The Big Three

On my daily commute (OK, a rather pleasant walk across Adelaide’s parklands – I’m one of the lucky ones!) I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks. I find it’s a good way to broaden my reading repertoire when there are precious few hours in the day for non PhD-related reading.  Even though it’s notionally ‘downtime’, I still have a preference for listening to non-fiction and every so often there is a relationship between what I’m listening to and what I’m studying.

I recently finished the audiobook version of “Why we buy: the science of shopping” by Paco Underhill. Underhill and his company Envirosell have spent thousands of hours watching how people behave in retail environments, giving fascinating insights into how store layout, design and staffing can influence shopper behaviour and purchasing patterns. 

A lot of it is applicable to studying visitor behaviour in museums, but by way of example I’ll pick Underhill’s description of something he calls The Big Three:

  • Design (the store layout and design)
  • Merchandising (what’s put in the store)
  • Operations (what staff do)

Underhill describes how these three aspects are completely interlinked, and that a decision about one will inevitably affect the other two. He cites an example where a drugstore chain’s store designers decided to change the shelving to a wireframe style, which was much cheaper than the more traditional display shelves. Money saved, right? Well, no. It turns out that bottles kept on slipping in the gaps in the sheving, making the displays look untidy and causing staff to spend a considerable portion of the day straightening shelves – somthing they hadn’t previously needed to do. The savings on design were soon wiped out through increased staff costs.

Underhill goes on to describe client meetings where the heads of design, operations and merchandising might all be present. He says that it’s clear that these three are normally ensconced in their own respective silos; they barely know each other; and may regard each other with suspicion – if not outright hostility. Their areas all impact each other, but decisions are not being taken in a joined-up way – leading to missed opportunities and unintended consequences.

Throughout the book, Underhill is somewhat critical of both designers and store management for not spending enough time on the shop floor, seeing how their plans work in practice – and not just and 10am on a Tuesday, but during the 4.45pm rush on the day before an important holiday. It’s this culture that allows the silos to flourish as the knock-on effects of decisions are never seen by the people who make them.

It struck me listening to this that museums have their own (very similar) version of the Big Three:

  • Design (of exhibitions, circulation spaces, etc.)
  • Collections (both exhibits on display and objects in storage)
  • Operations (how many staff, what kind of staff, what kinds of facilities are offered, etc.)

As with the retail example, a decision about one will inevitably affect the other, for instance the following (semi) hypothetical scenarios:

  • An exhibition designed on the assumption that there will be a certain staff complement, only for the staff to be cut back later on in a cost-cutting exercise
  • A museum accepting a large collection from a benefactor, with an attached condition that the collection be displayed in its entirety
  • A museum developing a large new interactive exhibition gallery without taking on staff with the expertise to ensure the exhibits are well maintained and can be fixed when they break down

The lessons?

  1. Be mindful of organisational silos – the decisions you make will have wider ramifications than just your own department
  2. Take time to see the consequences of your decisions – it’s all too easy to be ‘too busy’ to spend time just watching how things are working out on the exhibition floor.

Authority and Authorship

In my last post, I was musing about whether exhibitions can sometimes leave things too open to interpretation, in the process ending up just being confusing and coming across as elitist.

In the context of this, a recent article by Pete Brown in Museum Management and Curatorship* is very illuminating. His research:

“. .  . aimed to test whether [using exhibitions to provoke debate] is just an academic, post-modern indulgence that bewilders and alienates visitors, or whether it has real value for audiences.”

The article, “Us and them”, is a case study of Manchester Museum’s 2008 exhibition of the Lindow Man (a 2000 year old bog body discovered in the 1980s). The 2008 exhibition wasn’t the first time that Lindow Man had been displayed at Manchester Museum. However previous exhibitions had presented Lindow Man as an “archaeological treasure” (the ‘traditional’ interpretation) but did not explore the ethical issues surrounding the collection and display of human remains (issues which have come to the fore in more recent years). In constrast, the new exhibition sought to emphasise Lindow Man’s humanity, and speculate on his life and death rather than just treat him as purely an archaeological find:

“The key goal of the exhibition was to contextualise Lindow Man in a way that encouraged respectful reflection, inviting visitors to question the interpretation of archaeological evidence and the practice of displaying human remains in museums. The ‘post-modern’ concept sought to expose the process of development and construction, and to present various interpretations of what little evidence exists.”

