Field Notes: storytelling with objects and choices of content form

Once, during my brief and uninspired attempt at a science degree at UNSW, we were given an assignment to interview a professional in a scientific field to go on a website for World Day in Science or something like that. It’s funny, but I’d completely forgotten this until I sat down to pen these museum essays. You see – I interviewed the (then) Senior Curator of Science at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. (What I submitted is, I believe, still unfortunately floating in the depths of the internet.)

What sticks out most in my memory of this interview was that the curator talked about how his experience in theatre had shaped his career as a ‘science communicator’. From memory, I think he had managed or directed a small theatre company in Canberra for a while when he was younger. He said that he always approached a new exhibition by asking what story they were trying to tell. 19-year-old me would have been interested in this, because it must have been around the time I was deciding to ditch the science degree and apply for theatre courses instead (ridiculous).

What becomes apparent here is that storytelling techniques are crucial for conveying information effectively, and especially complex information. Apparently, people are more open to considering new ideas when they are happy, relaxed and engaged, and more likely to remember new information when it has some associated narrative or emotional content. This is why fiction is such a powerful (or insidious, depending on your point of view) instrument to introduce and explore novel and complex ideas.

It stands to reason that the best contemporary museums are those trying to create experiences that are engaging, enjoyable and memorable. Museums need to provide something that cannot be gained from the internet or books or even from school.

When planning an exhibition, very similar questions need to be asked as when planning how to tell a story. Questions to form a starting point for an exhibition might include:
– What is the subject area?
– How much concrete information are we trying to convey?
– Who is the intended audience?
– What is relevant and interesting?
– What is the tone of the exhibition? (E.g. fun, meditative, informative, nostalgic…)

It is the role of the museum or exhibition curator to ask these questions, and use their answers to make decisions. In this essay, I’m going to explore decisions about the different forms of exhibition content. For example: text, infographics, art, costumes, animal skeletons, videos, etc. As a viewer, I split up the content into two main categories: the primary content – the focus of the experience, and the secondary content – the supporting contextual material. The answers to the above questions influence what forms of content are used to convey the intended information or experience.

In my mind, museums fall into four main categories: art, science/technology, history and ‘special interest’ (yes that last is almost miscellaneous, but not quite).

Traditional art exhibitions are the most straightforward when it comes to choices of content form. Obviously the primary content is the artwork, and its display is the main intention. There are more choices to be made when it comes to the form of the secondary content. How much background information do you want to make available to the viewer?

I’m going to write about this at greater length another time, but awareness of context is an idea that I feel strongly about. It could be argued that the importance of context varies depending on the artist an era (compare, for example, Monet and Duchamp), and this raises a lot of questions about aesthetics and concept. But I think that no matter what, having access to background information adds infinite amounts of the appreciation of art. It is something that should certainly be very carefully considered when curating an exhibition.

What forms should that contextual information take? In my experience, art galleries usually use a combination of wall blurbs, brochures, audio tours and docent tours, and of course you can usually buy the exhibition book at the gift shop on your way out. Larger or higher profile exhibitions, especially those that are retrospectives on prominent artists, may also include documentaries and process notes, such as in the James Turrell exhibition at LACMA.

I enjoyed my first docent tour at the de Young Museum in San Francisco: Three Masterpieces in Thirty Minutes (two of which I might otherwise have only gazed at briefly and continued walking). At each work, the docent gave us some information about the context and techniques of the paintings and asked some questions to start a bit of discussion. It was wonderful, though it made me miss art history class and I wished that I’d joined tours at the other art galleries I’d visited (that one being the last). For the first time in my long history of visiting art galleries, I also tried out audio tours at MOMA and the Met, which provided little snippets of interesting trivia.

Whichever form(s) the curator chooses, contextual information should be set up so that the visitor has the opportunity to find out more about the primary content if they wish.

Science and technology museums tend to be a completely different experience. Wither a greater focus on informing than presenting, there is a wider scope of content forms, and the division between primary and secondary content is often much blurrier. Unfortunately, many of them, particularly in the United States, seem to be targeted more towards children than adults (something to consider another time). I’m not sure why this is the case (It’s not cool to be into science when you’re an adult? They need to cater to the lowest common denominator?), but I do know that there is a lot of literature out there on the effect of enjoyment and active engagement on learning and memory, and this idea has clearly influenced the content forms of science museums.

