Sharing Your Family at The Dowse

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director
How an experiment in audience participation has worked out at The Dowse.

This post started off as a chance to gather some cute images I've been tweeting in one place, but I decided while I was at it that I would share the story of our family blackboard, in case people found it useful.

As part of our downstairs exhibition Malcolm Harrison: The Family we're running a very simple participation project (actually, that term feels far too fancy for what we've done). Harrison's Family is a collection of dolls, each with their own very distinctive look and backstory. The selection and arrangement of works was overseen by our education manager Jen Boland, and Jen worked with our designer Michael Pester to come up with an activity that would bring the exhibition to life.

The show is in a corridor-shaped gallery that links our current Slip Cast exhibition to the pataka Nuku Tewhatewha. Along one wall we have a line of cases displaying the dolls. On the facing wall we have two cases, flanking a large blackboard with curlique edges and the title 'Your Family' at the top. A box of chalk and a duster sit on a small shelf next to the blackboard. Our hope was that people would take in The Family and then draw a picture of their own. 

You always worry when you set up something like this. Worries come in three clumps:

One: Will anyone do it?
Two: Will it be all swear words and pictures of penises?
Three: Will people take the materials and scribble on the walls / artworks / something else I haven't thought of yet?

Hours—days even—can be spent refining the 'ask' to elicit the best (by which we often mean, "right") responses. In this case, our prompt is incredibly simple: a blank board, the words 'Your Family', and a box of chalk.

In the event, we've had nothing but on topic, often delightful, contributions. I've been intrigued by the variety of ways people depict their family. Some people are drawing self-portraits and naming themselves. Some draw the traditional tree-like diagram. Some draw stick figures in a row. Some use a sentence; a recent example is, "Ko Kody toku ingoa. Reihana whanau. Te Hokianga nui a kupe".

I was also fascinated by the unintentional linkage to a work by Rohan Wealleans which was on display upstairs in the Blumhardt Gallery when The Family first opened. Wealleans' Family Tree was part of the Man Made exhibition Sian van Dyk curated. Created as large embroidery in pastel thread on a canvas background, Wealleans' Family Tree maps a line of descent that is ornate but lacking in detail (Dad > Dad's Dad> Dad's Dad's Dad > Dad's Dad's Dad's Mum). I wondered whether people saw this family tree and became freer when they drew their own. (Megan Dunn wrote beautifully about this work for us recently.)

We've not had to do anything to "manage" the board. One small change we have made is to not wipe the board clean at the end of every day. When we do wipe off contributions to make way for new ones, we leave a couple that we enjoy as seeds for the next people to come along.

If you're looking to integrate this kind of activity in your own gallery (and it seems you can't visit a museum these days without being asked to write something on something) one of the best minds in the business of creating enjoyable experiences that elicit meaningful responses is Nina Simon, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Nina has recently blogged about the effectiveness of three participation projects her museum ran, and these earlier posts on A/B testing of your "ask" and this on crafting good questions are also very useful.

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