Signposts or Serendipity?

There has recently been a fair bit of discussion online about immersive theatre, and what the implications might be for exhibitions (helpfully summarised on Ed Rodley’s blog). One thing that has struck me about this discussion is that people seem to fall into one of two camps: those who cheerfully check their inhibitions at the door, go with the flow and lose themselves in the moment; and others who are consumed by anxiety at not knowing where the whole experience is headed and whether they’re going to miss the most important bit because there’s no obvious route to find it. These are ideas I’ve circled around a couple of times in different contexts over the past few months – firstly in considering meaning making versus meaning reading, and later in a discussion on exhibition layouts.

It seems some people delight in the serendipity of not knowing what’s coming next, while others need their signposts – without them, they feel cast adrift.

This raises a couple of questions for me – are these two inherently different kinds of people, or do circumstantial factors (e.g., audience expectations, social context, design of the setting, how an experiences is framed from the outset) play a significant role?

The answers to these questions have important implications for visitor psychology in general and exhibition design in particular. If we are dealing with distinct personality types, how can they both be accommodated in a given exhibition experience? Is this even possible? If circumstantial factors are important, then which ones? How can we orchestrate experiences and design spaces that assuage the anxiety of the signposters without spoiling the punchline for the serendipitous?


From ‘starstuff’ to ‘dark matter’

Close followers of this blog may have noticed a slight philosophical turn in recent weeks. There is a reason for that. Recent events have given me pause to think of the bigger picture – beyond the world of museums, visitors and my PhD.

On 30th March a friend of mine died, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in mid January. Things progressed a lot quicker than we expected at the start. But he faced his inevitable demise with both courage and a lack of euphemism – no talk of cancer “battles” here. Rather, he spent the time he had left embracing the passions and the people he cared most about.

One of these passions was photography. In late January he took some photographs of the night sky, and he emailed one around to some friends along with a message pondering on our place in the universe. He included this quote from Carl Sagan, which was repeated at his funeral:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

As my friend no longer exists in physical form, he is no longer ‘starstuff’. However, through shared experiences and memories, both happy and sad, he will continue to exert an influence on me and everyone else he knew. It binds us together, and there are many friendships he helped forge and relationships he helped strengthen by his example. So too, his professional legacy will go on as someone who cared about his work, sought to make a difference and devoted much time to the training and development of others. Extending Sagan’s cosmic analogy, I like to think he has gone from being ‘starstuff’ to ‘dark matter’ – an unseen source of gravitational forces that will continue to affect the shape and structure of the world he left behind. It’s a better world for him having been in it.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr Conrad Williams (1970-2013)


The Half-Life of History

There was a recent post on the Museum Audience Insight blog about “Historical cooties”. In a similar vein, I want to think about history being radioactive. By this I mean considering history as having a “half-life” – and thinking about how this influences what we tell and how we tell it in our museums and heritage sites.

A typical radioactive decay curve. Half of the radioactive nuclei decay in the first half-life, then half of what’s left decays in the second half-life, and so on.

I started thinking about this late last year, in response to Susan Cross’ blog post about Remembrance Sunday. At the time I saw a distinction between events that occurred within living memory (i.e., things we lived through ourselves), events within family recollection (i.e., it was before our time but we know an older relative who was directly connected to it), and events beyond the reach of this living recollection (where the past really is a foreign country). I guessed the limit of this living connection to be about 100 years. Once you get much beyond this, distinctions between eras and events start to diminish and smooth out, a bit like the decay curve above. So 20th century history has an immediacy to it that (say) the Victorian era no longer has. Fewer shared cultural touchstones and assumptions survive that length of time. So, things that would have been self explanatory to the Victorians need re-interpreting for a 21st century audience (an important thing to recognise when interpreting objects and sites from this period). Even more so when we go further back – such as the medieval period or the Roman empire (both of which span several centuries in themselves but are now considered to be more or less homogeneous from this temporal vantage point).

More recently, a discussion with Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog got me thinking about the other end of the decay curve. When events are so new, so raw, so contested, that museums decide they’re too hot to handle. Gretchen describes how US museums are engaging (or more to the point, not engaging) with the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war as a case in point. Getting back to the radioactivity metaphor, museums might be collecting the hot, unstable material of current events, but then they are “burying” it – until such time as the “stable isotopes” of history (less dangerous, less contested) can be safely recovered and interpreted.

So if history were a radioactive isotope, what would its half-life be? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Currently I’m thinking it’s somewhere in the order of a single generation – say 25-30 years. It’s interesting that this is the time period for which most Cabinet records are sealed, suggesting the most “hot” phase has passed by this time. But it might take 2 or 3 half lives before a period becomes a “stable isotope” – something like World War II. This is not to suggest that “stable” history is not contested either – as in the curve above, the “hot” parts of a story might fade with time, but they never completely disappear.