Thursday, June 28, 2012

Experiment in Progress!

What do you think?  About this? or this?  Do you agree?  Do you wonder about?  In developing exhibitions I'm continually challenging museums to get out there to talk to their communities (more to come on a couple projects I'm working on).  And this week in St. John's, Newfoundland,  I saw a great example of the process at the Rooms,  Newfoundland's provincial museum (and art gallery, and archives, all in one place, with a commanding spot atop a hill overlooking the harbor in this small city).

All museum professionals seem to agree that this big overview history exhibits of a place, whatever that place is, are really challenging to develop.   Some people want timelines;  others want lots of text, others want objects that really matter to them, or to see the place where they grew up.  Newfoundland and Labrador (all one province for those of you not from here) is a huge place with a great many stories, so the challenge is a big one.

At the Rooms,  there's a temporary exhibit called Working on History.  It's a bare bones design to share current interpretive thinking on the topic,  put forth already collected visitor feedback,  and along the way, explain a bit about what museums do when we do exhibits and interpret history.   There was something for virtually every kind of learner to respond to in a way they enjoyed.  So here's some of what I saw (and by the way,  thanks The Rooms for letting me take pictures here!)
First, the introductory label sets forth clear expectations in a really brief text.  Exhibit, opening, two key questions, we need your help and feedback. And the informality makes it clear it's not the usual set-in-stone experience. Done!

Six key stories already identified to explore further.  But the text asks for your "words, feelings and ideas,"  not just the open-ended, "what do you think?"   Here's some of the six stories and responses.
Don't like to write?  Here's another alternative:
The middle image is a great reminder to any of us who might be tempted to romanticize childhood stories;  the bottom image depicts St. John's houses, instantly recognizable to residents and visitors.
Don't like to write or draw, but like to have things organized?  How about a timeline?
But those key topics haven't disappeared.  Here's another way of looking at them (words, no images), based on what previous audience work revealed.
But what about those visitors who like the sound of things?  Not an audio installation,  but a chance to share your thoughts, via a paper quiz that you could submit,  testing your knowledge of distinctly Newfoundland words (for instance, one I learned this week, "scrunchions.")
Objects were installed around the outside of the room grouped by the big topic sections.  So visitors got a chance to share feedback there too.  I think the labels do a nice job of modeling possible response, so visitors aren't just facing a blank page.
The museum is experimenting with digital labels so there was a digital label to experiment with--I'll be really interested to see what visitors make of this and how it's eventually used in the exhibit.  It was funny how much less lively this seemed than the rest of the space.
In addition to all the feedback mechanisms,  there were also labels and sections where the museum explained a bit about the process.  A conservation lab was set up and a staff member (not a conservator the day I was there) was on hand to answer questions and a visitor had engaged him in a very lively discussion about fishing issues.  Additional labels talked about storytelling and about using artifacts.  I'd love to see a next steps in this where they talked about and asked visitor feedback on design as well as content.
A colleague and I had an interesting discussion about the limits of visitor feedback in this exhibition that raised more questions than it answered.  What happens to posts that are visitor-generated but fall outside of accepted historical narrative or are more complex politically than a governmental organization is willing to take on?  In crowd-sourcing,  does the crowd produce the most interesting ideas?  How can those outlying but sometimes important ideas be incorporated into the final exhibition?  And how can that final exhibition be lively in the same way as this temporary version?

Much to consider, and a number of ideas I'll be putting to work elsewhere.

1 comment:

Greg said...

This is a very good example of a type of evaluation which could be very useful. Have they changed anything based upon feedback? What new ideas were produced from thinking about the visitors feedback?
I wonder how they deal with the lizard brain comments of the 15 year male visitor?