One of my favourite sessions from last week’s MA National Conference (see also here) was the ‘Exhibition Critique’ session. This was a thought-provoking peer review of an exhibition, bringing together designers, curators and a panel of expert reviewers to discuss the exhibition from the perspective of both the design challenges and the resulting visitor experience.
I’d visited this exhibition not long after it opened, albeit a quick streak through at the tail end of a lightning trip to Melbourne. So I was familiar with the exhibition, but nearly 12 months down the track, was relying on the lasting impressions I had rather than any immediate recollections (probably not a bad starting point really).
The session kicked off with the ACMI team, led by Michael Parry, giving a brief overview of the exhibition’s history, processes and challenges, along with some visitor feedback they’d collected. (This bit was done while the exhibit reviewers were out of the room, so that it could not affect their critiques later in the session). Michael elaborated on some of this at a later conference session, and I’ll summarise the salient points from both sessions here:
- ACMI had a difficult first few years, tied in with some of the early teething problems of Federation Square. ACMI hosted numerous temporary exhibitions, but there was no consistent offer. So Screenworlds was unusual in that it was an exhibition conceived to solve a problem.
- The Design and Content Development processes were conducted in parallel. The initial intention of this was to save time, however this turned out not to be the case: it often entailed considerable design re-iterations, and sometimes design decisions made early in the process created unforeseen constraints in the way the emerging content could be presented. On the other hand, the parallel process created oppourtunities and exhibits that would not have emerged if all the content decisions had been made before the designers were called in. (This resonates with my experience of contractual tensions in exhibition development process – from a Project Manager’s point of view, the more certainty there is in the project at the outset, the better. You want to limit re-designs and the time, cost and hassle they entail. But on the other hand, steering too hard down that route can stifle creative opportunities.) As Michael said, the only way around this is for all team members (in-house and consultants) to enter the process with their eyes open and ready to navigate the bumps along the road (presumably with contractual and fee structures that allow this).
- By definition, the content was overwhelmingly screen-based (there are apparently some 250 screens across the exhibition!). But they couldn’t use all the content they wanted, often due to format and copyright constraints.
- The content and the slightly awkwardly-shaped angular cloverleaf exhibition space both lent themselves to the exhibition being divided into three parts:
Emergence (history of the development of different screen based media);
Voices (how the moving image shaped Australia, and how Australians shaped the moving image – from a cultural rather than a production-process perspective);
Sensation (the most interactive and immersive area, looking at commonalities between media. I think this is also the bit that includes the games lab).
- The low ceiling and hard surfaces were softened using curved surfaces; these were made of bamboo and other renewable materials.
- In the year since opening, some 340,000 people have visited the exhibition, roughly half from outside Melbourne. 24% of these visitors spend longer than 1.5 hours in the exhibition and there is a fair bit of repeat visitation. From visitor surveys, the main complaints they have are density and audio tracks interfering with one another (9% of visitors). The team were aware that this was going to be an issue, but one which was somewhat inherent given the content. The design solution was a self-aware compromise on this front.
At this stage, our reviewers entered the room. They were: Bryon Cunningham (Cunningham Martyn Design), Bliss Jensen (Museum Victoria) and Tim Fisher (Curator at Victorian Arts Centre). They each presented their thoughts upon visiting the exhibition.
Bryon liked the simple graphic map which was handed at the entrance – it clearly set out the space and he thought he would have found navigation difficult without it. He found the opening section (Emergence) overwhelming – a cacophony of activity and noise. But he liked to escape from it into the microcinemas (the white domes in the pictures above). He also thought there was a lot of text. Design-wise, he liked the lighting and curved shapes which he said brought welcome relief from the ubiquitous angles of Federation Square. He made an analogy to a department store – with piles of content to choose from, and mirrors to create an illusion of space.
Bliss was less confronted by the noise – in fact it drew her in and kept her moving from post to post. She liked the Australian perspective in an international context (care had been taken by the curatorial to make this Australian content neither parochial nor jingoistic). She observed that there was so much to take in on a first visit, and it took a while to focus on one thing. She started off looking methodically at each section, but soon lost stamina. Bliss also commented on some of the exhibition’s ergonomics – some of the tabletop viewfinders were positioned very low, and she wondered if the target age of the content and the ergonomic range of the exhibit were compatible in all instances (e.g. more adult-targeted content in low-positioned viewfinders). Compared to Bryon, Bliss was less taken with the physical form of the design, not feeling it was all that consistent with the curatorial messages. (Bryon apparently took the forms at face value, whereas Bliss seemingly wanted them to represent something meaningful).
Tim started out by acknowledging that as a permanent exhibition, this was ‘crying out’ to be done. But again, his critique was in the sheer density of content – was there too much stuff in this exhibition? There was much well-researched and written content, but it was cluttered and he didn’t feel there was any clear direction about where to go first. For Tim, museum fatigue set in from the outset – the sheer overwhelming density causing his attention span to wane “against my will”.
All three reviewers also spent time observing other visitors to the exhibition (indeed, Bryon prefaced his review by asking whether as exhibition ‘experts’, we are in the right place to review an exhibition compared to the general public). They all noticed generational differences in the way visitors used the exhibition – younger visitors seemed more confident in negotiating the visual and aural density (children of the information age?), and in any case, bee-lined for the games area more or less straight away.
The session then broadened out into a more open discussion between the ACMI team, the reviewers and the rest of the audience. Apparently an earlier iteration of the ‘Emergence’ exhibition had even more content. There was colour-coding of different themes in the ‘Emergence’ area, although this detail seemed to be lost on some of the reviewers (I’m starting to have my suspicions about the effectiveness of colour-coding as a visual signpost for the majority of visitors).
Over the weekend, I had another quick trip through the exhibition (cut short as it was near closing time; plus I was already a bit exhibitioned-out, fresh from the Tim Burton exhibition). Again the visual density of ‘Emergence’ struck me, but it seemed less intimidating the second time round. I don’t think I went into the microcinemas the first time (maybe they were all busy) but found them to be useful respite and a good way of delving into more detailed content.
In one of the lower-hanging microcinemas, I observed a kid who was probably no older than three confidently navigating the touchscreen interface. I wonder if our understanding of visitors in exhibitions can keep pace with the ever-increasing savvy of said visitors?