Behind the Scenes at the Museum with Dinah Casson

Dinah Casson's book, Closed on Mondays: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is an exciting new exploration of exhibition design - the invisible craft behind the exhibitions and museums we love - which seeks to give answers to the many questions in both designers' and visitors' minds.
Closed on Mondays will be released in December.


To mark the BBC's #MuseumPassion campaign and the recent announcement of the Art Fund's Museum of the Year winners, we go 'behind the scenes at the museum' with Dinah Casson as she reflects on the challenges faced by museums and the future of exhibitions, post-Covid-19...

         This is a week of good news for museums which will be remembered as a welcome beam of light, albeit from a 60 watt bulb. Apart from the Arts Council releasing the first tranche of government ‘recovery’ money, the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year winners were announced. The particularly joyful aspect of these events was that Towner Eastbourne, where I am a trustee, sits firmly on both lists and today the BBC will turn its focus there. This is part of a remarkable rebirth: three years ago we were wondering how long we could survive and it is a warming example of what creative leadership (from our director Joe Hill) and a committed team can achieve. Towner has a good collection and has always been a place where all visitors are genuinely welcome, from the boisterous toddler to the disorientated elderly. As it moves towards its centenary in 2023, endorsements such as these are a well-deserved reward.


And it coincides, nearly, with the publication of my book Closed on Mondays: Behind the Scenes at the Museum (December 1st). This is a collection of reflections on museums and how easily their buildings and installations can place obstacles in the way of the people they wish to tempt inside. As a museum and exhibition designer for 30 years there are a number of tenacious questions which have rattled around in my head - such as why do so few museums allow us to look out of a window? When we read a gallery label, do we really want to read a description of what is in front of us rather than something that encourages and helps us to look for ourselves? Why are we so suspicious of facsimiles when they may be the answer to so many of our problems of conservation? Why are the carved and gilded picture frames wrapped around virtually everything, regardless of artist, period or subject matter? They might look pretty but they are misleading and unhelpful. Why do people collect stuff anyway? Why do we expect to remove our coats in the cinema but not in the museum? These are things most visitors do not think about unless they happen to trip up over them – why should they? But they are things that museums have to think about – or should. 


Most professions feel that they are undervalued and misunderstood and museum designers are no exception, so I have to admit that one of the purposes of the book is to encourage visitors to be more critical and curious about gallery installations. This is not to encourage complaints, but to open visiting eyes to ways that some museums have helped themselves in order to help their visitors, and how others have made life more difficult.     


Being a trustee rather than a visitor (albeit with professional baggage) means sitting on the other side of the table and things can look different from there - particularly at the moment. Once balance sheets, HR and hand sanitisers top the agendas, reviewing all the picture frames in the collection becomes laughable. And I am aware that it seems churlish to be complaining of gallery labels when rooms are empty with exhibits forced to stare at each other instead of quizzical visitors. What does a label, or a view out of the window, matter when we are deliberating survival? For me it all matters, because, until the next pandemic, there will be a 'normal' again, and here is an opportunity to aim for a 'better normal'.


Perhaps my interest in facsimiles is more obviously well-timed. If global travel continues to be difficult maybe we should grab the moment to rethink mass tourism and what we are doing to the places we treasure and the things we love. Whilst I am convinced that place is an essential part of belief, and belief is an essential part of dealing with the contradictions of authenticity, the temptation to bring objects to people rather than people to objects becomes enticing. Facsimiles are becoming so nearly indistinguishable from that which they are reproducing; unlike the photograph, the hand-made copy, the plaster cast – or even the hologram – I believe, they will soon find ways to carry the intangibles such as surface temperature and smell. Things we have taken for granted, such as shipping fragile things around the world, and then shipping ourselves around the world to see them feel increasingly irresponsible; is it possible that the use of the facsimile could enable us to make a small contribution to global stability? All we have to do is to let it.


Such are my questions to which there are few answers. But asking them can be full of surprises.


 -- Dinah Casson, October 2020


You can order your copy of Dinah Casson's Closed on Mondays HERE.

Hardback • 208 Pages • Size: 240 × 170 mm
149 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224346 • Publication: December 01, 2020


While you're here, take a look at all of our recent and upcoming books HERE.