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Understanding Faculty and Students’ Responses to a Reinstallation of the Permanent Collection

[2008]
An audience research project with a college art museum
Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA

The Davis Museum and Cultural Center (the Davis) contracted with RK&A to explore Wellesley College faculty and students’ experiences with Phase One of the reinstallation of its permanent collection.  Staff deliberately chose to reinstall the collection thematically—which is different from how art museums usually present their permanent collections.  This study explored how faculty and students experienced the themes.

How did we approach this study?

RK&A believes that successful exhibitions result when staff acknowledges the perspectives, perceptions, and knowledge of their target audience.  Therefore, RK&A designed this study to explore how faculty and students experience a thematic installation of the works of art and whether they encountered any barriers in so doing.  In February 2008, we conducted two focus groups—one each with faculty and students.  Each focus group consisted of a 90-minute facilitated group discussion about faculty and students’ experiences in the reinstallation. 

What did we learn?

Faculty and students had distinctly different experiences in the thematic reinstallation.  Faculty members have the capacity to create their own meaning and feel comfortable and enjoy making sense of the thematic arrangement of objects.  Students, on the other hand, usually sought out interpretive devices, like text labels, for an explanation of how they were “supposed to feel.”  Further, students did not perceive the thematic organization of the works of art as the interpretive device, whereas faculty did.  While most faculty used the text labels to reinforce their own thinking and reassure them they were on the right track, most students used the text labels as their entry point to understanding and experiencing the exhibition. 

What are the implications of the findings?

Findings from this study demonstrate why identifying one primary audience is so crucial to the success of museum initiatives.  By identifying one primary audience and clarifying the intended impact of the reinstallation for that audience, the Davis can design specific strategies to accommodate and affect that audience.  For example, since Wellesley students require more support than faculty to have meaningful experiences in museums, focusing on students’ needs when planning exhibitions can help the Davis achieve greater impact.  Faculty will still be able to enjoy an exhibition intentionally designed to further students’ learning, as they are fully capable of finding or creating meaning—with or without an interpretive layer offered by the Davis.

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