In pictures: First World War Galleries at AWM

Although only officially launched earlier this week, the Australian War Memorial’s new First World War Galleries have been open since late last year. I was in Canberra earlier this month, so I swung by to check them out.

My interest in this exhibition was twofold:

  • A significant new exhibition is always worth a look
  • It’s linked to some of my current work. I’m currently part of a research team that is exploring how Anzac* heritage experiences are related to Australian national identity. So far I’ve conducted 16 in-depth telephone interviews with people who have visited the Gallipoli landing site.

It’s a slightly unusual refurbishment, in that significant portions of AWM’s original World War 1 galleries are heritage pieces in their own right, particularly the original dioramas that were conceived by official war historian Charles Bean. It means that in some cases, the new galleries don’t look all that new at all (although the original dioramas have been significantly reinterpreted and seem far better lit than I remember them being).


The exhibition opens with a display of one of the boats used in the Gallipoli landings.

To be honest, I was expecting a more dramatic threshold statement for the exhibition – the boat shown above, while a very signficant object, is in a space that feels pretty much like an extension of the cloakroom area rather than a gallery setting. For me, the layout didn’t herald the end of the logistical process of arriving, and the beginning of an exhibition experience. However, there are interesting uses of thresholds later in the exhibition, in particular the transition from the Turkish/North African theatre of war to the trenches of France. There is a change of colour scheme from one that is dominated by warm shades and sandy tones, to one that is dominated by glossy blacks and uses a vibrant, dramatic red to highlight certain displays.

Looking across the threshold into the exhibits on the France/Belgium stage of the war.

Looking across the threshold into the exhibits on the France/Belgium stage of the war.

Also visible in the image above is what I called the “Ikea style” visitor route set into the floor. The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and this timeline spine works its way throughout the exhibition with displays off to each side (hence the Ikea reference). Personally I liked this feature – it gave you a clear sense of the order of the narrative without dominating the design or forcing you to take a particular route if you didn’t want to.

Most object labels were on adjacent touchscreens. Thumbnail images of all the objects scrolled across the screen, and I found it quite easy to find and select the object I was interested in.

Most object labels were on adjacent touchscreens. Thumbnail images of all the objects scrolled across the screen, and I found it quite easy to find and select the object I was interested in.

The original dioramas were also given another layer of interpretation through touchscreens linking the diorama scene to documents and stories of real soldiers.

The original dioramas were also given another layer of interpretation through touchscreens linking the diorama scene to documents and stories of real soldiers.

The use of audio throughout the exhibition was well done: subtle but reinforced the mood of each space. Ambient audio was primarily sound effects; spoken audio (which can be annoying and distracting when you’re trying to focus on something else) was kept to a minimum and mainly used to emphasise key points/events – for instance Ataturk’s tribute to the Anzacs is played on a loop just before you leave this section of the exhibition.

Juxtaposition of old and new displays.

Juxtaposition of (what I assume to be) old and new displays.

I saw these women spend a lot of time at several of these photograph displays. They were apparently more interested in the human stories than the hardware.

I saw these women spend a lot of time at several of these photograph displays. They were apparently more interested in the human stories than the hardware.

I think this exhibition would be an interesting one to study with Pekarik’s IPOP model of visitor preference. Both Objects and People displays were strongly featured in the exhibition, and there were some sensory/tactile aspects as well (Physicality), although I’m not sure how strongly Ideas came through (by which I mean the big-picture context of the conflict). Admittedly, this is a difficult brief when the topic is an extended war, fought on multiple fronts for complex reasons.


*For the benefit of my non-Australian readers: on April 25, 1915, troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs), landed at Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey as part of an ill-fated campaign early in the First World War. The anniversary has gained national significance and Anzac Day is the main day of rememberance in Australia.


Our Irrational Brains

Recently I wrote about three interesting books on the psychology of choice. In this post, I want to explore a couple of books that help to explain why humans sometimes make bad choices. Basically, our brain works in ways that can trick us into irrationality.

Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman illustrates this with the following example: imagine a bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Without thinking, most people will jump in and say 10 cents. Your brain is probably itching to shout it out! But think about it: if the ball cost 10 cents, then the bat would have to cost $1.10 (we know the bat costs $1 more), meaning the two together would be $1.20. If we sit down and do the sums we can see the only answer that satisfies the supplied facts is that the ball costs 5 cents, the bat costs $1.05, and together they are $1.10. It’s basic arithmetic. So why are so many people fooled?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two distinct ways our brain thinks:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is the quick, instinctual and heuristic-led thinking that takes place without any real effort or control on our part. While it’s useful (we sometimes need to act rapidly without methodically thinking through every possible option), it’s also easily fooled in a way that our more methodical System 2 is not. But because System 1 acts subconsciouly, it can be hard not to listen to it. Even when System 2 thinking leads us to the correct answer (such as in the bat and ball example above), System 1 is still nagging us in the background, meaning the rational answer often just doesn’t “feel” right.

