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Reimagining exhibition exchange as remote intercultural exhibition development

De la milpa a la mesa. A Mexican food Journey

Reimagining exhibition exchange as remote intercultural exhibition development

from New Zealand & Mexico,

reading time 11 minutes

Lee Davidson, Associate Professor in Museum & Heritage Studies in Wellington, and Leticia Pérez-Castellanos, Professor of Museology in México, share the De la milpa a la mesa exhibition case study, which applied an innovative model of collaborative development involving academics, exhibition professionals and postgraduate interns from both countries working by long distance as an integrated team.

The ‘perfect storm’ of a pandemic and the climate crisis have created a major turning point for international exhibitions that for decades have involved the movement of people and collections around the globe. In early 2020, we were planning a small-scale collaborative exhibition between Aotearoa New Zealand and Mexico to test our ideas about intercultural museum practice developed in the book “Cosmopolitan Ambassadors: International exhibitions, cultural diplomacy and the polycentral museum”1. Our budget was modest, and our timeframe was short, but we still planned an exhibition process involving team members from New Zealand flying to Mexico to work in person with their Mexican colleagues. When COVID hit and borders closed we might have cancelled the project. Instead, we devised a way to develop a successful ‘international’ exhibition entirely remotely and without the need to move a single physical object from one country to another.

Developed as part of a long-term partnership between institutions in Aotearoa New Zealand and Mexico, “De la milpa a la mesa” used an innovative model of collaborative development involving academics, exhibition professionals and postgraduate interns from both countries working by long distance as an integrated team. Over several months, ongoing conversations took place between team members in NZ and MX to find intercultural solutions to issues of self-representation, audience engagement and how to convey content beyond stereotypes. The resulting exhibition celebrated Mexican agriculture and cuisine, providing a platform for farmers, scientists, vendors, and cooks from across Mexico to share unique perspectives on this rich heritage and discuss how diverse communities are confronting global concerns such as climate change and food sovereignty. Stories, images, video and audio were supplied digitally from Mexico, while interactives and props – including large colourful papier-mache sculptures designed by a Mexican artist in NZ – were built onsite.

Having an intercultural team ensured the authenticity of the exhibition’s Mexican ‘voice’, while delivering it in a way that New Zealanders could most easily relate to. Team participants adopted strategies to work things out in the middle of a pandemic and to resolve the long-distance challenges imposed by the remote model, while stakeholders appreciated and supported the effort. This demonstrates that remote intercultural exhibition development is a highly effective, affordable, and sustainable model of exhibition collaboration and exchange that does not always rely on the international movement of objects and people.

In a series of two articles, we explain how we reimagined exhibition exchange as remote intercultural exhibition development through the on-site exhibition “De la milpa a la mesa. A Mexican food Journey” (https://www.milpa-mesa.co.nz/), presented at Te Auaha Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand from 3 March to 14 April 2021. In this first article, we look at the exhibition drivers, the remote collaboration model we adopted and how we applied the principles of intercultural practice developed in our book1. The second article will delve into our strategies for developing an exhibition that promotes intercultural understanding and outline with more detail our indicators of success.

Remote intercultural exhibition development is a highly effective, affordable, and sustainable model of exhibition collaboration and exchange that does not always rely on the international movement of objects and people.

The exhibition drivers

We have written previously about how international exhibitions are complex, multi-level, long-term projects, and the impacts that they seek are often dispersed across institutional mission, market and diplomatic domains. It is important to have a clear articulation of the drivers in each domain at the outset of an exhibition project. This helps to communicate the project’s value to funders, stakeholders and the public, and impacts can then be evaluated using an appropriate set of indicators at the project’s conclusion.

In this case, the project’s origin was a solid and long-term relationship between us – us being Lee Davidson and Leticia Pérez [Link to our TEO’s profiles], professors at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington’s Museum and Heritage Studies programme and the Posgrado en Estudios y Prácticas Museales programme of the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENCRyM) in México City respectively. Our key mission-related driver was the opportunity to test theories from our book, refine them and to impact museum practice.

Funding came from the Latin American Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE), a government-funded organization organisation tasked with developing New Zealanders’ knowledge of Latin America and their language skills, so as to enhance the country’s economic, trade, political, and cultural relationships with the region. Aligning with the CAPE’s mission, our project sought to train emerging professionals in NZ’s cultural and creative sectors to work collaboratively in Latin America and to deliver projects aimed at deepening New Zealanders’ knowledge and appreciation of the region. The exhibition’s specific aim was to deepen New Zealanders’ understanding of contemporary Mexican culture beyond the clichés and stereotypes. Other key stakeholders included members of the Mexican and Latin-American community in Wellington, and the Mexican Embassy.

Project leads
Drivers Direct/Indirect impact Success indicators
Dissemination of our research findings
Dissemination of our research findings Advanced knowledge among museum practitioners of intercultural museum practices for international exhibitions Number of museum practitioners involved in the project Practitioners adopting intercultural practices and perspectives
Number of museum practitioners involved in the project Practitioners adopting intercultural practices and perspectives
Testing our model of intercultural museum practice through an action research project to co-develop an exhibition about Mexico for New Zealanders
A refined model of intercultural museum practice
The exhibition development process applies recommendations derived from our research Research reveals challenges and successes of the process
The MX and NZ cultural sectors connected through the collaborative work of emergent museum professionals
Increased capacity and potential for future collaborations
A balanced and interesting team establish and maintain relationships The team rate their experience positively The team report increased knowledge of respective cultural sectors and perspectives
A strengthened collaboration between ENCRyM and VUW
ENCRyM and VUW benefit from the exhibition project and are encouraged to extend the collaboration through future projects
Project leaders and their colleagues rate their experience positively and support future collaboration Overall time of collaboration Number of seminars and articles produced by the collaboration.
CAPE (Funders)
Drivers Direct/Indirect impact Success indicators
More New Zealanders with appropriate language and cultural (including economic and political) skills relating to the Latin America region.

Existing and emerging cultural sector professionals develop the skills and experiences to engage with LA through cultural partnerships and projects

Number of exhibition team members
Team members rate their experience as relevant & valuable
Team members have applied knowledge gained within 6 months

Enhanced public awareness of the importance of the Latin America region.

The exhibition inspires NZers to further language learning, study and travel in LA

Visitors & school groups show evidence of understanding & intention to further study LA languages, cultures and societies

Enhanced links between New Zealand and the Latin America region.

Team members establish connections with LA with the potential to build on-going relationships

Team members report an intention to establish connections with LA
Connections are made within 6-12 months of the project
Qualitative feedback from Mexican participating organisations and interns.

New Zealand builds stronger, more sustainable, respectful relationships with the countries of Latin America.
The foundation is laid for a network of cultural and creative organisations across the region that collaborate to deliver intercultural programmes to their audiences
Team members report that they have gained skills and confidence to collaborate with LA

Table 1: Exhibition drivers, impacts and indicators

Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

We sought to clarify how the collaboration would work through an orientation day for the whole team, where we discussed our exhibition drivers, personal motivations and expectations, strengths and weaknesses, clarified roles, discussed timelines and how we would work together.

The collaboration model

Our collaboration model was set according to the combined goals discussed above, along with the timeframe and budget constraints. Our core bi-national project team included:

  • Two project leads (one from NZ and one from MX)
  • One industry project lead (NZ)
  • One subject matter expert (MX)
  • Two museum mentors (NZ) – an exhibition designer and a collection manager
  • Nine exhibition team members in the following roles:
    • Curator (NZ)
    • Project manager & promotion (NZ)
    • Research & content advisor (MX)
    • Research & design advisor (MX)
    • Interpretation, education & events (NZ)
    • Interpretation, design & events (NZ)
    • Spatial design (NZ)
    • Graphic design (NZ)
    • Concept developer & translation (NZ Colombian)

The nine exhibition team members were all postgraduate or early career museum professionals participating in the project as paid interns. We began with the two exhibition team members in MX working remotely with two from NZ (the curator and concept developer), with an initial focus on building relationships and understanding of each other’s culture, heritage, and museum sectors. These four were all bi-lingual and worked together mainly in Spanish, except when meeting with other project members who were not fluent Spanish speakers. This group then liaised with the NZ project manager, who was part of a group of eight masters students working on an initial exhibition concept proposal as a course assignment. This phase of the project lasted five months (Aug-Nov 2020), at the end of which the project team had agreed the exhibition concept design , including the name, key themes, and storylines. For the second phase of the project (Dec 2020-February 2021), the full NZ exhibition team worked together onsite in Wellington and remotely with their MX colleagues for an intensive three months to complete a developed exhibition concept and design,  and produce the exhibition.

From our research (Davidson & Pérez Castellanos, 2019) we learned that there are many different collaboration models for developing international exhibitions and that whatever model was adopted it was important to:

  • Establish clear and realistic expectations of what model is being adopted; and what its benefits and challenges are.
  • Identify areas of strength and weakness being brought to a partnership; exploring areas of commonality and difference; clarifying perspectives and articulating a shared vision.
  • Explore how the partnership will work at different levels and throughout different stages of the project, involving as many staff in different roles as possible when deciding how a collaboration will function.
  • To see partnerships as evolving over time and considering contingencies for institutional change in longer timeframes.

