The SA Museum has recently opened its refurbished Ediacaran Fossils gallery, a small permanent exhibition showing the fossilised remnants of some of the earliest multicellular animals on Earth.
I did a few accompanied visits in this gallery during the first phase of my PhD research. In this earlier iteration, the dominant colour scheme was a strong red, presumably intended to evoke the red earth of the Flinders Ranges, the outback location where the ediacaran fossils were discovered. That’s how my participants tended to see it:
“in retrospect that red colour kind of seems to connect to the area itself of the Flinders. . .”
“Er the fossil room was very red. Was very red. But then again so’s the area where they all came from”
In my study, participants had different opinions on the red colour:
“I think it’s good that it’s a really strong colour because it’s very vibrant and it and it um, it makes it a really warm rich colour, and then the sense maybe that you’re actually on a cliff wall, that is like a cliff wall of where you might find things or . . .”
“. . . you sort of wonder whether it would be better off with a neutral, with neutral walls, to draw more attention to the exhibits . . . .I mean to have a red fossil wall that looks great, but then to have it in a room, I think that room was red, it sort of detracts from it a bit.”
The refurbished gallery has retained the same basic layout, but has changed the colour palette to a deep green-blue:
I believe the rationale behind the colour change was to be more evocative of what the environment would have been like when the creatures were alive (ie. the sea bed) rather than the outback setting that the area is now. This sense of being “under the sea” is enhanced by the line drawings of Dickinsonia et al up at high level. It also seems to increase the sense of height in the space.
I don’t know if it is the increased sense of height or that the back wall has been smoothed out and simplified a little, but it somehow seems more spacious in this new gallery (at least to me). It could also be that the size of the gallery, while not changing physically, has been enlarged conceptually by making what previously felt like a hallway become part of the exhibition proper.
So now, as soon as you come out of the lift/stairs, you feel like you’re in the gallery straight away rather than some ante-chamber or holding space. Blocking off the window has also dropped the light levels in this area, perhaps adding to that sense of “under the sea” immersion.
Overall I found this a calmer space to be in than the earlier iteration – they do say red is a highly arousing colour after all, and perhaps this colour scheme is a little gentler on the senses.
The new gallery has also made use of technology to help interpret the fossils, many of which can look like amorphous smudges to the untrained eye. iPad-based labels highlight the outline of the fossil imprints on the corresponding rock sections, making it easier to see what you’re looking at.
 Disclaimer – I had no involvement in the gallery refurbishment although I know the design team through being based at the SA Museum (also the senior designer, Brett Chandler, is a former colleague of mine and we’ve collaborated on exhibitions in the past). My commentary on the design is based on my own interpretations alone.