There are a number of heuristics the System 1 brain uses. One example is the availability heuristic – we tend to think things are more likely if we can recall specific examples of them happening. This is why people tend to think plane travel is riskier than it actually is, and might also be an explanation for why people tend to consistently overestimate the number of immigrants or the proportion of the population claiming unemployment benefits (two topics that are mainstays of the tabloid media).

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes how our economic decisions are affected by the way we think. Some of my favourite examples show how money can skew behaviour in unexpected ways.

In our market society, money is seemed as the ultimate incentive. However, as Ariely shows, it’s not as good a motivator as economic theory would have us believe, and can actually lead to perverse incentives. He describes research in which people who were paid to do a simple task did it less efficiently than people who were doing it without payment, as a favour. Adding money into the equation turns a social contract into an economic one, and it changes the nature of the transaction.

In one striking example, Ariely describes a study of a child care centre in Israel that started to charge fines of parents who collected their children late. Market logic would dictate that the fine would be a financial disincentive, and fewer children would be picked up late as a result. In fact, the opposite happened:  rather than parents apologetically arriving late (because they had transgressed a social norm), late pickups became more common. The fine was essentially seen as a fee-for-service, one which parents could pay for unapologetically. A social transaction had become an economic one. Interestingly, the tardy behaviour continued even when the fine was subsequently removed. A transaction based on goodwill had permanently shifted to one based on financial exchange.

Other studies show how things offered for free are perceived as qualitatively different from ones that attract a charge, even when that charge is quite modest. Even when the free offer is not the best offer available, most people will still opt for the free deal.


The Thesis Has Landed

Birth Announcement

Dr Regan Forrest is pleased to announce the healthy arrival of a completed PhD on 30th January 2015. The thesis, weighing 282 pages, is now publicly available online through UQ espace. Candidate is doing well and is relieved to be finally able to share her results with the world.



Who are you designing for?

Near where I’m working at the moment, there is a restroom with one of those stacked toilet roll dispensers that are a public bathroom mainstay and a complete nightmare to use. I’m sure you know the type I mean – there’s a tiny gap at the bottom that, owing to the combined friction of multiple stacked toilet rolls and the perforated nature of the product, you can never seem to be able to get more than one or two sheets out at once (i.e., not enough to get the job done). We’ve all had to grapple with one, I’m sure.

This afternoon, I noticed that the users of said restroom have taken matters into their own hands, and the dispenser now looks like this:


It strikes me as an interesting example of a design intended to meet the needs of the owner, not optimise the experience of the user. I can see the design brief would have had goals as follows:

  • Ability to store multiple rolls at once. This means cleaning staff don’t need to come and replenish the dispensers as often.
  • Minimise paper wastage. By making it more difficult to get paper out, you’ll ensure people only use the bare minimum they actually need. This saves on the toilet roll budget, while also stops excess paper getting all over the floor.

By these criteria, the above design would get a big tick, however, the solution is heavily weighted towards the needs of the owner (who wants to keep their toilet paper budget down) rather than the needs of the user (who wants to easily acquire the paper they need, and yes, may end up wasting some from time to time).

The result? When a product doesn’t meet users’ needs, they either stop using it, or when that’s not an option, they create their own workarounds, which might create more hassle for they owner than if they’d just designed it with user needs in mind in the first place.


Choices, choices

Three books on my bookshelf (actually, audiobook library) are about the psychology of choice – how do people make decisions and what helps people feel more satisifed about their choices?

As decribed by Sheena Iyengar in the introduction to Art of Choosing, how much emphasis is placed on individual choice depends on the culture you come from. In the English-speaking world, and the US in particular, a high value is placed on individuals being able to make their own choices. Choice pervades the culture so fully that it is considered to be part of the natural order of things: having choice is seen as axiomatically logical, right and good. But other cultures may put more value on social harmony or professional expertise than individual choice, and may decide that individual choice is not always worth the cost. Indeed, when viewed through a different cultural lens, individualistic cultures look like people value the right to choose over their own self interest at times.