We sought to clarify how the collaboration would work through an orientation day for the whole team (onsite in Wellington with the MX team on Zoom), where we discussed our exhibition drivers, personal motivations and expectations, strengths and weaknesses, clarified roles, discussed timelines and how we would work together. Communication was a key issue to consider, especially in the intercultural context. In practical matters technology helped, and we used several media channels: primarily Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Whatsapp, and Email. The best channel depended on the who, what and why of the communication. Weekly whole-team Zoom meetings allowed us to keep in touch across borders and was crucial for maintaining the ‘face-to-face” element, while Microsoft Teams was useful for streamlining processes, centralising information, editing shared documents and carrying out quick conversations including across time zones. Whatsapp was preferred by the interns for more informal chats and sharing of photos etc. A 17 hours’ time difference between Mexico and New Zealand posed challenges for establishing a workflow between remote and onsite teams that was convenient for both sides. Our solution was for the New Zealand team to advance work and upload it into Teams on their Thursday, so in Mexico it could be reviewed on Friday and returned to NZ by Monday.

The collaboration process allowed us to experience for ourselves some of the challenges that we found in our initial research and brought new ones related with the specific time of COVID. This required us to work things out as we went along and adapt to restrictions. Especially in Mexico, at a time when the outbreak was severe, we were sensitive in our interactions with the exhibition contributors and reflected some of their problems in the exhibition itself (e.g. the closure of food industry and their suffering from lack of resources).

Although our project was small-scale and short-term, the partnership was an evolving process. There were multiple changes in the external context, as well as in the co-ordination and handovers between different phases of the project. Team members tasks and roles evolved as well, so clear communication was required to understand responsibilities and decision-making, particularly as the project sped up in its final stages.

Fundamentally we achieved ‘proof of concept’ – that an intercultural exhibition can be conceptualised and delivered entirely remotely with sensitive, effective, and flexible processes.

Photo: Latin America Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence
Intercultural processes

All team members participated in seminars run by us on intercultural museum practice including how to build strong intercultural partnerships and skills for successful collaboration (e.g. communication strategies, intercultural competencies and problem solving). We discussed the need to be respectful, open, patient, adaptable, genuine, curious, and empathetic to different cultural perspectives, as well as taking the time to have debates and conversations about culture and cultural representation and reach shared understandings.

The long-distance collaboration represented a challenge in terms of how to convey the “Mexican spirit” to the NZ team members because the opportunity to visit Mexico ended with the pandemic. It was for this reason that we began with two MX and two NZ team members meeting together weekly by Zoom and communicating more frequently through WhatsApp, to build a relationship based on friendly communications and mutual understanding. We also added a subject matter specialist advisor and a couple of volunteers from the NZ Mexican community to the team to contribute to our conversations about cultural presentation, and commissioned a Wellington-based Mexican artist to work with us.

Not surprisingly, language was a fundamental issue and having bi-lingual team members was crucial as they worked as cultural mediators – translating key concepts and documents. So often English becomes the default common language in intercultural projects, creating a bias, even if unintendedly, towards the English-speaking participants. We endeavoured to create a shared vision by balancing the team with members that spoke English and Spanish not only in the Mexican team but also in the New Zealand one. Each side also worked to their strengths. The Mexican team members had natural ability to communicate with the contributors of the exhibition stories and information, while the New Zealanders understood their cultural sector and the audience to which the exhibition was aimed.

Conclusions

On March 16, 2021, at Te Auaha Gallery, in the heart of Wellington’s cultural and creative precinct, over 100 guests gathered for the launch of De la Milpa a la Mesa: A Mexican Food Journey. Among the attendees were diplomats, university leaders, cultural and creative sectors professionals, and representatives of the Wellington Mexican and wider Latin America community including musicians, artists, chefs, businesspeople, and exhibition volunteers. The Mexican Ambassador to New Zealand, the Director of ENCRyM (by zoom from Mexico) and the Director of the CAPE all spoke to acknowledge the importance and impact of the exhibition.

While the project was challenging – particularly given the constantly-changing pandemic situation – it was a rewarding adventure and achieved an outcome everyone was very proud of. Fundamentally we achieved ‘proof of concept’ – that an intercultural exhibition can be conceptualised and delivered entirely remotely with sensitive, effective, and flexible processes. In the next article we will discuss in more detail the indicators of the success of this innovative exhibition.

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