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How A Curator’s Child Influenced DMA’s Latest Exhibit 11

Raising a son with a language disorder pushed Sarah Schleuning to reconsider how visitors to a museum might react to exhibits. Schleuning is the Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and Interim Chief Curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. She curated the museum’s current exhibition called “Speechless: Different by Design.” Schleuning talked to KERA’s Krys Boyd about the challenges of encouraging visitors to engage with art by using multiple senses. 

The idea for this exhibition started for you as a dream?

SSYes, it was an idea that just came to me while I was sleeping. I had been really ruminating over the other challenges that I was facing in my own life. I had a young child, who at that point was about two and a half, three, and he wasn’t speaking. So he has the cognitive ability but there is a wiring issue with his facial muscle that makes it challenging for him to form words. And basically what I came to realize was it was like he was in a foreign country. And words did not have the same impact as they did for me. And all of a sudden I was challenged by a very important person in my life who wasn’t very interested in what I had to say. So I really started to think about what our role was in the museum as connectors of images and artworks and ideas and how to really use that in a powerful and impactful way.

Steven and William Ladd, Scroll Space, 2019. Photo by John Smith.

SSAt that time I was at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and I was doing a series of projects that were outdoor playscapes. And was really interested in design being a way to be a gateway, a communicator, and a connector, and creating these very playful but highly aesthetic objects that people could engage with and we didn’t put any real rules on it. The rule was basically to enjoy it, to be curious, to have fun, to experience them but to interact. To touch, to create your own imagination to layer on these artists’ imagination. So I tried to figure out could we bring that into the museum? Could we connect those ideas, and could we say what happens if we stop talking about what the meaning is and make the work itself convey that meaning in a different way?

So one of the choices that you made was not to use the little placards that sort of tell people about what they are going to experience.

Photograph by Alan Rose.

SSWe really wanted to challenge ourselves and to think about how to create different ways to explain how to use it. I mean, it is fairly atypical worker in a museum to say to people – touch, interact. This is not about immersion. It’s about engagement and interaction. We’ve basically done such great work training people not to touch and now we’re saying “please touch!”  And so, I think some of that was about trying to show people different ways – so we’ve used video, we’ve used interactives, we are using drawings. We are saying these are the ways to use it and the meaning that you bring in adds to the meaning you make with the piece.

I understand that you are not allowed to touch things at most art museums unless you are expressly given permission. I understand why that’s true. I will say, especially with works of sculpture or textured works even that are two-dimensional, I feel like I am not getting the full experience because I am not allowed to touch.

SSI work with decorative arts and designs so it’s even worse. I mean I put out chairs and tell people “don’t take a seat.” So I fully understand the challenge and I hear about it a lot. The issue for us is we take these objects for the perpetuity of the object’s life. And so, our hope is that these objects stay way beyond us. But it is true and I think that one of the things that museums and institutions are trying to explore is how to engage the other senses because it does broaden your understanding of the piece and how to think about different ways so sometimes we have touch-spaces, sometimes we try and do things with sound or audio. And so to me this show was taking and building on all those kinds of ideas and putting it as part of the brief for the makers themselves.