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


What do you want / need from an exhibition designer?

Exhibition design can be hard to pin down sometimes. It has been described as

“. . .a mode of communication that has meant different things at different times, continues to change and expand, and, in fact, is not even recognised universally as a discipline at all.” (Lorenc, Skolnick, & Berger, 2010, p12)

So if you’re commissioning an exhibition designer for the first time, it can be hard to know what you should be looking for. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.

Many different types of specialists may lay claim to being able to design interpretive exhibitions. Such designers range from those with a grab-bag of soft skills that are hard to encapsulate in a few words, to people with clearly defined and quantifiable skill sets such as architects. And there’s a lot in between. In a tendering process, these apples and oranges may find themselves in direct competition with one another. If you’re the person letting and assessing tenders, on what basis should you choose?

I’ve been thinking through some of the issues I think clients should consider before commissioning a design team. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

Square pegs in round holes

It’s possible for a team to have the right skills, but deploy them in an inappropriate way. For instance, a big architectural firm may have ample experience in large complex buildings and fit-outs such as office buildings or shopping malls. Such a track record can be reassuring. But – if they see a museum as just another fit-out along the same lines, they may try and shoehorn it into the same production processes and protocols. Such a work plan will underestimate the amount of time and iteration it can take to get an exhibition layout, graphics and other media all working together in harmony. Office blocks and shopping malls don’t need to worry about “storylines”, so don’t expect standard fit-out processes to be able to accommodate them.

Such shoehorning is more likely to happen when a client uses a modified version of a boilerplate construction tender to call for bids: it doesn’t take into account the specific variables and vagaries of an exhibition.

A question to ask yourself: Does the firm “get” exhibitions or do they see them as yet another fit-out?

The certainty of the cookie cutter

In any exhibition project, certainty and creativity will be in tension. Maximising certainty will lead to cookie-cutter outcomes. Meanwhile, creativity can only flourish in a situation where there is room to make mistakes. Innovation comes with risk. Any given project will need to decide where it wants the creativity-certainty balance to lie. You can’t have your creativity cake and have the certainty of eating it!

Because it’s generally framed in terms of minimising risk, competitive tendering tends to prioritise certainty over creativity. This is not necessarily a problem. But, if you want innovation, you need to ensure your procurement processes allow space for it to happen. A standard tender probably won’t.

A question to ask yourself: Are we making it clear how much certainty we want and how much risk we can tolerate, or is our procurement process sending a mixed message in that regard?

Loose briefs

More often than not, it’s not what the brief says that will make you come unstuck, it’s what it doesn’t say. I’ve learned this one from bitter experience! Writing a brief is a bit like playing the tappers and listeners game – we forget that what’s obvious to us, frequently isn’t to anyone else. Misunderstandings in interpreting the brief can also be a failure of imagination on the brief-writer’s part – a case of not spelling it out simply because you can’t envisage it being any other way.

Another weakness of briefs is that they are often expected to capture in words a very specific and detailed image we have in our minds’ eye. It can only ever be the tip of the iceberg, and how someone will interpret a written description will vary hugely depending on their thinking style, prior experience, etc. Exhibitions are a visual medium. Sometimes it might be better to say it with a picture than leave it to words alone.

Things to try: Include visual materials such as mood boards part of the brief. Also, make a “return brief” document an early stage deliverable in the design project. This gives a chance for you and the designer to make sure you’re on the same page and iron out any wildly different interpretations of what’s expected.

Being a “good client”

I’ve been both sides of the client / designer fence, and appreciate that it’s a two-way street. No amount of dedication, skill or experience on the part of the design team can rescue fundamental issues with the client team, such as:

  • not making decisions, particularly-time critical ones
  • one client representative saying x, another saying y
  • not respecting the fact that you’re paying for a process, not just a product. Just because nothing has been built yet, doesn’t mean costs haven’t been incurred. Yes, iterations are part of the process but they cannot be done indefinitely without it affecting the price
  • not giving clear direction and feedback beyond “I’ll know it when I see it”
  • not recognising the limitations of your budget and timeframe
  • protracted, complicated and time-consuming procurement processes that expect design concepts at the pitch stage. This is one of the biggest bugbears of the design industry, and could be a post in its own right.

What tips would you give to a person looking to commission an exhibition designer for the first time?

Update: I posted this piece on LinkedIn, where there were a few very useful comments. Briefly:

  • Price shouldn’t be a key consideration in choosing a designer – it’s more important to have someone that understands what you want and how you work.
  • Be an informed client – do your homework about what you like and what you don’t
  • Resist the temptation to squeeze ‘just one more thing’ into the exhibition – “decide what to say, say it, then shut up!”

Reference: Lorenc, J., Skolnick, L., & Berger, C. (2010). What is exhibition design? Mies, Switzerland: Rotovision.


Experience Design

Late last year there was an article on The Conversation about “Experience Design“. I found it interesting and tweeted a link to it; soon afterwards the author, Faye Miller, got in touch. One thing led to another, and culminated in me writing a piece with Toni Roberts for the inaugural XD: Experience Design magazine, which has just come out.

Our piece is on Interpretive Design, and we group our thoughts around the interlinking concepts of Think, Feel, Do. Toni and I have known each other for a few years and have both been working on PhDs on exhibition design – me from the visitor perspective, Toni from the perspective of the design process (her PhD is done; mine is in the final stages). Coincidentally, we had both independently come up with a Venn diagram comprising Thinking, Feeling and Acting – something we came to realise when I posted a link to this presentation I gave last November. We’d discussed that it would be good for us to flesh out the overlaps between our ideas in a publication of some sort, and when the opportunity to write for XD came about it seemed like the right place to do it.

XD is intended to bring together people and disciplines that don’t normally overlap: industry, academia, management; theory, practice and user groups/audiences. I encourage you to subscribe to the XD newsletter, or better yet pick up a copy!


Before and After: Ediacaran Fossils

The SA Museum has recently opened its refurbished Ediacaran Fossils gallery, a small permanent exhibition showing the fossilised remnants of some of the earliest multicellular animals on Earth.

I did a few accompanied visits in this gallery during the first phase of my PhD research. In this earlier iteration, the dominant colour scheme was a strong red, presumably intended to evoke the red earth of the Flinders Ranges, the outback location where the ediacaran fossils were discovered. That’s how my participants tended to see it:

“in retrospect that red colour kind of seems to connect to the area itself of the Flinders.  . .”

“Er the fossil room was very red. Was very red. But then again so’s the area where they all came from”


A view of the original Ediacaran Fossils Gallery. The mural at the back is a large photograph of Wilpena Pound (a well-known site in the Flinders Ranges). The vertical display in the foreground is a section of what was once sea bed – abut 600 million years ago.

A view along the back wall of the original Ediacaran Fossils gallery.

A view along the back wall of the original Ediacaran Fossils gallery.

In my study, participants had different opinions on the red colour:

“I think it’s good that it’s a really strong colour because it’s very vibrant and it and it um, it makes it a really warm rich colour, and then the sense maybe that you’re actually on a cliff wall, that is like a cliff wall of where you might find things or . . .”

“. . . you sort of wonder whether it would be better off with a neutral, with neutral walls, to draw more attention to the exhibits . . . .I mean to have a red fossil wall that looks great, but then to have it in a room, I think that room was red, it sort of detracts from it a bit.”

The refurbished gallery has retained the same basic layout, but has changed the colour palette to a deep green-blue:

The refurbished fossils gallery. The Wilpena Pound image is still there, but to me felt somehow less dominant now it's in a mostly green backdrop rather than surrounded by red.

The refurbished fossils gallery. The Wilpena Pound image is still there, but to me felt somehow less dominant now it’s in a mostly green backdrop rather than surrounded by red.

I believe the rationale[1] behind the colour change was to be more evocative of what the environment would have been like when the creatures were alive (ie. the sea bed) rather than the outback setting that the area is now. This sense of being “under the sea” is enhanced by the line drawings of Dickinsonia et al up at high level. It also seems to increase the sense of height in the space.

The back wall in the refurbished gallery

The back wall in the refurbished gallery

I don’t know if it is the increased sense of height or that the back wall has been smoothed out and simplified a little, but it somehow seems more spacious in this new gallery (at least to me). It could also be that the size of the gallery, while not changing physically, has been enlarged conceptually by making what previously felt like a hallway become part of the exhibition proper.

Unfortunately I don't have a shot of the original gallery from this angle, but you can see where the lift comes out (silver doors) and the door to the stairs is at the far left. In the old gallery, the bit between the pylon and the lift/stairs felt more like a corridor as there was a window (now blocked off and turned into more display space).

Unfortunately I don’t have a shot of the original gallery from this angle, but you can see where the lift comes out (silver doors) and the doorway to the stairs is at the far left. In the old gallery, the bit between the pylon and the lift/stairs felt more like a corridor as there was a window in the far corner (now blocked off and turned into more display space). There were also some display plinths around this area that seemed to “block off” the corridor from the rest of the exhibition space.

So now, as soon as you come out of the lift/stairs, you feel like you’re in the gallery straight away rather than some ante-chamber or holding space. Blocking off the window has also dropped the light levels in this area, perhaps adding to that sense of “under the sea” immersion.

Overall I found this a calmer space to be in than the earlier iteration – they do say red is a highly arousing colour after all, and perhaps this colour scheme is a little gentler on the senses.

The new gallery has also made use of technology to help interpret the fossils, many of which can look like amorphous smudges to the untrained eye. iPad-based labels highlight the outline of the fossil imprints on the corresponding rock sections, making it easier to see what you’re looking at.

[1] Disclaimer – I had no involvement in the gallery refurbishment although I know the design team through being based at the SA Museum (also the senior designer, Brett Chandler, is a former colleague of mine and we’ve collaborated on exhibitions in the past). My commentary on the design is based on my own interpretations alone.


Mediation or interference?

When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?

A presentation I went to a few weeks ago challenged me to think about these questions. A curator from an art gallery background was sharing some findings from a study tour to the US and the UK. One of the images was from an exhibit familiar to me as one I’d seen at the (then) newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow:

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

A photo I took of the exhibit in question when I visited Kelvingrove in 2006.

Now back in 2006 when I saw this exhibit, I thought it was a pretty neat idea. Superimposed over the 19th century painting “The Marriage of Convenience” by William Orchardson are three small screens inside thought bubbles. A touchscreen interface allows visitors to fill in the bubbles emanating from the three protagonists in answer to the question “What are they thinking?”.

Over the years I’ve seen this exhibit put forward by interpreters as a way of engaging family visitors with art. As an example of “best practice”. Now here I was, listening to someone someone going beyond critique and essentially presenting it as an object of ridicule. I decided to explore this further in the Q&A afterwards. What was it about this exhibit that so attracted her ire?

Essentially it boiled down to the fact that it was visually intrusive [1] and unnecessary to interpret a painting whose Victorian-era morality tale was “not rocket science” to comprehend. She considered it an insult to visitors’ intelligence. Furthermore (and more to the point in my opinion), apparently visitor feedback hadn’t been positive. However, no data was presented to support this claim so it’s hard to know if it’s based on an exhibit evaluation or just the criticisms of a more vocal minority.

I think a couple of points of context need to be raised here. This exhibit was displayed in what was intended as a family gallery. It wasn’t targeted at arts officionados who may be instantly aware of Victorian symbolism in art. I saw (and appreciated) the exhibit as something that was intended to be a hook for visitors who may otherwise not give the piece a second glance. It seems I’m not the only person who saw it that way, as this piece vividly describes:

One of the most amusing interactivities–I could have stood there all day–focused on William Orchardson’s “The Marriage of Convenience.” Most visitors would give this painting–wherein a rich old man dines with his young, beautiful and profoundly bored wife as a dubious butler attends–a quick glance and walk on, dismissing it as a dreary 19th century remnant. But Kelvingrove (which by this point seems to be staffed by Monty Python) had placed thought bubbles next to the painting’s three figures’ respective heads. “What are they thinking?” we were asked, and as passersby typed away, the thought bubbles changed…”This isn’t working out the way I planned.”…”I thought he’d be dead by now “… “The master appears to have made a big mistake.”…. A “dull, boring” relic suddenly sprang to life–and became as contemporary as today’s trophy wives.

So at this point it might be easy to dismiss the art curator’s critique as missing the point of the exhibit and reinforcing the myth that art can somehow “speak for itself” even to those who don’t speak the language. That would be a convenient way of dismissing the criticism, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. As Nicole Deufel pointed out recently, we often accept interpretive “best practice” on the basis of flimsy evidence. That’s why I’d be keen to see if there was any evaluation of this exhibit and what it said. Perhaps this exhibit doesn’t do what it set out to. For me the visitor is the ultimate arbiter and arguing amongst ourselves is going to generate more heat than light.

Having said that, there are some points about subject matter and learning styles that warrant some further thought and discussion. Firstly the issue of interpreting art. I’ve heard art curators use the term “over-interpretation”, but interestingly I’ve never heard anyone lay the same accusation at the feet of science exhibits. Coming from a science background, I get the sense that there is an implicit assumption among “art” people that art is inherently understandable, you just need to take the time to look and think for long enough. And all that pesky interpretation is just “shouty” paraphernalia that gets in the way.

Another point of difference is how much interpretive “mediation” different kinds of visitors feel they need. