Advocacy for Design
The talk given by Otago museum’s staff was a good introduction to the world of design for exhibitions. This chapter in the book "Creating exhibitions: collaboration in the planning, development, and design of innovative experiences", expands more on what was said about the strategy of designing an exhibition and all things that need to be considered when designing.
Several of our classes have expressed how important it is to understand our target audience, the people coming to see our exhibition, to read our article or story, or watch our film. However, though it is imperative to have this in mind, and helps to answer more detailed questions in exhibition analysis, there are other aspects to integrate that knowledge into. For example, the spatial planning, the message you are trying to portray, the accessibility; all of these should be based off your knowledge of your audience. This chapter tackles this by looking at the philosophies, spatial planning, visitor flow, exhibition personality and selecting appropriate media. It goes through these as if chronological according to what would happen in a real exhibition design scenario.
Exhibitions differ in their form of communication to books and media because the path and what is read and absorbed is determined more by the audience. They are unique in their form of communication – they have a free-flowing form. Even if there is a determined path (as seen in Tuhura) there is no way to force your audience to see the exhibition in the way you want them to see it.
Museums and exhibitions, as well as being free flowing, are a place for authentic experiences. They involve real life objects, things truly in front of people and not just behind a screen. The more authentic objects can bring visitors in on their own or sometimes other objects need their story told for them. But either way, the object is there providing an authentic experience for the visitors.
The building itself can provide a sense of place and authenticity or participation in the exhibit can provide the authentic experience (visitors engage). Immersive experiences provide authenticity. Examples of immersive environments also could include soundscapes, dioramas, actors. This creates internal experiences that are more meaningful for the audience. These authentic experiences can mean long lasting emotions within the visitors. By generating these feelings, the museum has created an emotional transformation and on reflection of these feelings, will make stronger connections to the museum/ exhibition that is more likely to mean visitors either come back or persuade others to join.
So all together, the philosophy and approach covered here is to encourage an authentic experience for the audience through the nature of how exhibitions communicate (real life, free flow) but also through the building itself, the immersive environments, and causing emotional transformations.
A museum is a more social space for learning. Normally when learning (for example reading just as you are now) no social interaction occurs. Normally you read all the article, subject or other and then you discuss. However, in a museum, there are points where you learn something, you can discuss that subject and then go on to learn more. Discussion of the subject deepens the understanding and learning and the connection to the content.
So, it is important when thinking of the design of the exhibition to consider where to encourage social interactions. For example, seats are proposed as one way of encouraging the sociality, but interactive exhibits also are more social than observational exhibits.
Engaging audiences in a social context is important but cannot be fully realised unless there is a good understanding of the space and how it will be used for the exhibition. Once the size of the space is understood then designers can think of budget and scale (this is ever evolving throughout the design process as the more certain displays get, the closer a budget guestimate can be until it is eventually solidified). Within the team, different exhibits may receive different budgets (not that budget correlates with success of the exhibit), but once determined the designers must stick to the budget for their exhibit.
When it comes to spatial planning, after understanding the size of the space there can be an estimate made for the budget. This budget may not be split evenly between exhibits and from there a timeline can be put into place for when the space will be ready to be presented.
From the budgeting process and the organisation of the different exhibits, it makes logical sense that spatial planning and visitor flow follows on. Spatial planning is where the scale of exhibits and where they will be viewed from are organised. The flow is how the visitor will move through the exhibition after which other exhibition elements can be determined.
Within spatial planning, it is not just what is within the walls of the space but how to use the scales and views to portray the message and feel of the exhibition. High ceilings for example promote feelings of awe, low ceilings convey tight, intimate or claustrophobic spaces – both of which can help you tell your story. Aside from this thought of scale of the space, another important aspect of space is how the exhibit can be viewed – all sides? One side? From below? This provides the visual flow which also influences the visitor flow. This visual flow is meant to be what pulls the visitor into the next part of the story.
Visitor path and flow is the planned route through the exhibition and should be driven by the baseline narrative. Some have directed paths and others are more free choice (e.g.s: forced march, radial plan, pinball, survey/open plan). Overall, when designing the flow the main questions to be held in mind should be can the visitors find their way easily, and are the visitors comfortable with the flow (accessible to all visitors, are there enough benches to encourage social interaction).
Spatial design and visitor flow help to tell the story and its order to the visitors. Spatial design helps determine where things will be placed and on what scale where as visitor flow is an interpretation of how a visitor can move through the space. These can both help enhance the message you are trying to portray.
The exhibition personality is here described as the gestalt. This means the organised whole made up by a sum of parts. Those parts here can be the visual perception, lighting design, acoustics and sound, touch, smell and taste. Altogether though, it is important not to cause sensory overload.
The main sense around which an exhibition is vision therefore visual perception is key to the overall gestalt. Without being able to see objects properly or access certain exhibits due to height problems, a piece of the puzzle is lost. Lighting is a key component of the visual perception as it allows the visitors to see what’s on display. Light can enhance the mood or feeling of a space – so more yellow lighting creates a warmer and more inviting atmosphere. One of the limiting factors about lighting is if there is enough electricity in the building to bring to life your concept.
Sound is an expected part of the visitor experience. However, one problem that can be experience is sound bleeding across from one exhibit to another. A successful use of loud sound that I have experienced was in the Natural history Museum London, there the
T-rex has a separate section within the dinosaur exhibit, but you have no audible que of what you are about to see. An unsuccessful case of sound bleeding into an exhibit was in Otago Museum’s Tangata Whenua where the audio-visual movie sound could be heard from all throughout the exhibition. The way you experience the sound is also something to point out as sometimes it will be open/ background noise and other times it will be through headphones making it a more personal experience. One place I must mention for its innovative use of sound was in Berlin’s Natural History Museum where there was a spot exhibiting a sound sticker, but you could not here it until you put your elbows on the speakers and placed your hands over your ears. I am still so excited by this. It was silent but then you heard through your hands!
Stimulating and using other senses – which may be unexpected – helps the visitor to engage more. The use of touch is a unique way of creating authentic experience for example: where else can you feel the simulated texture of a tiger's tongue? It also brings home the fact that everything is present in real life and not behind a screen. Smell has a direct interaction with long term memory so utilising this particular feature of human senses will give a long-term authentic experience. Taste is a sense less used because of the problems with off products. Also... don’t forget about temperature, that can also add or take away from an exhibition.
All together, use of extra senses deepens the visitor’s connection to the exhibition but over use of any of these or all of them together can cause sensory overload – unpleasant.
Finally, selection of appropriate media. This can be easily linked to choosing the right sensory interactions as well. Mostly choice of media dioramas, audio-visuals, graphics, labels, models, interactives, and reconstructions. But, there can always be more ways depending on who you are designing with and how inspired you are. But the main idea is your way of presenting the information should match and enhance your story and convey the important information to your audience. Casework (anything inside a case) is often used and has an important aspect of design. Location of the case, the placement of its contents, mounting and labelling of the contents and lighting are all key aspects to be thought about within the case.
To enhance the story of your exhibition, chose the right media. This combined with the sensory experiences will help lock the visitors in, make them engage and keep their attention.
This paper looked at all the different parts that make up exhibition design going from the initial working out your space, budget and philosophy of your design approach, through to working out the use of the space for exhibits to finally how to portray the information within the exhibit. By breaking the design down into these categories, it can help create a picture of what has to happen behind the scenes to create a successful exhibition, however, there are more aspects that can also be added and thought about in every case. So, when thinking of our design process for Wai ora, mauri ora it might be helpful to look back to the summary points of each section to make sure you have followed the outlines, so we can all have a successful exhibition.