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!
Well-designed signage is a rare and precious gem. In a museum, signage can set the tone for a visitor's entire visit: because if she starts by buying a ticket, checking her coat, using the bathroom, and then finally entering the gallery she most wants to see, she's already had to locate at least four separate areas of the museum, probably by following signs. And if that process was easy—i.e., well-signed—she'll ideally be in a fine mood; but if it was difficult, she may enter the galleries feeling grumpy or frazzled, and that will color her experience of the whole museum.
So kudos to Berlin's Kunstgewerbemuseum (the museum of decorative arts and design) for putting writing on the wall that no one can miss, and winning a design prize along the way. The eye-catching size and color of the signage creates a certain aesthetic effect that not all museums would want, but it accords well with the all-parts-visible idea behind Rolf Gutbrod's 1960s building.
Even award-winning signage has two potential weak points, however. First, it has to be wriiten in a certain language—here German, which some visitors may not understand. Second, there is a compelling argument (nicely presented in an airport example in the addictive design podcast 99% Invisible) that the architecture itself, not just signage, should help guide the people in it. But since purpose-built buildings are not in the cards for most museums (and even if they are, wayfinding is only part of their mission), it's worth taking signage seriously.
Every year the American Alliance of Museums confers awards for great exhibition design and label-writing (among other categories.) The 2015 lists are out! You can see the former here as a quick list and the latter here in a more expansive format with photos and descriptions. Of the many worthy entries, my personal favorite was a label by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for the Zulu beer pot pictured above. (You might want to check it out in the MIA's beautiful online catalog, which is not only sleekly designed but includes audio clips and free image downloads.) As reproduced on page 6 of the AAM report, this label brings out the object's visual qualities and social importance at once—certainly deserving its prize.
My second-favorite label appears on page 9: an outdoor panel at the La Brea Tar Pits. It even has something in common with the beer pot label: vivid opening lines. Who could refuse to read further after "The stinky dead mastodon was irresistible" or "How is brewing beer like growing babies?"
Once a month the Käthe-Kollwitz Museum in Berlin offers a lunchtime tour by the director, Dr. Iris Berndt, and yesterday's provided the extra motivation for my first visit to the museum. Standing in the first room of the ground-floor galleries, waiting for the tour to assemble, I was struck by the "word cloud" on a wall right next to the entrance. Like the automatically generated word clouds on the Internet, this collection represents thought trends in a wide set of "users" (clustered around the name of the artist, nicely emphasized with extra lighting). But unlike the digital word clouds, these words have been carefully selected to educate. As Dr. Berndt explained, they all represent concepts widely understood to apply to the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz—but several of them are problematic or even false. By marking these four terms with question marks—Feminist? Jewish? Communist? An artist who depicts suffering?—the display indicates that these preconceptions need to be reexamined and possibly discarded. This seems to me a very simple yet effective way to ease a visitor into the experience to come: several key themes are named right at the beginning, setting the tone for the subsequent galleries and helping a visitor to frame the individual objects; and just as importantly, it introduces the idea of questioning stereotypes, clichés, and pat explanations. For such a complex, richly-textured life and oeuvre as Kollwitz's, this strikes just the right first note.
This post has been a long time in coming, insofar as this particular display idea was one of the motivations to create this blog in the first place: that's how beautiful, simple, and effective I think it is. With it, the wonderful Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Arnhem (the Netherlands) has tackled the difficult problem of making primary-source documents approachable — in this case, eye-witness accounts of life in Arnhem during World War 2. The Dokumentationszentrum Berliner Mauer addressed this problem in a different but also very effective way. Still, for simplicity, this arrangement takes the prize. Aesthetically it's quite nice too, as if presenting the visitor with a bouquet of flowers that happen to be written on; it does attract a person's attention, far more than texts set flat on a wall. Although the metal stems are permanently fixed to the metal "blossoms" of text, I can imagine a variation on this idea that would allow the texts to be switched out periodically — perhaps even replaced with the occasional object, a hands-on addition to the textual bouquet.
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.
Overview panels can be underrated. In its recent renovation of the European Painting galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art shifted its "room labels" from the walls to plaques on knee-high metal stands. For space considerations, this makes sense. But if wall space is not at quite such a premium, a nice big wall panel does wonders for communicating the Big Idea. "What is this all about?" I can hear a visitor asking, making a sweeping gesture, stepping into a gallery for the first time. Individual object tags don't help answer this question, but an overview panel sure does. It is magical for its ability to unite a wide range of objects into a comprehensible narrative.
Everything I love about overview panels inheres in this example from the Saint Louis Art Museum. At the top is written the most general category, the designation of the collection: American Art. Below, the thematic title for the room: Nostalgia and the Gilded Age. But the best part? Look to either side and you immediately encounter something obviously gilded, perfectly illustrating the name. Moreover, both gilded pieces are quite large and lavish, as if lending some (literal) weight to the idea that an entire age could be gilded. And finally, the subjects of both pieces subtly underline the idea of nostalgia. The woman at right sinks into her chair, surrounded by precious items, speaking with a man (the artist) swallowed by shadows. At left, a golden winged figure in Classical robes embodies the glorification of a past age. Following the thread that connects the objects with each other and the text could hardly be easier.
Communicating complex scientific information in a compelling way can be a challenge. This display at the Civico Museo Archeologico di Milano does a beautiful job of breaking down a wealth of fairly abstruse information into four color-coded sections. With bright colors, digestible texts, and an inviting skeleton (always a draw!), the exhibit effectively explains what information can be gathered from ancient bones. At the top is an introduction to the fields of physical anthropology and epidemiology, and to the specific themes elaborated below. Below, labels describe several physical characteristics that can be determined from bones; and in a wonderful example of show-me pedagogy, the bones that are most indicative for each characteristic sit beside the label. So at left, in the red stripe, is a paragraph about "Race" and an explanation of how the length of the femur can aid in an identification. In yellow is "Maladies," including degenerative, nutritional, and traumatic varieties, each represented by a bone marked with an orange dot at the most indicative site. "Age" is detailed in blue, again juxtaposed with the representative bones. Green discusses "Sex" with the help of two pelvic bones and two skulls, a male and a female. That the complete skeleton sitting in the corner is color-coded to match the single bones and themes is the icing on the cake: an excellent clarifying illustration. In every respect, this exhibit fulfills what its title promises: it intelligibly introduces "The skeleton in the service of archaeology." And in a lively manner at that — a true feat, given the lifeless subject!
Photos of informational wall panels must be a minority among all photos taken in the British Museum. (They would be dwarfed by photos of the Rosetta Stone alone!) Yet this informational panel deserves a moment of stardom. It adorned one of the walls in the tiny gallery just to the right of the British Museum's entrance, a space for temporary exhibitions which at this partiular moment housed the Mildenhall Treasure. Urging the visitor to "Find out more," it presents various events and objects in the museum where the visitor can further engage with the themes in the gallery:
Although the dense text may repel some viewers, the wealth of information all in one place is an admirable way to expand the visitor experience beyond a single gallery — at the same time as highlighting and interconnecting the museum's other offerings.
History museums have a tougher row to hoe than art museums, in some ways, because the objects they put on display do not usually fall within the category of "fine art" and therefore may not be considered worth looking at per se. Most of all, how to engage a viewer with texts — the bread and butter of historical research — is a very tricky issue that history museums have to address. How can you display a ream of letters and documents in a compelling way?
The Dokumentationszentrum Berliner Mauer found an elegant solution to this problem. A series of cables and thin steel poles stretch from floor to ceiling, standing as masts of sorts for the "flags" of text panels hung on them. Oversized panels were bound into booklets of which each "page" held two A4 sheets and an explanatory text. The visitor could page through the cluster, looking at each page in turn. Several cables and poles held not booklets but lightboxes with historic photographs.
The overall effect was wonderfully open — no walls necessary! — as well as highly engaging, in my experience. Rifling through the big splayed boards is incredibly tempting. Visiting the Zentrum's website just now, I see that the whole building (and probably its surrounds, which are just as much a part of the museum) is under renovation; let's hope that some of this wonderful ingenuity appears in their new design as well.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.