Since 1989, I am freelance working, as a museographer, or museologist. The name varies from one country to another, even from one cultural establishment to another: sometimes we say museology, sometimes museography. Both names for this occupation are in use. And I like both!


Whatever the word, my work consists of creating the contents of exhibitions. Permanent or temporary. Generally thematic ones, but sometimes of the "Fine Arts" type. Rather on themes of history or science, but not only. In many cases, anyway, the themes cover several disciplinary fields.


What is it like to design exhibition content?


First it is defining how to deal with the subject - a kind of position very close to an editorial approach. The historical and geographical fields, the themes, the focal points or angles of view (or prisms), the sequencing and the structure of the discourse are imagined - and, if there are any, the distribution of the collections. Imagination is at stake and at work.


But budget matters, space matters, target audiences matters, and all this has to be taken into account.


The big difference with a book, a magazine or a documentary is that, when imagining the museographic treatment, we have to deal with a vast variety of modes of materialization of the topic. It may be works of art, objects in collections, archives, texts, pictures, documentaries, games, maps, interactive devices or multimedia displays made specially for the purpose, sounds, music, stuffs, models... the list of tools of mediation can't be stopped.


A discourse has to be built which will be transformed into an exhibition, a route, and this route is going to be through time, which means the manifolds have to be taken into account any moment.


The educational objective is often first. For this, it is necessary to find out ways of inducing understanding into the visitors to come. So that the meeting between the future visitors and a topic, or collections, can just BE. This is called programming or scripting, with reference to the script of a movie.


This beautiful occupation of ours means at the beginning of the process the number of books we have to read and digest, which means time, long times sometimes, work, hard work sometimes, and silence. Also, on the run, we do have to entertain direct talks and exchange ideas, or take advice and information from specialists, historians, scientists, searchers or academics that have specialised in the subject we deal with.


The job of a musographer is not to become a specialist of the subject, but to know it well enough to be able to transform a raw material (the knowledge) into something else: exhibition contents that must be accessible and accurate. Visitors have to be satisfied.


What about interlocutions and teamwork?


The design of exhibition contents obviously involves working with scenographers - often architects - who express these contents, scripts, programmes, in space; they imagine volumes, lights, furniture, materials, showcases etc.


The scenographers interpret the defined contents, the script, the storyline. This relationship between contents and forms, between museography and scenography, is complex because they are influenced and developed within this very influence. The conception of the museographical contents is not frozen, it evolves, it plays with the proposals of the scenographers, who themselves play with the proposals of the museographers. Whether this round trip is easy or not, it is always fruitful: it is a work of dialogue, mutual understanding and adequacy.


I often write the texts of "my" exhibitions, what is going to be read by visitors (saying my exhibition is paradoxical, because there is nothing more collective than an exhibition).


For texts and iconography, museographers also work with graphic designers, other very important designers in creating exhibition. They are the ones who define the graphic line of an exhibition, the way in which texts and images will be processed.


The design of the contents includes also the monitoring of their realisation. Example: a documentary I want to show this or that, it is first of all a question of defining it, and making it already exist virtually, present in the exhibition. Then, to write the synopsis and the specifications, then to choose the filmmaker. Finally, to work with him/her until the documentary is "ready for broadcast". This example applies to all tools of mediation, all media, all display; it can be a model, an interactive programme, or audioguides etc.


All this requires speaking quite a lot of languages...


Anyway, the process is always active, interactive, moving, changing and stabilising. This means quite a number of go-betweens. This is always bound toward creativeness understanding adequacy for the very end of the common purpose.


In France, many museographers practice this profession in the museal institutions themselves. Relatively few of us do it as freelance.


When they are present in a project, the museum responsibles of the collections - they are called "conservateurs" in France - in a way do the same thing, they want to enhance, to highlight their collections. They indeed define a museography, except that the existence of collections does not always encourage them to imagine museographical treatment. That's why they sometimes need the help of museographers....


© Jean-Pierre Porcher
© Jean-Pierre Porcher