Produced following extensive consultation with groups having a scientific, geographical or spiritual connection to Lindow Man, the exhibition was “poly vocal”, representing a range of viewpoints.

The exhibition design was intended to mirror the fact that that the story of the Lindow Man is incomplete and open to debate, by using finishes and materials which were deliberately left rough and unfinished.

This ‘polyvocal’ approach prompted considerable debate amongst the museum professionals involved: Was the museum abdicating its responsibility to educate the public or was it actually being more inclusive?

(This touches on similar issues to what happened when the Science Museum covered alternative medicine in one of its exhibitions – to the anger of those who expect the Museum to present only scientific authority).

The paper presents a good description of the issues museums face with respect to authority, the ownership of the ‘truth’, and the myth of ‘value-neutral’ displays. Exhibitions are products of their time and inevitably bear the fingerprints of the values and prejudices of the culture that produced them. But in this paper Brown goes a step further. Rather than just theorising about how visitors might respond to the museological shift in self awareness and self image, he presents some visitor research (something which is often sadly lacking in such debates).

Brown interviewed around 100 visitors, using a combination of Personal Meaning Mapping (PMM) and post-visit Questionnaire. Personal Meaning Mapping is an open-ended mind-mapping exercise conducted before and after an exhibition visit. It is a way of comparing visitors’ knowledge, attitudes and thoughts about an exhibition’s key idea and to see how these are affected by the exhibition experience. The questionnare collected demographic information as well as asking about visitors’ motivations for visiting the exhibition and general museum-going habits.

In the post-visit PMM exercise, nearly three quarters of visitors mentioned something to do with the exhibition’s ‘design, construction and atmosphere’. Apparently most of these comments were unfavourable – visitors missed the interpretive point of the deliberately ‘unfinished’ design and instead just saw it as tacky, incompetent and unprofessional. (Design like this presumably flies in the face of social conventions where ‘professional’ is used synonymously with ‘polished’).

But besides this observation, the PMM showed that nearly all visitors gained new knowledge, despite the non-didactic approach of the exhibition. In addition, more than half of visitors demonstrated attitudinal shifts, exploring and questioning their own assumptions about the issues raised. Going even further, many of these visitors had been inspired to delve further and find out more. However, others were clearly incensed by the approach taken and frustrated by the lack of an authoritative voice:

‘ . . . the exhibition, depending on an individual’s perspective, was seen as groundbreaking, experimental and challenging, or shoddy, lazy and unprofessional.’

Clearly, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Brown then goes on to say “With hindsight, I think the Museum could have made the thinking behind its approach more overt. . . ”

This is the point I was getting to (admittedly a bit awkwardly) in my last post. We shouldn’t be afraid of being experimental in our approach to exhibitions, and we do need to test boundaries from time to time. But we need to also ensure we aren’t leaving our audiences behind in the process.

Alienated visitors just switch off – at which point it doesn’t matter what we say.

*Source:  Brown, Pete (2011). Us and Them: who benefits from experimental exhibition making? Museum Management and Curatorship Volume 26, Issue 2, 2011, Pages 129 – 148

The Narrative Dilemma

In my last blog post, I talked about the beauty of simplicity in storytelling – being selective in what you say so that it comes through clearly and compellingly. This approach has its critics though, who argue that we are defined as much by what we don’t say as by what we do.

Postmodern critiques of museums have pointed out the shared history that museums have with the colonialism and imperialism of (particularly) the 18th and 19th centuries. Museums were repositories of colonial bounty, sometimes sourced via practices that would be considered highly unethical by today’s standards. Objects were classified and ordered according to systems that  mirrored the prevailing natural, social and cultural hierarchy. ‘Naturally’, the  white western European gentleman occupied the top tier as the pinnacle of civilisation and scholarly knowledge.

