Cemetery stories

Visiting a cemetery, just for the sheer curiosity of it, probably isn’t top of your ‘must do’ list.  It certainly wasn’t on mine.

But that was before I realised how much cemeteries can tell us about a place and its history. Death is the ultimate unifier and, almost by definition, a cemetery will include a true cross-section of society. In addition, the design of the cemetery and the symbolism of the monuments can tell us a lot about the culture and the values of the society that created them.

About three years ago, I was part of a team that was commissioned to do an Interpretation Plan for West Terrace Cemetery here in Adelaide (I wrote about it at the time in Issue 39 of Interpreting Australia magazine – free download available to IA members). It was an intriguing prospect – while there are a few cemeteries around the world that pull in the crowds (Pere Lachaise in Paris springs to mind), I don’t think many have systematically explored their cultural tourism potential.

West Terrace Cemetery is distinctive in that it dates back to the beginning of South Australia’s colonial history, and was the State’s principal cemetery for the best part of a century. South Australia’s early politicians, explorers, entrepreneurs, priests and paupers all share their final resting place in its grounds. You can consider the cemetery as a window into South Australia’s colonial history in particular (I’ll define ‘colonial’ South Australia as the period from first European settlement to Federation, i.e. 1836-1901).

So, back to the Interpretation Plan.  One of its recommendations was to produce a set of self-guided tours of the cemetery, each exploring a different theme. The first challenge was to choose, out of a longlist of several hundred, which grave sites would be chosen to create the first tour of ‘heritage highlights’. Eventually, a tour comprising 29 stops was developed and I was appointed to write the text for the signage (through Exhibition Studios).

One of the sites on the Heritage Highlights tour. The draped urn at the top of the monument was a common funerary symbol in the late 1800s.

It was quite an undertaking – to interpret the cemetery features and burial sites necessitated getting across a lot of SA’s early history in order to give the stories context and relevance. We needed to provide enough background for visitors who knew little of South Australian history, while still keeping the text succinct. The tone of the text needed to be lively, while still sufficiently respectful of the place it was sited. The content also needed to be approved by the descendents, who remain ownership and control of the burial plots.

The Heritage Highlights trail was officially opened on March 4, and I was delighted to be invited to the celebrations and meet some of the descendents of the people I’d written about. I was careful not to look too closely at the text (I was sure there’d be things I’d wished I’d done differently!), but was pleased to see a project that had been in the pipeline for so long finally come into fruition.

So if you’re in Adelaide, are curious and have a free couple of hours, I recommend you see it for yourself – among the people you will discover are:

  • Colonial powerbrokers such as the Kingstons, Henry Ayers and John Langdon Bonython
  • The entrepreneurs behind household names such as Faulding and Menz
  • The women who campaigned to see SA become the first place in the world to give women full democratic rights
  • Eccentric genius Percy Grainger (yes he’s buried at West Terrace!)
  • Plus the stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, such as the young Foot Constable killed in the line of duty, and a victim of South Australia’s worst civilian maritime disaster.

I hope that’s been enough to whet your appetite – and do let me know what you think!

The Cemetery is open every day and you can pick up the tour guide brochure at the front gate.



Choose your own adventure

Once upon a time, some exhibition developers had a problem.

It was the 1980s, and a Natural History museum in the US had two popular and highly advanced aquarium tanks, unique in that they were designed to mimic whole ecosystems. So, to better communicate the scientific and ecological importance of these tanks, the museum decided to redevelop the exhibition area surrounding them*.

But before long, a split emerged in development team. While the scientists, designers, educators and others all agreed on the key concepts and messages that the new exhibition should convey, they could not agree on the best way to communicate it all. There were two competing approaches:

  • Structured: in this layout, visitors would be channelled into a linear route that would systematically introduce visitors to a range of concepts before they reached the tanks.  The rationale of this approach is that it would provide visitors with optimum preparation and background context to fully appreciate the tank displays.
  • Unstructured: this layout would not impose a visit sequence on visitors, but rather allow visitors to engage with exhibits with the order and intensity of their choosing.  Those that advocated this approach held that it would empower visitors to shape their own learning experience in a way that suited them. The agenda would be shaped by the visitor, not the museum.