This suggests there is such thing as too much choice, and research bears that out. Iyengar’s most famous study was conducted at a jam display at an upmarket grocery store in California. Customers could come up and try the jams on display, and could then get a discount voucher for purchasing one of the jams on offer. The main thing that they changed over the course of the study was how many jams were on display at any given time: 6 or 24. Although a greater percentage of customers were attracted to the larger display, customers were much more likely to actually buy jam if they only had 6 to choose from at the outset.

This idea is explored further in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz describes research that shows that not only does too much choice befuddle us and cause us to procrastinate in our quest to make the “right” choice, we’re often less happy with the choices we *do* eventually make. It seems that having a never-ending array of choices increases the fear we have of making the “wrong” choice, as well as the perpetual possibility that a better option is just around the next corner. It’s a recipe for inertia and dissatisfaction. Schwartz suggests we’d be better off making “good enough” choices that allow us to move on with our lives.

But what if we’re looking to guide the choices of others? This is an idea described in Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. They describe the concept of “choice architecture”, that is, the way you present options to influence the choices people make. Many choices we have to make, like pension plans or energy supplier, tend to be confusing (and let’s face it: not particularly interesting). Rather than read up on all the options, most of us take whatever the default option is, irrespective of whether it’s the one that suits us best or not. In a philosophy they call “libertarian paternalism”, they argue that these default options should be ones that suit most people most of the time. That way, people are still free to make another choice if they wish, but for those who take the default path of least resistance (i.e. most of us, most of the time), we’d end up with a better option overall. We can also use choice architecture to make choices less confusing, for instance by sequentially narrowing down options rather than showing all of them up front.

Now all of this may seem a bit tangential to museum visitor experiences at first glance (although one of the goals of Project 50 is to broaden the scope of this blog a bit). But it shouldn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see that consumer psychology and visitor experiences are linked: the people who are putting off choosing their pension plans on a Wednesday are the same people who are trying to decide what to do to keep the family entertained on a wet Saturday afternoon, or where would be the best place to go on holiday next.

A museum visit is full of choices – from the first decision to visit a museum rather than do something else, then which museum to go to, what exhibitions to visit, what displays to look at, whether to stop at the cafe or buy a gift at the shop, and so on. Consumer psychology and visitor research both show that people like choice, but also they like a manageable number of choices, and they like to know what the consequences of their choices will be. And through understanding people, we can both guide those decisions and help people be happier about the choices they make.


Transmission metaphors in museums

Embodied in the language we use are all sorts of ideas and assumptions: some of which we are aware, others we are not. A paper in the latest Curator journal (Ntzani, 2015) explores how the “transmission” metaphors that are frequently applied to communications influences the way we conceptualise museums:

“[T]ransmission metaphors make communication seem like an easy or automatic process between active speakers and passive listeners. This presupposition has long haunted museum communication practices” (Ntzani, 2015, p. 63).

Drawing upon the work of Michael Reddy, Ntzani describes two main transmission metaphors: that of the conduit; and that of the container.

Some literal museum conduit - a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

Some literal museum conduit – a stairwell at the EMP museum in Seattle (Credit: RogerSmith/Flickr)

The two metaphors are distinct and often incompatible. Conduits are invisible and passive transmitters of information, whereas containers call attention to themselves in the way they hold information and impose a shape onto it.

Ntzani argues that the container metaphor is often implicit in the way we discuss museum objects, exhibits and indeed museum buildings.

 . . . transmission metaphors make us think of museum objects either as containers of intrinsic cultural information, or as conduits of information that are transmitted from museum curators to museum visitors. The first proposition sees museum objects as sealed containers of cultural values that speak for themselveswhile the second proposition sees museum objects as conduits of messages, the signs of a language museums employ to build their narratives.” (Ntzani, 2015, p.65, my emphasis)

That section in particular made me think about the language of objects issue I was grappling with last year. Could the container and conduit metaphors help explain differences in the way different curators conceptualise the object and its communicative role? The former positions the object as being imbued with inherent meaning. The latter renders the object as a mere tool for an interpretive storyline: it says nothing in particular until it’s placed into a wider narrative.

“When museums are discussed as educational institutions, attention falls on the transmission of messages; in this case conduit metaphors take the lead. When discussed as architectural spaces . . . container metaphors are more frequently used.” (Ntzani, 2015, pp.67-68)

The museum itself can be conceptualised as a series of nested containers, analogous to Russian dolls: an exhibit is nested inside an exhibition, which is nested inside a museum that itself is nested within a particular social or geographical context.

