Scrolling through the reviews of a museum is more compelling than you might think. Yes, there are the gripes about overpriced gift shops or bad coffee, but something much more interesting is going on.
We all have an idea of what separates a brilliant space from a dull one, recommend and warn away as required, but it’s far harder to tease apart the intricacies of good design. As our visitor experience is fundamentally shaped for us, it’s important to understand exactly how we interact with these places. To design a museum is no easy task.
The space has to work practically, treading a fine line between engagement and moving people through. A designer has to keep in mind some kind of narrative, a purpose. Some collections are grouped chronologically, others by type, others geographically. Every piece is carefully placed in its context, and, like ingredients in a cake, you must consume everything at once. As a result, you have already been told how to generalise what you see, how to categorise it. Often, the whole narrative is mapped out for you by carefully numbered rooms or footprints stuck to the floor.
The responsibility also falls on museums to make their contents digestible. Too little information and the displays are vacuous, too much and it’s impossible to take it all in. How do you know what material to include?
I put this question to a tour guide who has worked in museums in Grenoble for over 25 years. “People are increasingly more interested in the history of an object, its origins”, he said. By comparison, art critic Edmund Feldman described four steps to art appreciation; description, analysis, interpretation and value judgements. This can be seen as a good benchmark for providing useful information, covering the techniques, meaning and wider significance of a work.
I saw a version of this applied particularly successfully at a pop-up exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (Within and Without: Body Image and the Self, August 2018). By a clever use of colour coding, the organisers were able to provide multiple interpretations. The traditional label was joined by an expert opinion and personal responses, or you could choose to join the pieces in a story. Crucially, it put the choice back to the public.
Lastly, there has been a great diversification in how information is disseminated from the experts to the public; traditional labels are now found alongside audio guides, tablets, films and interactive exhibits. Often, it is not so much the case of what is used, but how effectively. One study published in Computers and Information journal found that interactive media can distract people away from actually interacting with exhibits. To anyone who has spent time fighting with an unresponsive tablet bolted to a podium, this one feels familiar. However, they found benefits of using technology such as augmented reality (AR), which allows you to view the information over the top of the object or painting itself. To get technical for a second, this allows the brain to process both the object and information at once, which led to a much-improved appreciation of the works. AR can also greatly enhance accessibility, as the user can zoom in and focus on specific parts of an object.
There is of course no one uniform framework that we can apply to every museum, but the success stories can teach us how to capitalise on what’s effective and move on from what isn’t. Perhaps most importantly, becoming aware of this ‘hidden curation’ changes how you interact with any new space.
Once you move your view outwards from the objects to look at their surroundings and try and grasp the story that you are being told, it’s difficult to look at a museum the same.
Image: Holly Hollis