Art in and of a Crisis at Science Gallery Detroit

An innovative mix of online programming, careful design and robot tour guides helps visitors explore Future Present, an exhibition showcasing the impact of design on society

For many visitors, nothing can replace the intimacy of being physically present with a work of art. So when COVID-19 brought art galleries and museums around the globe to a standstill, the artists and designers at Science Gallery Detroit got creative with their in-person — and robot-curated — experience.

The resulting exhibition, Future Present: Design in a Time of Urgency, explores how design impacts society. The exhibition ran from September 11 to December 11, 2020, in Detroit, Michigan. It opened again in East Lansing on January 15 and will run through April 11.

The exhibition was born of the idea that design has powerful consequences: It may bias technology, but also aid food security and impact social justice. An exhibition on equitable design had already been planned, but it became even more relevant as the events of 2020 revealed the urgent need for systemic change.

Science Gallery Detroit aims not just to inspire its visitors, but to motivate them to take action. The exhibits of Future Present encourage viewers to examine the implications of design and imagine how it may help create more equitable futures.

To create exhibits of value to the community, the curators considered the biggest, most urgent challenges facing Detroit. Creating a connection between the museum and the community fosters deeper engagement between visitors and the science and art they encounter. “You’re doing this for others, you know? We want to bring people into this experience. We want to hear from them and hear their story and be impacted by them,” says Antajuan Scott, head of programming.

Socially distanced and wearing masks, visitors to the exhibition are greeted by a curious little robot on wheels — controlled by an actual person — who guides them through the gallery.

The people in charge of the robots are known as mediators. To minimize the number of people at the exhibition, mediators work remotely by controlling the robots.

Most mediators are undergraduates at nearby universities (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University), but a handful are recent college graduates or young professionals. Critically, many mediators are people of color and/or Detroit natives, reflecting the diversity of the visitors.

All mediators undergo training in discussing art, interacting with the public and acting as an extension of the gallery itself. This year, mediators received special training in how to navigate the gallery and converse with visitors via the robot.

“If I want to talk about a piece to my right, I’ll say ‘this piece located to your right’ or ‘located to the right of this robot,’” says Shanmin Sultana, a Wayne State student and a two-year Science Gallery mediator. “Having directional terms is very important because I’m not physically in the space. Visitors can’t see my hands moving or any of my body language — I have to make an effort to show gestures.”

Lead mediator Allyssa Harris adds, “We emphasize that we have just as much to learn from the visitors as they have to learn from us. Everyone has their own perspective. Everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own opinion. And those are valid.”

To connect with more people, the gallery streamed workshops, conversations and performance pieces by artists like Shigeto online. “One of the tricks to online streaming right now is recording in advance,” says Devon Akmon, who became the director of Science Gallery Detroit in April, shortly after the start of the pandemic. In addition to making high-quality professional recordings, musicians worked with a video artist to create graphics. Workshops continued the themes of Future Present, prompting audiences to think about their connections to technology. Brooklyn-based creator neta bomani led a workshop on surveillance as it concerns our social media relationships. “We wanted to bring more attention to our online materials, so this exhibition is actually helping refocus that,” says Scott. “This has been a great way for us to experiment with the programming and the people that we really care about.”

“What’s been really interesting and exciting is leveraging the silver linings that exist to create original programming and collaborate across time and space,” says Akmon.

In addition to adopting standard protocols (mandatory masks, hand-sanitizing stations, and mediators working virtually through robots), the gallery adjusted its physical design for the pandemic. Exhibits were placed to encourage visitors to follow a particular route so they could avoid bumping up against each other. Visitors ranged from elementary school kids to elderly people, with designated hours for vulnerable populations. The walls of the gallery even tilted back to enhance airflow.

Although planning for the exhibition started in 2018, many things had to change in response to the pandemic. The curatorial panel reconvened to figure out how to maintain the vision of the exhibition while also accommodating pandemic-related requirements. Lead mediator Harris also joined the panel. “I feel I’m able to share my perspective as a young person, as a woman, as a Detroiter, as a student, and that it’s valued and heard and implemented in the ways I feel are equitable,” she says.

Scott says, “It was a real effort in collaboration, and I’m very grateful for the team. Although it was a challenge, the show went well because we were open and committed to whatever needed to be done to actually get the show open. Our schedules could be wonky. I’d go into the gallery at 9 p.m. after the crews left if I needed to take pictures.”

Although 2020 has been challenging, it has forced new, creative thinking that will continue post-pandemic. “The world happens, and you have to be nimble,” says Akmon. “We are in an iterative process of figuring out what is working, what isn’t working, and how people respond. And we’re going to have to be nimble like that for a while.”

Science Gallery Detroit joined the community of Science Sandbox awardees in March 2019. This article is part of a series on how Science Sandbox awardees are navigating the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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