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers - like Russian Dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Museum architecture can be considered as a series of nested containers – like Russian nesting dolls (Image credit Bradley Davis/backpackphotography/flickr)

Extending the concept further, Ntzani points out that it is only the outside of each doll that is adorned – the interior is a plain, neutral container for the doll within. In museum buildings, there can be a tension between those who wish to have statement architecture that draws attention to iself, versus those wanting a discreet container that will fade into the background. The conflict between conduit and container may be a new way of conceptualising some of these debates about the role of museums.

Ntzani, D. (2015). Under the Spell of Metaphors: Investigating the Effects of Conduit and Container Metaphors on Museum Experience. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(1), 59–76. doi:10.1111/cura.12098


Routes around the paywall

One of the huge benefits of being a graduate student (or otherwise in possession of a university library log-in) is access to published research that otherwise is locked behind paywalls. Paywalls for academic journals are EXPENSIVE – per-article costs around the US$30 mark are not uncommon. Given that even a relatively narrow search of the academic literature can yield dozens of articles, the cost soon gets prohibitive and many museum professionals are effectively locked out from accessing these papers.

Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research

Museum staff without academic affiliations can find themselves locked out of valuable research (Image source: sharynmorrow on Flickr – Creative Commons)

There is a lot of discussion about open access in academic circles, which I won’t repeat here besides to say I’ve made the decision to make my PhD thesis open-access once my degree is conferred (weeks, if not days away – I promise!). Once it’s available, I’ll post a link.

But this post is not about the open access debate per se. Rather, I wanted to share ways that you *can* get access to original research, or at least decent summaries that extend beyond what the abstract tells you, without having to fork out the big bucks: essentially “Facebook for academics”, this site allows researchers to upload versions of their papers (often pre-prints that are not subject to publisher copyright) as well as conference papers that may not be easy to get hold of elsewhere. You can follow subjects, groups and researchers of interest, and while you need to set up a profile first, I don’t think you need a current link to an academic institution – putting down your alma mater would probably suffice.

Relating research to practice: unlike, which covers all disciplines, this site is specific to museums and informal learning. It doesn’t reproduce original papers in its entirety, rather it includes useful summaries of key research articles that are searchable by topic. Another subject-specific portal and a great way of accessing evaluation reports and other “grey literature” that wouldn’t get published in academic journals anyway. If you’re doing an exhibition on a particular topic, it’s worth having a browse to see if there are any front end, formative or summative evaluation reports from another museum that has previously tackled the same topic. Also, don’t let the name put you off if you’re not in a science-based informal learning institution: there are also reports from art and history museums as well (albeit fewer in number).

In addition, every so often, on this blog I produce my own summaries of key research papers and books. I do this for two reasons: firstly, it gives me the impetus to properly read and get across what it says; and secondly it’s a way of giving research I find interesting/useful/important a wider audience past the paywall.

Are there any other similar resources that you have found useful?


Fear of criticism

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a discussion about when and how to criticise another museum’s curatorial practice, and the impacts of doing so on one’s career. Although I’ve previously had discussions about how museums have a somewhat criticism-averse culture (more on that in a bit), I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of damaging career prospects before. I found this idea alarming, so I weighed in:

An excerpt from this morning's Twitter discussion

An excerpt from this morning’s Twitter discussion

Could being (constructively) critical really be damaging to the careers of emerging museum professionals? And if so, what does that say about how well the museum sector handles criticism?

Unlike other areas of creative endeavour such as literature or theatre, museum exhibitions are not routinely reviewed in the mainstream media (with the possible exception being art exhibitions). Even within the realm of industry publications, relatively few regularly publish exhibition reviews (the main exceptions I can think of are Museums Journal in the UK and AAM’s Exhibitionist magazine in the US). It means there is not a reviewing culture around exhibitions. Critique happens more informally, perhaps behind closed doors. I’ve found many museum professionals (myself included) have been reluctant to openly criticise another museum’s work. Likely reasons include:

  • We’re “too nice”: we appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting together an exhibition, and the compromises that get made along the way. We know all too well what it’s like to be on the other side, and how hard it is to get everything right. Consequently, when we see an exhibition that misses the mark, our instinct is to cut the developers some slack as we’re sure there’s a back story as to why things are the way they are.
  • It’s a tight-knit community: chances are, we know (or know of) someone who worked on that exhibition. It’s one thing to be critical about an exhibition in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to feel like you’re criticising the work of a respected colleague.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a culture of giving criticism might make us even more fearful of receiving it. Rather than being philosophical, dusting ourselves off after a dud review, learning from it and moving on, criticism becomes something to dread. What if we get negative PR? A backlash from funders? Fear of criticism might be enough to stop ambitious projects from even getting off the drawing board.

