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Field Notes: physical structures, space design and how people move

During my run of museums, I thought a lot about the physical design of exhibition spaces: what makes a better experience? what factors influence the lay-out? what kinds of explicit and implicit cues are used to direct visitors? And how about the relationship between the architectures of the overall building and the spatial design of particular exhibitions inside?

Obviously, as with all fields of design, gallery design is getting better and better as the study of museology expands. There are now many scientific studies examining how people move around public spaces and how they take in information.

What follows is an attempt to organize the observations I made in my travels and consider the differences in exhibitions between the various museums I visited. I complied a list of factors that I think are key to the physical design of museum spaces, and the way content is organized within those spaces.

  1. Exhibition intention
  2. Existing architecture
  3. Content form
  4. Content scale
  5. Predicted visitor numbers and viewing times
  6. Patterns of pedestrian movement

1. Exhibition intention

Definitely the most logical place to start when considering the spatial design. Is there a theme, narrative or chronology to the exhibition? (One would hope at least one of these, or what is the point?) Who is going to be looking at the exhibition and what information are you trying to communicate? Is, for example, the exhibition aiming to engage kids in science and teach them knowledge? Or is it an exhibition showcasing the life’s work of a celebrated artist? A timeline of a particular musical movement? There is such an enormous range of possibilities that the design must start with the intention.

There is also the question of whether the information has to be presented in a particular order. Some exhibitions may be more narrative in structure – necessitating methods of directing visitors’ movement more overtly. Wall or content can be physical barriers that serve to create paths and restrict travel choices.

If the exact order of the experience is less important, as in, for example, the permanent collection of an art gallery or an interactive science exhibition, an open-plan design can be more suitable. This way, visitors can wander at will towards content that looks appealing, and shape their own experiences.

Of course, between these two models – path-based and open-plan – it is more of a gradient than a binary choice. Version of these models appear both in the design of individual exhibitions and in the architecture of museum buildings themselves. The directed experiences of the Newseum or the Museum of Sex can be contrasted with the choose-your-own-adventure style of the Art Institute of Chicago or the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. To my mind, a path-based design is a more comprehensive experience – you can be sure that you will be taken past everything there is to see. On the other hand, if you only want to experience a selection of the content available, then an open-plan design is more conducive to that aim.

The exhibition intention also informs the amount of extra visual design that happens around the content. It can vary greatly in complexity. For example, the large, open minimalist spaces of Dia and particularly its airy naturally-lit main floor perfectly compliment the work of large-scale installation-based artists like Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt and Fred Sandback, to name but a few. Extra visual design elements have not really been added for particular exhibits but the building’s conversion itself (Dia: Beacon used to be a Nabisco box printing facility) has definitely been informed by the type of work the museum was intended to exhibit.

The opposite visual extreme would perhaps be the Met’s Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition, which had an abundance of visual design elements extra to the showcasing of punk-inspired apparel. Like the punk movement itself, the design was stunning and excessive (in the best way possible). In one room, a large pink-tinged LED screen showed punk music performances, backdropped by bright pink texturally moulded plastic walls. In another, polystyrene walls were carved and distressed to look like crumbling concrete and graffiti. All of the mannequins wore enormous spikey-haired wigs in various colours. Lighting-wise, the exhibition was kept fairly dim: the LED screens and lit mannequins dominating the rooms while maintaining a generally grungy feel.

These are two examples where the exhibition intention has been carefully considered and design choices about physical space made accordingly. They would certainly have been the result of heavy communication between curators and architects or designers. Once again, successful design appears effortless and obvious when you experience the final product.

Then you see a badly designed exhibition and the work involved becomes apparent. I was really quite disappointed with EMP Museum’s Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic exhibition – both with the content and the design. The intention of the exhibition seemed very unclear. There was no logical progression, and only very loosely grouped areas that presented nothing particularly new or unobvious about the genre, either visually or within text. It seemed to be merely an arbitrary collection of fantasy artifacts: a prop dragon, scribbled drafts from fiction writers, costumes from films, prints of fantasy artwork. This last particularly annoyed me – the prints were presented in a cramped little room and stacked about 3 high on the walls, making it very difficult to actually see any of them very well, particularly with more than 2 people present. Despite having some visual design – dungeons and forest elements – this exhibition had no cohesive feel to it, and no depth whatsoever. It really didn’t add anything to my experience or understanding of Fantasy.

So, exhibition intention needs to be carefully considered and communicated. It is the responsibility of both the curator and the designer to use the intention to inform spatial choices – not just in the physical layout but also visual factors like brightness, contrast, colour, extra visual ornamentation, lighting, etc.

2. Existing architecture

In considering spatial design, one of the very first factors to be dealt with is the pre-existing physical space. I would imagine most galleries are set up to have a certain amount of flexibility for temporary exhibitions. Elements you wouldn’t be able to change easily would include ceiling height, room dimensions (unless you constrain them with added walls or partitions), and the exhibition location within the building. Elements of varying flexibility depending on the museum might be: existing ornamentation, amount of natural and artificial light, room entrances and exits and how clearly bounded the exhibition is. Greater consideration and control of these elements obviously make for better exhibition design.

3. Content form

Exhibition curators make choices about what information to present and what form that information takes; these choices also direct the spatial requirements of an exhibition. Is the content two-dimensional or three-dimensional? (i.e. walls or open space?) One viewing point or many? Traditional art forms like painting and sculpture generally want a fair amount of soft light and don’t tend to interfere with each other. Video works and documentaries may require individually contained spaces, dim lighting, accompanying seating, and sound management.

Is the content interactive or more of a passive experience? Interactive content is probably better presented in a more open-plan layout to avoid congestion, however if the exhibits involve audio/visual components they may need to be segregated to avoid a build-up of sound.

4. Content scale

Content scale is a fairly obvious one that impacts spatial design, and it tends to be well-managed in most galleries. Obviously large works are usually intended for public viewing. They need large spaces both to avoid feelings of claustrophobia and to physically gain enough distance from the content to be experience wholistically. Smaller works that are more intimate or intricate may be a little more challenging to manage when there are a large number of viewers involved. As in the exhibition of Civil War photographs a the Art Institute of Chicago, where the items were all smaller than postcards, perhaps the best answer is to just have lots of them. (I particularly loved the stereograms in that exhibition.)

5. Predicted visitor numbers and interaction times

I would imagine that most large museums gather statistics of visitor numbers where they can, though I’m not sure if interaction times can really be measured outside of scientific studies. In any case, traffic predictions need to be considered for successful exhibition design.

Factors affection visitor numbers and viewing times might include:
– Fame or notoriety of content
– Entertainment value
– Visual/emotional/intellectual complexity of material
– Finite quantities of information (e.g. text, video, audio) vs open-ended information (pictures, games, anything randomly or organically generated)

It’s no accident that all of the Monets, Pollocks and Picassos are placed in large viewing spaces, or that popular interactive exhibits allow space for queues.

6. Patterns of pedestrian movement

A final, but no less vital, factor that has implications for the spatial design of museums and exhibitions is pedestrian movement. It is an area that has only really begun to be extensively studied, particularly in regard to museums and public spaces, in the past twenty years.

There is a fair amount of free literature on the subject online, once you start to look for it. For example, this study by Peponis and colleages in 2003 examined what might influence patterns of exploration in open-plan interactive science exhibitions. They concluded that visibility and physical accessibility was the primary influence on visitor paths, followed by exhibits being visually linked in thematic groups.

My (very basic first hand) observations on pedestrian movement include:

– A noticeable desire to start at a formal ‘beginning’ – preferably with a written blurb or some contextual information
– Left-to-right reading across walls, generally resulting in a clockwise movement around perimeters
– Systematic approaches towards structured layouts
– Something known as ‘joint attention’ – looking at what other people are looking at
– Movement tends to flow from cramped or crowded spaces to open or less populated spaces
– People seem to be more drawn to exhibits that are interactive or have audio visual components than ones that contain a lot of text

Consideration of visitor behaviour needs to shape museum space. In open-plan exhibitions, how many of the other exhibits can be seen from any point in the room? If there is a blurb, or background information, where should it be placed? In my opinion, wherever it needs to go in order to be the first thing encountered. Backtracking becomes frustrating. (I only really noticed this when the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco annoyed me by putting it on the far side of the room.)

Exhibition design bears some similarities to theatrical design, but with a greater scope of visitor movement. I find it an interesting area to consider for it’s own sake, however. My next Field Study essay will look at choices of exhibition content.

Take the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example. The Met is huge (the largest art museum in the United States) and its architecture is kind of a hodge-podge of different buildings all built over the top of each other.  It’s a pretty difficult place to navigate, even with a map (though thank goodness for room numbering), and when I wandered through some of the permananent collections, I found myself often lost and wondering whether I’d missed sections. There was also extremely little sign-posting or headings, and I found I had to do a lot of backtracking. Not ideal, in my opinion.

Compare this with its very popular current exhibition Punk: From Chaos to Couture, which was very well designed. I enjoyed its loose path-based layout and extra visual design of the exhibition. Each room had its own visual theme, and one entrance and one exit, leading you through a definite progression. Blocks of text were appropriately placed near the entrances to the rooms but not so that they impeded traffic flow. The rooms were set up with the display mannequins either lining the perimeters, or on a central island, or sometimes both.

Obviously, as with any kind of design, gallery design is getting better and better the more that is studied about how people move around public spaces and how they take in information. I think the discrepancy I just mentioned is a product of different eras of design, not to mention entirely different scales and processes. The one exhibition can be designed wholistically. The building, with its interesting architectural history, went through a kind of gradual evolution.

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