You can’t miss it!

The blood donation centre in the city has recently moved to a new location, and this morning was my first visit to the new site. I knew roughly where it was (in one of the city centre arcades), but wasn’t sure of its exact location. I needn’t have worried.

As soon as I walked into the arcade, there was clear signage (both at height and on the floor) that confirmed that I was in the right place and headed in the right direction.

Floor stickers and a large overhead banner point directing you to the new donor centre.

The floor signage repeats on both sides along the full length of the arcade – important for busy times of day when crowds will obscure at least some of these.

More floor signage – I’m still heading the right way!

This continues until you reach the entrance of the facility – it’s clearly signposted and the large clear facade welcomes you to enter:

The entrance to the new Blood Donor Centre. Clear signage and a sense of arrival.

The net effect of this is that I arrived to my donation appointment on time, and in a relaxed frame of mind. Although I find blood donation trouble free, it’s still not something you want to arrive stressed at!

Inside the centre itself there are large graphic murals of different people who have benefited from blood donation as well as signage that explains the donation process and what your blood might end up getting used for. (I’ve avoided taking photos inside to respect the privacy of my fellow donors.) There were some nice touches here, although I was struck by the lack of ethnic diversity in the featured donation recipients.

This amount of signage probably won’t be around forever, as people get used to the new location. But at the moment it’s a great case study of how to get people to your door without stress, fuss or confusion.

Compare and Contrast: Diorama Design

The diorama, typically comprising “preserved organisms and painted or modelled landscapes” (Tunnicliffe and Scheersoi, 2010, p. 187), has been a mainstay of Natural History museums for well over a century. While they are often much maligned as old fashioned by many museum professionals, they continue to be popular with visitors and can be valuable learning tools (Tunnicliffe and Scheersoi, 2010).

My recent visit to the US as well as my own research have got me wondering about the essential ingredients of ‘diorama-ness’. What would a psychological schema of a diorama be from a visitor’s perspective? When does a diorama stop being a diorama?

I would suggest that the displays at the American Museum of Natural History would be the closest to the traditional diorama archetype.

Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. There is relatively little interpretation beyond the description of the region it depicts.

Traditional dioramas attempt to re-create a naturalistic setting as closely as possible. The back wall of the diorama is often curved to enhance the effect of a foreground and a horizon:

The sand in the foreground and the painted background merge together to create a distant horizon

The dioramas are the principal focus of the exhibition, with the surrounding areas kept in relative darkness:

View into the African Dioramas in the American Museum of Natural HIstory

By contrast, the mammals displays in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History take a different approach. Rather than a sequence of identically sized and evenly spaced dioramas, the space is more open and varied in height and scale:

A general overview of the Mammals area in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

While backdrops are still used to evoke a habitat or setting, there is no attempt to make these look realistic. Rather, the multiple layering of two-dimensional images gave a ‘picturebook’ feel to the displays:

Picturebook dioramas – the animals’ habitat is eluded to rather than directly represented

The Smithsonian displays also sometimes showed multiple levels of the same scene, something I don’t recall seeing in the AMNH dioramas. For instance some dioramas included peepholes to see creatures hiding below ground:

Peep-hole displays showing life above and below ground. The label in the foreground asks “What does this coyote smell?” A beaver hides beneath.

While I’m happy to consider these displays as a version of a diorama, I wonder if other visitors’ interpretation is as flexible. Consider the Biodiversity Gallery at my research site, the South Australian Museum:

A view of the South Australian Biodiversity Gallery. Interpretation is via touchscreen rather than traditional labels.

As with the Smithsonian, these displays are a variation of the diorama archetype. While the displays have quite realistic foregrounds, these are set against a simple blue background:

A desert diorama. The blue is evocative of the clear blue skies of inland Australia, although this link is not made explicit.

Beyond the dioramas, there is further use of design to evoke the habitat – in the forests area, lighting combines with a ceiling feature to create an arboreal feel to the space:

The forests area of the SA Biodiversity Gallery

However, this effect is subtle for those not attuned to seeking out design features. It was not explicitly mentioned by most visitors who I accompanied through this space, suggesting they either didn’t notice it because their attention was absorbed by the displays themselves, or they didn’t think it was worth mentioning. (Some noticed a change in the feel of the space but couldn’t quite put their finger on what was different.)