Knowingly or otherwise, museum curators reinforced this sociocultural worldview. Museums placed ‘primitive’ Indigenous cultural artefacts alongside Natural History collections – thus positioning them as part of ‘nature’ and not ‘culture’ (and definitely not civilisation!). There was no space for other interpretations of the objects and their meanings besides that of Western scholarship – in the parlance of Postmodernism any alternative interpretations or voices were ‘silenced’.

19th century museum interior (Source

Museums of the time may have ostensibly had public education as part of their mission, but there was little concession made for the prior knowledge or interest of the visitor. The visitor had no choice but to engage with the displays on the curator’s terms, and if the minimal interpretation provided was insufficient for understanding it was a deficiency in the visitor not the curator. Commentators of the time lamented that increased public access was bringing the ‘wrong sort’ of visitor to the museum, who failed to appreciate the collections in a way that they deemed appropriate.

Constructivism emerged in the second half of the 20th century as part of a backlash against this ‘master narrative’ worldview, as the social and political role of the museum changed. This was done in a broader academic context where implicit power relationships in society were being deconstructed and questioned.

Consequently, the desire to allow for multiple interpretations has made the idea of a strong narrative or storyline an anathema for some. A storyline is considered an imposition, potentially ‘silencing’ other perspectives or interpretations that the visitor may make if allowed to engage with the objects more freely.

However, this brings us to a conundrum – exhibitions developed along postmodern or constructivist principles can be just as baffling to visitors as the minimally-interpreted elitist institutions of times past.

The freedom to have multiple points of entry and thus interpretation can just as easily manifest itself as a space which is confusing and disorientating. Juxtapositions of objects with no overlying message or storyline can be interpreted by visitors unversed in the constructivist viewpoint as being  ‘a mess’ or ‘all over the place’. Rather than liberated from an imposed institutional storyline, visitors can end up feeling confused and demoralised. A lack of storyline may even be interpreted as a lack of intellectual courage on the part of curators – an accusation levelled at museums by Amanda Lohrey and the subject of my first blog post nearly a year ago.

Postmodernists may argue that visitors need to be ‘educated’ into new interpretations and to be present with their discomfort at the lack of narrative, in order to give new meanings and interpretations space. But this point of view seems to be just another version of ‘the visitor is at fault’ arrogance of the Victorian-era curators.

I am not opposed to multiple interpretations and leaving things open to visitors making their own meanings. But sometimes (and apologies if this is  a bit ironic), the fact that this is the intent needs to be made clear somehow. Otherwise, if taken to extremes, the constructivist approach may well end up substituting one type of elitism for another.

Less is everything

The latest issue of Interpreting Australia (Issue 44) has just come out. It features WA, in anticipation of the “At the Frontier” conference taking place in Perth in November. (This conference is being held jointly by Interpretation Australia and Museums Australia.)

In one article, Luke Donegan writes about his experiences in developing the Fremantle Prison’s Rockbreakers temporary exhibition. He describes familiar challenges:

  • How to choose what to emphasise in a complex storyline?
  • What objects (from a wealth of options) should be included in the displays, and in what context?
  • The research and context development process unearthed a wealth of fascinating facts. Do these add insight or just distract from the story.

Some hard choices had to be made. But, as Luke says, this was precisely the point:

We can’t say all we want to say and show everything there is to show. Our role as exhibition developers and heritage interpreters requires moderation rather than excess; focus rather than diffraction . . . rather than communicating all the facts, shaping a difficult story to reveal a heritage jewel.

Say it simply, say it clearly, say it well.

Exhibition Review: ‘Not Just Ned’

I visited this temporary exhibition at the National Museum of Australia while visiting Canberra last week and with a free afternoon to kill:

I found the choice of title a little odd: for me at least, Ned Kelly isn’t high up on the list of things that sprint to mind when I think about the Irish in Australia. Perhaps it reflects the extent to which I paid attention (or not) in high school history, but to my mind the Kelly story is primarily an Australian one; the origins of the people involved is an incidental detail. (I wondered if it was a deliberate decision to link into (and then dissociate from) the Kelly story as a marketing ‘hook’, although from what I have since heard this wasn’t the case.)

