Walls of text are daunting. We all know it; so why is it so hard to get away from them? Well, it's hard to reduce the things we want to communicate to little bite-sized chunks. But those nibblets are infinitely more digestible! Just look at this example from the archaeological park in Xanten, Germany. Here the signage is consistently structured into a few nuggets so small that even an overheated, weary visitor like yours truly could bring herself to concentrate for just a darn minute. Despite being a museum veteran, I often have to trick myself into reading signage: "Ok, just that one sentence next to the picture. And maybe that one standing by itself right at the end." That is precisely the sort of self-deception that the Xanten signage makes the most of! Each sign beguiled me into tricking myself three or four times over—until, without realizing it, I had read the whole thing! The easy structure with lots of empty space for your eyes to rest (and your brain to think there isn't too much work involved) makes a huge difference. This is just one of the wonderful visitor-friendly aspects of this park. Three cheers for Xanten!
The building of a large drainage pipe under Berlin's Mauerpark is a triumphant example of how simple display concepts can be transformative. Rather than making yet another annoying construction zone in the city, and this one right in at the entrance to the most popular park, the organizers decided to make it an attraction in itself. They achieved this by erecting a wooden wall around the main building area and decorating it with fun and informative panels. The biggest and most iconic is the cartoon cross-section of the pipe itself (above). The pipe introduces itself through a speech bubble: "I'm a drainage pipe with a 4.4-meter diameter"! More detailed panels describe the water system in depth. Around the corner, a spin wheel with exercise challenges on it ("do 5 pushups!" etc.) is a further attraction. Most surprising of all, you can see it all and learn more on a beautiful modern website devoted to the project! Way to go, Berliner Wasserbetriebe.
From time to time, of course objects have to go off display—to be conserved, to go traveling, to be studied. But for a visitor it's frustrating to see an empty space in the display case; so what are the options for filling it? Particularly if the object is coming back soon, replacing it may not be practical. Personally I like the simple-yet-effective photograph of the missing object with a little caption about what a great time it's having on tour (or whatever the reason it's absent; remember the spiritual objects that are not allowed to be seen?).
One variation on this predicament—and its solution—caught my eye at the archaeological site of Prima Porta, just north of Rome. The Roman villa here (the "Villa of Livia," built in the 1st century BC) has a nice big pool out in the garden that was once surrounded by columns, as well as a black-and-white mosaic floor depicting marine creatures. To protect the remains of the badly damaged floor, a wooden platform has now been built over it. But this hides the mosaic! And the traces of the columned porch! So it was decided to adorn the platform with wooden discs representing the position of the columns, and black paintings of the mosaic sea creatures still frolicking beneath the plywood. The result gives an impression of the original layout while still protecting the remains.
As if a cave-turned-gallery weren't cool enough, what if the cave is in a fantastical Cappadocian fairy chimney? It sounds (and looks!) straight out of Dr. Seuss, but it's real: the Cappadox art festival comprises dozens of art installations in and around these otherworldly stone towers. As Emma Stone in Hyperallergic reports, the installations range from single sculptures to multimedia ensembles. The piece pictured above fits particularly well into the rock-hewn environment; a space once used for graves and chapels now houses these vaguely steampunky arachnocreatures. It's a superb way to spotlight both the living, breathing contemporary art and the (UNESCO-listed) historic cultural site.
What does it mean when an art museum plans to expand into a sweeping green park space—with no art? That is precisely what the North Carolina Museum of Art is doing, according to a recent New York Times article. The large outdoor extension is emphatically not a sculpture garden, says the museum director, Lawrence J. Wheeler, but rather "a unifying idea of what people perceive as a museum and what they perceive as a park." This is one more step in the direction of museums as sites of experience above all else. It raises the question: If parts of the world such as parks can become parts of museums, what has a museum become? If a museum's ultimate role is to serve the community, then a park space is ideal; but what then differentiates a museum from a park, a library, a parking lot—or anything else of value to the community?
Remember the "talking statues" in London? Now the same folks (Sing London) have extended their project to Berlin. As they did in London, they are equipping numerous commemorative statues around town with audio clips that a visitor can access through small signs in front of the statue; snap the QR code and you're ready to listen. Two colleagues and I tried out the Lise Meitner statue and found it worked flawlessly. The voice actor brought a vibrant personal touch to the statue—a great way to bring it to life. One useful aspect of this concept is that such audio accompaniment can be overlain on any preexisting object; it does not have to be developed at the same time as the object installation. All that has to be added to the physical display space is a QR code (or a link to another technology—like Blinkster, used in Berlin's Ethnological Museum).