Design concerns aside, do the displays in the Biodiversity gallery count as dioramas? In the words of one of my research participants:

It’s not even a proper diorama, because the background’s missing. . . . 

Further probing revealed that the painted background on a curved background (creating the artificial horizon) was an essential part of the diorama ‘schema’ for this visitor. However she continued to use the word ‘diorama’ to describe the displays, presumably in the absence of a more appropriate word.

What are the essential ingredients of a diorama to you?

Tunnicliffe, S. D., & Scheersoi, A. (2010). Natural History Dioramas: Dusty Relics or Essential Tools for Biology Learning? In Anastasia Filippoupoliti (Ed.), Science Exhibitions: Communication and Evaluation (pp. 186-216). Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.


Heritage of 9/11

Everyone remembers what they were doing on September 11, 2001.

At the time I was living in the UK. I was working on a project in rural Lincolnshire and spent that afternoon in some long (and frankly rather tedious) meetings, oblivious to what was unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. At the end of the day, my colleague went to pick up our car from where we had parked it down the road. I waited on the narrow street with our clients, making small talk. It seemed to take an unusually long while for my colleague to show up – we were in an English market town and it was hardly rush hour – but eventually the car pulled up. He got out with a look of shock on his face. “Sorry – I was listening to the radio and missed the turning. Some planes have flown into the World Trade Center in New York and the towers have collapsed.”

We made the two hour journey home in near silence, listening to the news on BBC Radio as we let what had happened sink in. It was too soon to know whether our worst fears were irrational or a harbinger of what was to come. As we speculated as to what would happen next, and how the USA, a wounded military giant, would respond, I suddenly felt a long way away from home indeed.

Fast forward 11 years to today. Yes the world has changed, although perhaps not to the extent of my darkest fears that day. We have adjusted to the ‘new normal’ of heightened security with grim resignation. The ‘war on terror’ continues, but it has faded to the background of most people’s day to day lives. A new tower is reaching skywards above Ground Zero.

The Freedom Tower under construction

I imagine there has been much reflection, discussion and debate in the US about how to record and interpret such a significant historic event, particularly since it is such a painfully recent chapter. What objects should be preserved, how should they be interpreted – and who decides?

On my travels to the US I saw objects salvaged from the wreckage of the towers in several places, including the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Newseum, the New York Public Library, and a visitor centre right near the current 9/11 memorial (the museum on the memorial site is not yet opened).

One of the memorial fountains, in the footprint of the former South Tower of the World Trade Center. The museum will eventually be located in the building to the left.

The 9/11 memorial site is open to the public and free, although for the moment you need a timed ticket to enter because the surrounding area is still a building site. In the footprint of each of the buildings are enormous fountains, surrounded by the names of those who perished in the towers (as well as the Pentagon, Flight 93, and the victims of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center). Rather than an alphabetical listing, people are grouped by flight crew or workplace. This juxtaposition of friends and colleagues, developed in consultation with next of kin and survivors, is a unique characteristic of the memorial.

For me, the most poignant part of the memorial site was the ‘survival tree’ – this tree was originally on the WTC site and miraculously survived the collapse of the adjacent buildings. It was removed, rehabilitated and now reinstated in the memorial site where it is gradually reestablishing itself. To me it was a symbol of continuity; the resilience of nature in the face of destructive forces unleashed by humanity.

The Survival Tree

In a museum setting, it’s a very different experience encountering objects from an event that you vividly remember, compared to something that’s safely abstracted in the past. As well as the twisted girders, plane parts and dust, there were displays that had a distinctly chilling edge:

Cell phones and pagers that kept ringing from the Ground Zero wreckage.  (Display at the Newseum, Washington DC)

Another thing that sticks in my mind from this experience was the realisation that one person’s vivid memory is another one’s history. When I was in the 9/11 exhibition in the Newseum, there was a another woman about my age with a couple of children in tow. They would have been about 10 or 11 years of age. While I quietly pondered the wreckage on display, I overheard her explain to her children what we were looking at – that once there were these bad men in planes, they flew into buildings, the buildings collapsed, and so on. I was struck by the fact that there is now a generation that is (just about) old enough to understand what happened, but too young to remember. 9/11 is probably as remote a concept to them as the World War II air raids over Britain are to me.

