on offering classes from the outset. As I continue learning about other art centers I’ll definitely make sure to pay attention to how the classes and exhibitions engaged one another.

All that said, I’d say the program promoted an interest in American vernacular forms in keeping with similar sentiments found across the FAP, but it wasn’t the exclusive focus. Figuring out the kinds of aesthetics and modernisms the CACP promoted through its exhibition program is something I’d like to delve into more deeply though, so I’m glad you brought it up. 

Thank you again for listening, and for your questions.


Tim Satterthwaite 

Thanks, Sara! Good luck with your research – it sounds like a fascinating project.



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