It's a tricky task to make nature itself into an exhibition. Nature walks (in botanical gardens and model farms, for instance) often rely not on a group of objects or other predetermined set of material, but on an unpredictable troupe of actors who may or may not be on stage that day. What a challenge to present material that the visitor might not even get to see! But certain display tactics can help smooth over the possible unevenness of this living exhibition. The Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood, Florida centers on a boardwalk that winds through a section of mangrove habitat. (It also has a lovely visitor's center which, when I visited, included a display of contemporary art on spiffy movable walls.) At the start of the walk, large signs with vivid pictures of the animals (above) introduce the visitor to the point of the exhibition: to VIEW the plants and animals. Further, to help the visitor engage—and to help them see the critters tucked away in their hidey-holes—the Center offers a handout with a checklist of the plants and animals one might encounter on the walk. This is an easy, effective, low-cost way to encourage visitors (especially kids) to really look, and even to try to identify the things they see. It would be fantastic as an app for mobile devices too.
Impeccable timing! This news story came out in Deutsche Welle just after I wrote the last post, and highlights precisely the same idea of viewer engagement as discussed there. In this case it's not a victory podium but a chair to stand on, and it invites you to stand on it by virtue of the three chairs next to it with people (statues) standing on them. These people all "stood up" for what they believe in, and spoke out—so here's your soapbox: what will you speak out about?
How can museums effectively engage their visitors? It's a huge question with myriad answers—and sometimes it seems that each answer only raises more questions. Over the past six weeks or so I've gotten to participate in some rousing discussions about public engagement in museums (one was this scintillating symposium in Cambridge) and was deeply affected by the ideas presented there. Many of them involved staging events in the museum, making the museum a hub of activity and an agent in the lives of the community. One of the most moving ideas came from our colleagues in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, who have worked with a correctional center to create opportunities for young offenders to connect and grow with art.
Yet public engagement can work on much smaller levels. Three levels made of white plastic, for instance. I saw these steps on the sidewalk outside a restaurant, simply standing there beside the tables and stools, and thought it was a very clever way to invite a passerby to stop and engage. Nothing says "we need a person here, and it should be you!" like an empty victor's podium! Can't you imagine a group of friends vying to be #1? In that moment, they have stopped to engage and have fun as we can only hope they would at a museum display. In this case the restaurant must be hoping for a bit more face time with potential customers—but a museum could surely use this tactic for another purpose. These steps act almost like a large wooden cut-out with a hole for the face: it is practically magnetic. So purpose-made, missing only the human ingredient. And someone to take a photo of that human, of course.
One of the most inspiring ideas on display that I've seen recently was produced and beautifully documented by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). An innovative team at the museum wanted to put science in the path of everyone in town, and decided that small exhibits at transit centers would reach the best cross-section of community members. Through many trials, redesigns, and retrials, they came up with two stellar ideas for engaging the public with scientific material. They explain their motivations, processes, and results in a wonderfully informative booklet that is free to download (below; also available here, for example): these are people who really put their words into action!
A successful display does not need a fancy new design idea or technology to be successful (indeed, sometimes those can really go awry!). Some of my favorite displays are very simple; their strength lies in being extremely well-conceived in terms of how they achieve their few basic goals. One great example is the signage at the Domäne Dahlem in Berlin, a charming set of fields and cottages meant to teach the visitor about old-time farming and artisanal trades. The signs scattered around the grounds are excellent in several simple but important respects:
Botanical gardens are a special kind of museum. By their very nature they have certain restrictions and opportunities that are foreign to a "brick and mortar" museum — for instance, walls. Walls are both a restriction and an opportunity, really, and one that is rather lacking in at least the outdoor portion of any botanical garden. With walls come wall texts, as well as the ability to encourage certain directions of movement. Lacking walls, botanical gardens (again, speaking of the outside area; the greenhouses and possible visitor center or attached museum are a different story) miss these opportunities even as they gain others.
What potential repercussions a lack of walls might have on a plant display struck me at the Ökowerk Berlin, which includes several garden spaces on its extensive grounds. Labeling the display is tricky when there isn't a wall to support the labels; the solution here is to print small paper labels and slip them into metal and plastic holders staked into the ground. The stakes are well-conceived insofar as they can be placed anywhere, and presumably even moved as the plants grow, unfurl leaves that then cover the signage, or drop their leaves and retreat to a mere husk, requiring the signage to be set nearer in order to look relevant. Unlike larger signs too, they can be stuck right in the middle of a bed of plants, making very clear what they refer to. Conversely, the portable size restricts the amount of information that can be given: so in this case, QR codes have to do almost all of the legwork.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.