In October 2012 Medical Museion opened the new exhibition ‘Obesity – what’s the problem’. After a long period of development and production the exhibition is now finally being used by a real live audience, and we – the exhibition team – are being confronted with their reactions. One of the more surprising ones being the question: “Is the exhibition quite finished yet?” A question that seems to derive from the fact that not all surfaces, walls, and floor spaces have been used for the display of museum objects. A perfectly natural reaction, but not at all what we expected.
In fact, the idea of having intentionally blank sections of wall and floor was one of the very first concepts we discussed during the development of the exhibition. The exhibition spans a very diverse thematic field, running from obesity surgery, through medical treatment, and into current metabolic research. And the actual objects are also very diverse – ranging from heavy surgical machinery to tiny biopsy samples of the human intestine. We wanted to make this complex field of themes and materials more comprehensible by making clean cuts through the exhibition material. Cuts that formally present themselves as spatial gaps, blank walls and the empty back sides of some of the display installations: all acting to divide and structure the exhibition material.
But whilst we wanted to present the different exhibition themes as diverse installations that are formally – both visually and spatially – self-enclosed, on a more conceptual level we also wanted to make clear how each installation connects to other sections of the exhibition. Or in other words, we hoped to create the sense of singular ‘cells’ that have a function of their own, while at the same time letting the interrelations between these cells shine through. For that reason we have used translucent materials and lighting, to enable and activate the views and pathways across the exhibition space.
This structure echoes the fact that the exhibition in no way should be considered an exhaustive investigation of obesity from A to Z, but rather a partial collection of different perspectives that complement and comment on each other. Rather than unfolding a continuous, linear story we have chosen a more heterogeneous exhibition strategy that rests on a collection of disparate and momentary ‘downstrokes’ rather than on the idea of a linear ‘grand narrative’. So we developed a spatial concept that also has a momentary, non-linear rhythm, based around the concept of exhibition voids that in some ways disconnect the material on display, but at the same time establish pauses that enable the visitor to reflect on the connections between this material.
After the opening of the exhibition, however, we have discovered that these exhibition voids may also result in a kind of communication void, since the blank walls and empty floorspace have proved puzzling and maybe even disturbing for some of the visitors we’ve spoken with and observed. So the question arises: did we manage to convert the notion of ‘the void’ – with its negative connotations – to a positive one? And if not, does this mean that we should stick within the usual confines and traditions of the exhibition medium – where the floor and walls of the exhibition rooms are filled in an evenly balanced manner? Or does the experiment in itself justify a partial loss of communication?
As more visitors pass through the exhibition and further reactions are gathered, we hope to be able to shed further light on this issue, along with other facets of our experimental approach. At Medical Museion we communicate science, while at the same time aiming to conduct research into the practice of science communication – our own included. This presents exciting opportunities for innovation, but also carries a risk that the one goal obstructs the other: experimental strategies by definition diverge from the polished strategies that have already been thoroughly tested.