Such debates are common enough over the course of an exhibition development – I’ve been part of a fair few of my own over the years.  I can imagine the scene of the development meetings, and how passionately (and probably also heatedly!) each side would have argued their case.

So the fact the team couldn’t agree on a fundamental aspect of the exhibition design is nothing out of the ordinary. What is unusual is that this museum had the opportunity to test each option.

The team designed the exhibit elements so that they were modular, moveable units that could be configured in both Stuctured and Unstructured modes. In each case the exhibits were identical; all that would change is the layout. This way each option could be tested and (everyone hoped) this would put the debate to rest once and for all.

Visitors were tracked and timed, with the exhibits they visited and the amount of time they spent on them recorded. In addition, visitors were interviewed at the end of their visit and asked what they thought the exhibition was all about.

The timing studies demonstrated that in both layouts, the time visitors spent in the exhibition space was roughly the same (a median time of only a few minutes). However, visitors to the Unstructured exhibition spent more of their time in the exhibition space actually engaging with exhibits (including reading more text and watching more of the video presentations). Furthermore, they described their experience more positively in post-visit interviews, and demonstrated a better understanding of the exhibition’s intended messages.

So, the Structured mode, which was intended to set things out in a more logical sequence and thus aid understanding, seemed to have the opposite effect. It was the Unstructured mode which did a better job of meeting the experiential and learning needs of visitors. So what was happening?

John Falk, renowned museum learning expert and principal investigator of this study, put forward a couple of possible explanations:

  1. Once visitors have seen the reef tanks, they are more motivated to read the supporting material in order to add additional meaning and context to what they had just viewed. So, in contrast to the curatorial intent, which was for the exhibits to serve as an introduction to the tanks, visitors seemed to prefer to use them the other way around.
  2. Visitors entered the exhibition space with a specific agenda, i.e. to see the tanks. In this circumstance, the linear visit sequence merely served to impede visitors reaching their destination; thus they were less inclined to engage with exhibits which (in their view) were just getting in the way of what they really came to see.  In support of this view, one visitor was quoted to say “I wanted to see the whale and the coral reef, but I had to wind all around and through things in order to see them.”

Broader implications

When we develop exhibitions, we often use words like ‘storyline’ and ‘narrative’ as a way of organising and arranging the ideas of an exhibition in a logical sequence, matrix or hierarchy. Usually, these arrangements manifest themselves in the exhibition space one way or another – for instance the linear arrangement of a timeline, or a ‘hub and spoke’ arrangement of several exhibits which all relate to a unifying central concept.

But exhibitions are not books, and stories are not always linear. Movies such as Memento and Reservoir Dogs have shown that a story can be told outside of the constraints of a traditional linear narrative – in fact, seeing a dramatic outcome and then seeing the sequence of events which led to this climax can be a compelling way to tell a story. Even so, with a movie we are inevitably seeing the story unfold in the order that the makers intended.

A better analogy for an exhibition might be the Choose Your Own Adventure books (that any true child of the 1980s will remember fondly!). In these, the writers set the general scene and context, but the path that each reader takes is one of their own making.

So does this mean that there is no point organising exhibits within an exhibition space? Er, no. There is other research (which I’ll detail in a future post), that shows that thematically linking exhibits both in space and through design attributes can affect visitor experience and understanding in positive ways. The difference here is that the difference between a space that uses design cues to offer guidance to visitors (which they can follow as much or as little as they choose), and a space that insists that visitors engage with it on its own terms.

*This is one of my ‘Museology’ posts, drawing on the published visitor research I’m reading during my PhD studies. In this instance this posting is based on a paper by John Falk: Assessing the Impact of Exhibit Arrangement Visitor Behavior and Learning. Source: Curator Vol 36(2) pp133-146 (1993)