Recipe for Success; Creating Exhibitions and Terrible Puddings
Around the age of eight, I discovered a recipe for microwavable upside-down jam pudding. The fact the humble pudding could be inverted AND microwaved created a sudden intense enthusiasm for baking. I refused all offers of help, diligently followed to the recipe, and waited eagerly for the conclusion of their four-minute rotation in the microwave to claim my victory as the Darling of Dessert.
Turns out, eight year old me was a pretty rubbish baker and forgot to add flour. My delicious dreams were shattered and replaced by a gelatinous jammy mess stoically ‘enjoyed’ by my Father (bless you), coupled with a mutinous outcry from two younger sisters who hated jam and had been cheated of dessert.
This doesn’t have a lot to do with McKenna-Cress and Kamiens’ 2013 book Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development, and Design of Innovative Experiences, but chapter six focused on approaches or tools often used to illustrate the story of an exhibition.
This got me thinking that putting together an exhibition is much like following a recipe.
In the same way I should have paid closer attention to the jam pudding recipe and what my audience wanted, how does the use of design ‘ingredients’ in an exhibition contribute to its overall success?
The first question the chapter posed was; is the design of an exhibition relevant to the story being told?
The Otago Museum Animal Attic is a beautiful example of historic exhibition layout and an antiquated use of cabinetry or case work. It provides a snapshot of how Museums once presented to the public, with 2624 species on display exploring taxonomy and taxidermy. Or if you’re like me, the draw card is finding the creature most hilariously represented in its taxidermy afterlife (see above).
Not many present day exhibitions would succeed in engaging audience with this same layout, but case work does still have a place.
Used effectively, McKenna-Cress and Kamien note it highlights the significance of a singular item to an exhibition, or the commonality shared between many objects placed in the same cabinet, such as in the Tangata Whenua gallery also in the Otago Museum.
Similarly, the chapter states an audience will appreciate an interpretation that contextualizes effectively what they see. Exhibitions are increasingly a dimensional experience and should cohesively make use of scale, space, pacing and placement.
Puzzling World in Wanaka for example, makes excellent use of space and theatrics to explain illusions, while the immersive environment of the Otago Museum World of Butterflies allows visitors to engage with butterflies much more effectively than if they were stuck to a pin board by evoking the use of multiple senses.
Essentially, the chapter suggests investing in the most appropriate environmental design for an exhibition will make it memorable.
Environmental design should also incorporate smart and empathetic decisions regarding accessibility. Or to put it simply, how user friendly is an exhibition and how well does it capture the widest audience?
This can be as basic as providing multiple language options, but can also require catering to a range of physical and sensory abilities. Everybody experiences an exhibition differently, just as no two people have the same capabilities. The authors suggest well designed projects can accommodate for this by providing multilayered content with a diverse delivery as well as road testing how a project might be experienced by a wide range people beforehand. Before you serve the jam pudding, did you check if everyone likes jam or if you put in all the ingredients?
McKenna- Cress and Kamien also touch on the fact exhibitions need to consider the changing ways in which audiences engage with information.
Today, multimedia and technology are crucial to our interaction with content, and many exhibitions like the Across the Ocean Waves exhibition in the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum have recognized this through the inclusion of interactive elements in their design.
However in much the same way the use of a mug did not necessarily make the monstrosity of a pudding my eight year old self created any better, the authors caution that design advocates must first determine if the use of interactive elements are necessary, and if they will benefit or hinder the telling of the story behind an exhibition.
The integration of multimedia requires a slightly different approach. A case study included in the chapter by Richard Lewis of the Richard Lewis Media Group (RLMG) notes the increasing use of multimedia as a form of communication in everyday life should be recognized by a project, and incorporated with an umbrella approach.
The RLMG group collaborated with the Smithsonian to create the Hall of Human Origins project, and this included the creation of media programs for the gallery, an open source website and smart phone apps, highlighting how our nearly limitless accessibility to multimedia channels can be used to create an experience that will extend beyond the physical walls of the exhibition itself.
As the world evolves, so to should the presentation of stories and ideas within an exhibition context. The use of new and flashy methods much like microwave cooking and turning a pudding upside down however, doesn’t always necessitate a win. The success of an exhibition (or pudding) relies on the collaborative use of design tools or ingredients which, as McKenna- Cress and Kamien note, best translate to the widest audience, and ultimately most accurately reflect the story being told.