Thursday, December 10, 2009

Heroes and Great Labels

A funny pairing in the title--but a chance to reflect on two exhibits I saw earlier this fall and haven't yet found a chance to write about.  Although I've found myself sharing them in conversations with colleagues.   Exhibits at big museums both, but with lessons for museums of all sizes and types.

Heroes:  Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece is at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  To begin with, the marketing for this show plays on several different levels.  I had seen banners and posters before I knew what the show was about--and the show logo, an abstraction of a helmet, made me think I might be seeing one of those Star Trekky shows around at science museums.   Happily I wasn't.  The museum's website describes the show,
This exhibition explores the human need for heroes through the arts of one of the oldest and most influential cultures in history. Heroes are sometimes portrayed as superhuman protagonists while at other times as average people who rise above the ordinary.

The show's creators  allowed you to personalize your visit--in ways that immediately connected.   At the start, you could sit down at a computer and take a quick quiz to let you know which hero you were like.  You then picked up a small metal button (just like all museum visitor buttons) with the logo of "your" hero.    It didn't end there:  each object in the exhibit highlighted, using the same graphic, one of the heroes, so you could connect yourself directly to the works of art.

There was a corner with books to learn more,  and a place where you made your own pinax (a votive tablet) depicting your own heroes--displayed on the board were tributes to moms,  Rachel Carson,  Martin Luther King, "Grandma Piglet,"  and "Philip Esposito,  Captain, US Army, Rest in Peace." 

The exhibit was very busy the weekday afternoon I was there.   A group of middle school boys buzzed around the space, completing worksheets, taking the computer quiz, and looking at the objects.  A group of older women seemed to be guiding themselves through the space--but they were a serious group of learners, working from a worksheet showing forms of Greek vases.  A docent with a small flashlight guided another group, using Visual Thinking Strategies to explore the work.

Upstairs, a companion exhibit continued to connect heroes to our present-day lives.  Working with Art on Purpose, a community based arts organization, the museum has presented two shows of work by community members.  The exhibit I saw, Twenty Years of Wandering uses the journey of Odysseus as a frame for work by immigrants, refugees and the homeless commenting on what it takes to survive in Baltimore.  I also liked that the community-based work wasn't down off in some basement somewhere, as it sometimes is.

If you're in Baltimore, don't miss these shows--and the best part--admission at the Walters is free--and it says so in big letters right on the front doors!

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals had some of the best labels I've ever seen.  It begins with the opening label:

"Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion!  Come and meet your relatives."   We know the exhibit is about mammals--and we know the exhibit presents the science of how we're related to them.   The exhibit design is quite beautiful and although I don't love taxidermied animals, the use of animals in highly abstracted settings that referenced their natural habitat was new and compelling.  But what about those labels?  Here's one:

It's short, easy to read, and contains information that helps me understand a bigger picture.  Here's another:

Incredibly easy to understand what makes an Ungulate--and the clear design of both the label text and the installation allow you to take that simple equation and look at examples--coming away with an expanded understanding.   I saw parents reading this label with their children--and then pointed as they found the characteristics--a great "pointability" example.

What do these exhibits have in common?  It seems to me that the unifying threads are two:  one is a clarity of purpose.  These exhibit teams know what the exhibit is about.  There's a clear big idea and all the exhibit elements drive that forward.  The second is that both exhibits put visitors at the center.  It's not about telling us zillions of details about mammals or Greek vases, but understanding that a connection is what makes the exhibit memorable.   Importantly, the clarity of purpose and the visitor-centered approach are elements that don't cost money--just some thoughtful time and effort.


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