Given my current research interests, my focus in visiting the exhibition was to think about the overall atmospherics and impressions that the space created rather than to concentrate too much on specifics or details. However, I got the distinct impression that the exhibition was designed with more of a Studier* type of visitor in mind. To be fair, these visitors were not in short supply – one older couple who entered about the same time I did stopped to carefully study every label and object; I tried to keep tabs on them during my visit but by the time I was done (some 20-25 minutes later) they were barely 1/4 of the way through the exhibition. Whether they continuted at this pace throughout the visit or run out of steam will have to remain a mystery. (In general, the exhibition did seem to be attracting an older demographic, although this could be just as much due to the fact it was a weekday afternoon.)

The exhibition’s layout was broadly thematic, with themes presented in a rough chronological order: arriving, settling in, etc., culminating in a display of more recent Irish migrants and the ongoing sense of shared identity with both the old country and the new. There were also displays dedicated to the Irish contributions to different facets of Australian life, such as politics, agriculture, sport, entertainment and so on. Another strong theme, obviously, was the role of Catholicism in shaping the outlooks of Irish migrants, the perception of Irish migrants by other Australians, and attitudes to political events unfolding back in the old country. Certain chapters in Australian history with strong Irish links, such as the Kelly Gang, Burke & Wills exhibition and the Eureka Stockade, had their own dedicated mini-exhibition areas.

The exhibition was very object-rich and while some of the objects were organised to illustrate specific stories or reflect the life of a certain key personality, there was no obvious logic to the juxtaposition of other displays. I gather this was a deliberate choice, but sometimes this approach a little unnerving as I’m not sure if there is meant to be some broader message that I’m somehow failing to ‘get’.

There was a seating area roughly in the middle of the exhibtion area with four comfy swivel chairs, each with an iPad (built into a rigid frame) allowing you to select different music, audio recordings, letters home and so forth (a good use of off-the-shelf technology). Speakers embedded into the chairs worked well, providing good sound but not interfering with other seated users. I liked that the swivel chairs meant you could choose which part of the gallery you wished to overlook while you listened. One downside was that the chairs were definitely a single-user experience – fine as a solo visitor like me, but I noticed couples having to either take turns or with one person standing leaning over the chair to be in aural range of the speakers. Maybe it would have been a good idea to make one of the chairs  double-width to allow shared listening.

As I mentioned before, I was primarily looking at the exhibition from an atmospheric perspective, and the thing that struck me was how dark the space was**. The ceiling and walls of the NMA’s temporary exhibition space are painted black, enveloping the space in a sense of gloom which is only penetrated by strategically placed track lighting (in a ceiling which is probably about 4-5 metres in height).

I find such spaces inherently fatiguing and a bit claustrophobic, making it difficult for me to focus on the displays and ensuring I’m ready to call it a day after about 20-30 minutes. (Other people I’ve spoken to are less bothered by low light levels- I’d be interested to find out whether I’m in the majority or minority on this one.) On a more practical level, the fact that the graphics are lit from a single source sometimes meant that you have to be careful not to cast a shadow on the bit you’re trying to read. This was a particular problem for graphics on any horizontal or near-horizontal surface.

Also, looking from an atmospheric perspective, there was (with some exceptions) little clear visual signposting of different thematic areas which you could determine at a glance if you were looking to dip in and out of content rather than go through the exhibition systematically. In some areas it wasn’t immediately apparent where one theme stopped and another started.  I would have preferred a bit more of a content hierarchy with a few more intermediate level take-home messages, and suspect that such an approach might even have encouraged me to look closer at the objects. In other words, a bit of  a top-down approach (i.e. higher level, big-picture messages to hook you in), to balance the object-led approach which is more bottom-up.

At the end of the exhibition was a large reading area and facility for tracing your Irish roots. Plus of course the obligatory gift shop. But by this stage, having no Irish ancestry that I know of, my visit was done and I made a welcome return to the Canberra afternoon sunshine.

*Studier in the sense of the ‘Streaker, Stroller and Studier’ characterisation of different kinds of visitors.

**Someone will probably point out that the low light levels are for conservation purposes. However, I wonder how many of the objects in this particular exhibition are really so light sensitive as to warrant this approach, particularly given it is a temporary exhibition. Conservators may be horrified at the thought, but I do think it is time to revisit the evidence concerning light levels and object care, to see if we’re getting the balance right in this regard.

Beautifully Empty

A few years ago, a significant part of my job was preparing design proposals for prospective clients. As well as addressing the specific selection criteria, part of the art of preparing a good submission was preparing a version of the company portfolio which cast the firm in the best light, given the client’s specific requirements.

Imagery was essential to a good proposal – it could demonstrate, at a glance, how the firm had addressed similar design challenges in the past. Good photographs of past projects also gave proposals a sense of the tangible – a demonstration of ideas that had taken shape in the real world (and something that no amount of words, CAD renderings or concept sketches can really substitute for).

A common source of frustration for me was that many of our stock portfolio images depicted beautifully finished, perfectly lit, crisp, clean . . . empty spaces. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for projects where the aesthetic was a big part of the whole point (fine art exhibitions for instance). But I felt they really sold interactive spaces short – even the most interactive and engaging exhibition in the world looks sterile and passive without visitors there to breathe life into it.

There were good reasons why the images were the way they were: most of them were taken opportunistically, at the end of an install – while the ink was still drying, so to speak. Real visitors (not the people in suits and tell-tale name tags from opening night) could be days or sometimes weeks away. And it wasn’t always logistically or economically feasible to come back later to get the perfectly populated photographs in a museum that was several timezones away.

Practical issues aside though, it has since struck me that most images you see in the design or architectural press show spaces where people are conspicuously absent. At points, it borders on the spooky: deserted nightclubs, abandoned restaurants, lobbies where your only company would be the echo of your footsteps. To see what I mean, pick up an architectural magazine at random (or do a google image search under architecture magazine). I did this the other day as an experiment. Out of all the images in the feature articles (I ignored ads ,etc):50 were completely depopulated, 7 had people in them, and another 6 had what I called an ‘arty’ human presence (those long-exposure photographs where the person’s movement blurs them into a sort of semi-existence; ephemeral in relation to the permanence of the building).

Based on these examples, one could be forgiven for thinking that architects see people as a messy inconvenience, ruining their masterpieces. So when architects and designers speak amongst themselves, they airbrush out the public. This has interesting implications for the social and aesthetic role of architecture and design.

Jon Lang, writing 20 years ago*, really put his finger on something when he wrote:

Design professionals have long been rent by two opposing self-images – that of themselves as artists and that of themselves as environmental designers. . . Architects tend to think of buildings as objects and are thus concerned with object perception rather than environment perception. . . They are concerned with buildings as art rather than environments. . . Few architects would place themselves at the extreme ends of an artist-environmental designer scale, but these are two contrasting self-images, with the former being the one promoted by schools of architecture and the press. . . The problem is that few architects or schools of architectural education explicitly recognise this tension. . .

As far as I can tell, this tension has not been resolved in the intervening two decades.

Museums are an interesting case study in considering buildings as art vs. buildings as environments. New museums are often housed in ‘statement’ buildings by celebrity architects, which may or may not be all that easy to live with on a day-to-day operations front.

I should be clear – this is not intended as an anti design rant! Well-planned and executed design adds to our lives. Social research and environmental psychology have shown us that aesthetics are far more than an ‘optional extra’ in our homes, workplaces and public places. But nor is the aesthetic an end in itself: beauty in design helps serve the psychological and social needs of people. And I do wonder where people sit in the order of priorities in ‘statement’ architecture.

*Jon Lang (1991) Design Theory from an Environment and Behavior  Perspective. In Zube, EH & Moore GT (eds) Advances in Environment, Behavior and Design Volume 3. (extracts from p55; emphasis added)