And so it goes – soon enough I won’t be able to say that everyone remembers what they were doing on September 11, 2001.

Compare and Contrast: Art and Anthropology

Both The Met and the American Museum of Natural History have displays of objects from the Pacific region. What I found interesting were the similarities and differences between the two display approaches – in one museum the objects are presented as works of ‘art’, whereas in the other they are presented as ‘artefacts’ of culture.

An overview of the Oceania gallery in The Met.
The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples in AMNH

The AMNH exhibition looks considerably older than the display at the Met, and the one in the Met is definitely lighter, more airy and spacious – both in respect to the space itself and the density of objects on display. But there are similarities in the colour palette used in both with the dominance of a light, slightly grey blue (ignoring the red-earth inspired colour scheme of the Australian display to the right of the AMNH picture above).

AMNH display cases – a more traditional approach
Displays at the Met – more open and with a greater attention to the aesthetic.

Of the art museums I visited in the United States, The Met was the only one to have dedicated any appreciable space to art from the Pacific region. It turned out there was a reason for this. The Met had acquired the collection of the erstwhile “Museum of Primitive Art” that had been founded by Nelson Rockefeller in association with Rene d’Harnoncourt in 1957. (The museum closed in 1974). These items were part of this so-called “primitive art” collection, along with items from Africa and the Americas. This term betrays a cultural legacy that gave me pause to ponder.

Plaque on display at The Met
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading about Rene d’Harnoncourt’s influence on exhibition design in a recent article[1]. He was director of MoMA from 1949-1967, and in the 1940s was responsible for taking new approaches to display of art, in particular items from the Pacific. He introduced varied colour schemes, theatrical lighting and a decluttered approach to case layouts in a way that both borrowed from and influenced shop window displays. His work was influential in positioning such objects as works of art, rather than just ‘ethnographic curiosities’. He was also interested in creating a market for Pacific art.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of Central Park, the AMNH takes a more anthropological view of its collections. Rather than works of art, the same sorts of objects are shown as representative of a culture. In these displays, the purpose is more to show the ‘archetype’ objects rather than the more pure aesthetic approach of the art museum, even if the objects are pretty similar to untrained eyes such as mine.

AMNH grapples with its own historical legacies in the way that it depicts ‘other’ (i.e., non-Western) cultures. Some of the displays seemed anachronistic in their depictions and terminology. They are presumably products of their time and I can’t imagine displays such as these being conceived today.

A human diorama of ‘pygmies’ in the AMNH

There was something about this that range a vague bell at the time, and later I realised I was recalling Bal’s 1992 critique [2] of the AMNH’s ethnographic displays and the historic cultural assumptions upon which they were based. While that paper is now two decades old, it looks like many of the displays described in that paper haven’t changed radically in the intervening period. It was interesting to re-read the article, now having some knowledge of the spaces it describes.

[1]  Foster, R. J. (2012). Art/Artefact/Commodity: Installation design and the exhibition of Oceanic things at two New York museums in the 1940s. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 23(2), 129–157. doi:10.1111/j.1757-6547.2012.00178.x

[2] Bal, M. (1992). Telling , Showing , Showing Off. Critical Inquiry, 18(3), 556–594.

My first Evaluation conference

Last week I went to the Australasian Evaluation Society’s conference – mainly because it was happening on my doorstep. Another draw was that Michael Quinn Patton (who needs no introduction to anyone who has done a research methods course) was delivering one of the keynotes. At first I was disappointed when I learned that this keynote was via videolink, but in this instance it worked well, if not quite the same as being in the same room.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the conference, because I’m not sure I can really lay claim to the title ‘evaluator’. But since evaluation spans such broad areas – public policy, health, international development, education and indigenous programs to name just a few – I wasn’t obviously out of place. Having said that, there was still some unfamiliar terminology and assumed knowledge among the delegates that had me reaching for Google later on.

I’ve compiled a storify of conference tweets which serves as a good overview. While most of the sessions were not directly related to my research, it was interesting to get some different perspectives on theories and methodologies, and see where the commonalities were. I also met some interesting people and gained a different perspective on how my skills could be used in my life post-PhD.