The company we keep: audience engagement

Earlier this week I spoke at the National Craft and Design Directors and Curators Conference, held in Melbourne as part of the State of Design Festival. I met lots of interesting and passionate people and I was delighted to be able to be part of their conversations and workshop sessions.

I had been invited to address the group on this year’s theme: The company we keep: audience engagement. My talk: Who, How and How Many?, was intended to give an overview of issues surrounding audience development: the difference between audiences, visitors and participants (at least how I see it), audience profiles, visitor identities, models of participation, barriers to engagement, and how social media can fit into an audience development strategy.

For those that are interested, a PDF version of my presentation has been uploaded to Slideshare:

The presentation was intended to be a bit of a toolkit, identifying resources that might be useful. It was also a way of introducing some common vocabulary that we could all use during the Workshop sessions during the conference.

As always, I am indebted to Nina Simon and her excellent Museum 2.0 blog. It has so many great ideas I was able to include in my presentation and I just hope my own particular take and spin on things was able to add some value.  (I always put a plug in for Nina’s book, the Participatory Museum, so maybe I repay the favour by promoting a sale or two . . .).

Another resource I drew upon in this presentation was Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s Culture Segments audience model. But more on that in a future post.

The Garden of Health

It’s always nice to see a project you’ve worked on come to fruition.

Yesterday I went to the opening of the Garden of Health at the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide. This new garden is designed to show how plants have been used for healing and wellbeing since ancient times. It features medicinal plants from around the world, including plants which have only recently caught the attention of modern pharmacology.

A view of one of the Garden of Health beds

I was appointed to write interpretive text for the signage. The Garden staff were very pleased with the result (as was I!), so bear with me if I show off some of my handiwork (and apologies that the contrasts of daylight have played havoc with the camera a bit):

Ancient plants, cutting edge medicine
Interpretive sign on plants and modern pharmacology


The potential hazards of herbal medicines
Healing plants of Africa

The intent with the interpretive text was to have a casual, conversational style that didn’t get too bogged down in detail but still offered enough interesting facts to make the signs informative and engaging. Signs cover historic periods, healing traditions and geogrpahic areas. (And thanks to Katrina Nitschke from the Garden for giving these signs a nudge in the right direction from time to time!)

The Garden of Health is located near a new Western Entrance to the Garden, made a landmark by this impressive Gingko Gate by artists Hossein and Angela Valamanesh:

The Gingko Gate

If you’re in Adelaide, I hope you have a chance to check it out.

Exhibition Costs – constants and variables

US-based exhibition designer Mark Walhimer recently conducted a survey of exhibition costs – the results are here, based on 59 responses. For those of you interested in benchmarks of exhibition costs (i.e. quantifying the length of a piece of string!), this will be an interesting read.

Now while the responses may not be representative of the museum sector as a whole, there are some particularly noteworthy points:

  • There is more than an order of magnitude of difference between the lowest cost and most expensive exhibitions. Prices range from $25/sq.ft. to $600/sq.ft (roughly $270 – $6450 / sq.m).  Having costed up exhibitions myself, I wonder whether these prices all include the same thing. (I can’t imagine the lower price range includes the full interior fit-out of a space and can only guess that the flooring, lighting, etc doesn’t change or isn’t included in these budgets, only the specific displays)
  • Science centres are the most expensive exhibitions – there were no science centres below $100/sq.ft. and this category included the most expensive exhibits at $600/sq.ft. Most fell somewhere around the $300-$400 mark. This is no great surprise as science centres tend to have more interactive exhibits and immersive elements which are expensive to design and build.
  • Children’s museums were the cheapest, with all of the exhibitions being at or below $250/sq.ft. Children’s museums have a lot of interactives too, but maybe these fall more into the ‘cheap and cheerful’ category? Also children’s museums tend to have exhibits more spaced out (based on my anecdotal experience anyway), so this might reduce the cost on a per sq.ft. basis.
  • History museums fell somewhere in the middle, ranging from $50-$400 per sq.ft..

There are also figures for breakdowns of in-house versus contracted design and construction, and design costs as a proportion of the overall budget.

The survey results overall are distilled into a pithy snapshot:

The average 6000 square foot History Museum, Science Center, Children’s Museum and Traveling exhibitions are $204 per square foot with 17% spent on research, design and exhibit development.

That translates to around $2195 / sq.m. (I feel more at home in metric territory), or a ballpark of around $2000/sq.m. This seems to be an incredibly sticky ballpark figure, surprisingly resistant to time or units of currency. I remember GBP2000/ sq.m. being the ‘rule of thumb’ costing that was regularly used in the UK – over a decade ago! Then when I came back to Australia 4 years ago the same ballpark of $2000-$2500 / sqm still seemed to most people to feel about right as a costing guesstimate. Now it seems that it still holds true.

So why are exhibition design costs seemingly resistant to currency changes and inflation? Or are they? (Let’s face it, it’s a somewhat arbitrary midpoint in a VERY broad spectrum). Perhaps the costs of certain types of exhibits have gone down (software and IT hardware in particular). Maybe 10 years ago was a bit of an aberration (millennium fever and all), and things have calmed down a bit since. Or have exhibition developers got more savvy about extracting the most out of every dollar of the budget?


The Ministry of Detail

A few weeks ago I was forwarded a link to this TED Talk by Rory Sutherland:

It’s called “Sweat the small stuff”, and describes how large corporations are often disconnected with what actually happens on the ground. Business leaders expect the world to behave like Newtonian physics: the level of effort should be in direct relation to the size of the outputs.

However, human behaviour doesn’t work like physics: what changes our attitudes and behaviour is not necessarily proportional to the level of complication, expense or force exerted. Small things can be surprisingly memorable. Simple changes can have remarkable impacts.

Conversely, in large projects everyone can get so wrapped up in the big picture, the strategy, that they fail to get the details right.  So ‘big stuff’ (e.g. new buildings) can be done spectacularly well, while the ‘small stuff’ (e.g. signage) is the poor cousin that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. But – it’s the the small stuff that can very easily get in the way of the big thing’s success.

Because of this, Sutherland calls for all organisations to have a Chief Detail Officer, as well as a Government Ministry of Detail. Rather than people in charge of the purse strings (who are instinctively drawn to big and complicated solutions), such Details people would be charged with keeping a look out for the deceptively simple – in some cases this might just be seeing what’s fallen through the cracks between one big initiative and the next.

Details are the foundations. Get them wrong and that’s what people will notice first.