In such a culture, people will make conservative choices because they fear being criticised, and existing practices will never be challenged or fully held up to the light.

As well as entrenching a sense of “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done”, it creates a perfect storm for emerging museum professionals – we want (need) to make our mark but also worry about the consequences. Unless you live in a large city, you can’t afford to burn any bridges: there will be few other employment options unless you’re in a position to move. It means we could end up silencing ourselves just when we’re starting to find our voice.






Launching “Project 50″

Happy New Year!

As 2014 drew to a close, I wrote a reflective piece about blogging practice, the ebbs and flows of creative energy, and what things might keep a blog sustainable in the long run. There must be something in the air as one of my blogging heroes, Nina Simon, has just put out a similarly reflective post about the changing culture of her blog over time.

Based on the experience of people I know who have undertaken blog-a-day projects, it seems that imposing a schedule on blogging, rather than leaving it to whenever the muse takes you, is a good way to give your blogging practice a shot in the arm. Thus, I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year of “Project 50″ on this blog – a goal of writing 50 posts before the year is out.

Sourced via creativecupcakes on Flickr

Sourced via clevercupcakes on Flickr (creative commons)

I’ve chosen 50 as it’s a nice round number that is roughly equal to one post a week. I think this is achievable (I’m not ready to take on the daily blogging mantle just yet!), while still a significant step up from the output of previous years.

I see it as a chance for me to experiment with the blog, what I write about and how I write it (e.g. some posts might be quick hits, like the Center for the Future of Museum’s “Wordless Wednesday” posts, others will be more considered. I’m hoping it will motivate me to produce more summaries of key papers from the academic literature, as well as invite some guest bloggers to contribute as well. I’ll continue to keep the focus on museums and visitor experiences, but might take a broader definition of this from time to time.

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to subscribe to this blog (enter your email address in the subscribe box to the right of the home page of this blog, and make sure to check your junk mail folder if you don’t receive a confirmation email – otherwise you won’t be added to the list).

Let’s see what 2015 holds!


A reflection on blogging

A lot’s happened for me in 2014, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it looking at this blog. Things have been relatively quiet here of late!

Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Tumbleweed (Source: Wikimedia commons)

This is reflected by site analytics for this blog, which among other things show that only two blog posts from this year were in the top 10 most-viewed pages. (FYI they were October’s piece on The Language of Objects and May’s piece on What do museum visitors think science is?). The most popular posts overall remain ones on visitor statistics and exhibition costs. Even though they are a few years old now, they are obviously topics of perennial interest.

Overall, I only posted 22 times this year compared to 33 posts in 2013. This didn’t have a dramatic effect on overall site traffic though, since most people seem to come to this blog via google searches rather than via links to new content or social media shares (Is this normal for a blog? I have no idea . . . )

Anyway, why so quiet this year?

One possible reason is content exhaustion: I started blogging in 2010, and while it took me a little while to find my voice, I probably felt like I had more to say in the early days – especially when I was first getting across the visitor studies literature in the early days of my PhD. Now, I find it harder and harder to find new things to write about (and am in awe of people like Nina Simon who has been able to punch out a post a week on Museum Two for years!). It makes me wonder whether there is a natural life cycle for most blogs, and this one may be coming to its end (I hope not, but I have to think about that possibility).

Another reason is that my writerly efforts have definitely been focused elsewhere this year: I wrote up my PhD thesis, submitted it for both internal and external examination, made changes as appropriate along the way and am now waiting for the final changes to be signed off by the Grad School, the last hurdle before they confer my degree. A lot of the time, if I wasn’t working on my thesis, I really wasn’t feeling much like doing any other writing!

Finally, just as there are only so many hours in the day, brain space is a finite quantity too. I’ve come to the (possibly late) realisation that “busyness” is not always best quantified in terms of hours worked, and might better be measured in terms of cognitive load. For instance, If I quantified my year purely in terms of hours spent at the desk, it wouldn’t seem all that bad. In fact I’ve been feeling quite guilty about how worn out I’ve been feeling given I hadn’t been working particularly long hours. But then again, other things have been going on – I’ve been making the transition from student to consultant, setting up the interactivate consultancy in June and rebuilding a client base. On the personal front, I got married in April, and even the simplest of weddings requires organisation, planning and thus brain space. We also had minor renovations happening for most of the year, and although we weren’t doing the actual work we still had to check on contractors, make design decisions, and lots of little things that also take up brain space.

I’m not 100% sure what 2015 will hold for me yet . . . but more on that in the New Year.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from fellow bloggers about how you manage the ebbs and flows of your ideas and creative capacity.