Because there is less differentiation between primary and secondary content, I’d break up the entirety of science/technology content into the following forms:
– Artefacts: items that already existed and are now on display
– Artificial simulations or replicas (widely inclusive – from dioramas to anatomical models to an artificial tornado)
– Visual information: text, images, infographics
– Audio information: audio stations, tours
– Video: ranging from short looping clips to longer screened documentaries
– Interactive: activity- or game-based

Contemporary science/technology exhibitions tend to be a mix of all of these types of content; there really is a lot of scope for the creative presentation of information.

I think my favourite science/technology museum experience was the on-board tour of the German WWII U-505 submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago. Stepping inside the actual preserved submarine, the tour began with the guide describing its origins and inhabits, what life would have been like onboard, how it functioned, etc. Then suddenly, it became a little bit of theatre in itself: flashing lights and sound effects were introduced, and the guide became more urgent as she recounted what would have happened when the submarine was captured by Allied forces in 1944. This kind of experience-based exhibition is being explored more and more in museums and is used as a way to gather more visitors.

The Museum of Science & Industry Chicago had a lot of grand exhibitions – particularly Science Storms – with large-scale replicas and simulations, and lots of activities. But I found myself wishing for a lot more information than was available. They seemed too concerned about the ‘wow factor’ that would draw in visitors and not focused enough on providing varying levels of secondary content to cater for both kids and adults. Some of the more contemporary exhibitions at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum managed this much more successfully, my favourite being the Navigation exhibition. There was a huge variation in quality in most of these museums, often depending on the age of the exhibition.

Skipping history museums (I know very little about them), we move onto what I call ‘special interest’ musuems. What I love about special interest museums is that they can really vary in scale from little one-room collections of specialised paraphernalia (hopefully with accompanying eccentric enthusiast) to large, state-funded civic icons.

Special interest museums are wonderful to consider in regards to content choices because their primary content tends to encompass any paraphernalia even vaguely relevant to the chosen topic. The categories I listed above for science/technology museums are also applicable here. In most special interest museums, the focus is not as strongly tended towards education, and I would also insert visual art and music into the list. Examples range from video documentaries to performance costumes to transport tokens to photographs to a piece of the Berlin wall. It’s fairly limitless.

The three big special interest museums that I made it to in my five weeks in the United States were: The Museum of Sex (New York), the Newseum (Washington DC) and the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum (Seattle), as well as a handful of smaller ones.

The highlight of these for me was EMP’s exhibition Can’t Look Away: The Lure of the Horror Film (a thousandfold more successful than their Fantasy or Science Fiction exhibitions which rated among the most disappointing of my experiences). Curated by three acclaimed horror directors – Roger Corman, John Landis and Eli Roth – I admired it for both its visual design and its choices of content. In particular:
– The short documentaries looped on screens in two little partitioned viewing booths, each comparing two iconic horror films with excerpts and interviews
– A timeline of the most acclaimed horror films coded by story types
– The well-designed wall text giving information on the horror genre
– Touch screen stations with snippets of interviews with directors discussing the definition of ‘horror’, or exploring the nature of horror film scores
– A ‘scream booth’ for souvenir scream photographs
– A laboratory-inspired display case of horror film artefacts

It was a savvy, contemporary-feeling exhibition and reminded me a little of Melbourne’s ACMI exhibitions, which have been fantastically curated and designed in the time that I’ve been visiting them.

On the other end of the scale entirely, yet with the same museum, was the Women Who Rock exhibition at EMP. A complete failure in my opinion. This was an exhibition about women in popular music that only contained performance costumes, short, visually-uninviting written blurbs about the artists and almost no audio examples of their music (there was one documentary playing on a small screen in an inconvenient corner and a few video clips dotted around). It was kind of insulting, actually. It makes a really good example of bad choices of content form – irrelevant, unintriguing and not providing any new insights into women in the music business.

So the type of museum itself certainly affects what kind of content is chosen to communicate the intended information in an interesting way. From there, I have come to the conclusion that the best content choices come down to:

-Relevancy: a sense of where the content fits into the whole (and a sense that it was chosen for a reason)
– Novelty: content and concepts that are novel, or are presented or combined in novel ways that provide new information to the viewer
– Variety, especially of form: not all text, all costumes, all videos, etc
– Availability of contextual information
– A variety of interaction levels: some passive, some interactive
– Visual design: this can have a huge influence on how inviting the exhibition and content look, and also affects the ease with which information is absorbed and processed

Once again, having written roughly four pages on the subject, I realise that I am only just skimming the surface of what goes into choosing exhibition content. Still, the comparisons are interesting, and become very pronounced after visiting so many museums in a relatively short space of time.

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