The Museum Effect

Emma Thorne-Christy

I’m fascinated by the Museum Effect and how to employ its power to direct public attention towards social justice issues. My goal is to present stories to the public in visually enticing ways that frame the issue as relevant and meaningful to the public and inspire them to act.

The Museum Effect is what happens when an object, artifact or artwork (sometimes even a subject) is displayed in a museum-like way and in doing so, is perceived by viewers to have a higher level of significance. In other words, using design strategically we can elevate the value of the object and give it power. You can think of using the Museum Effect as “museum-ifying” something. It’s all about the power of placement, of framing and contextualization (or decontextualization).

Behold: a red Solo cup at a backyard barbecue suddenly becomes a piece of fine art when displayed in a plexiglass case. © Emma Thorne-Christy

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the power of the museum effect is with an example. In the Spring of 2019, I collaborated with a group of homelessness advocates in Los Angeles to create an art installation that examined homelessness and the housing crisis in Echo Park, a swiftly gentrifying area just north of Downtown. The goal of the project was to educate local residents and park goers about why there were folks living in tents and cars around the community park. Utilizing the existing interpretive sign infrastructure at Echo Park Lake, we created a series of 7 new interpretive signs.

Each sign had a different theme such as how to be a good neighbor to people experiencing homelessness, local resources for those experiencing homelessness, and how different levels of county, city, district, and neighborhood power are working to end homelessness in LA. Playing on the language and visual standards of the original park graphics, we created a sign system that looked very similar to actual park signage.

We utilized the Museum Effect to frame issues of homelessness at Echo Park Lake in a way that was clear, friendly, accessible and felt trustworthy to visitors. People stopped to read the signs and visited the artworks’ web address printed on the signage to learn more. In the 8 days the installation was up, the website received over 500 visits. This speaks to the great opportunities we have to utilize the Museum Effect to elevate subject matter, educate the public and draw attention to social justice issues through art, design and the power of placement.

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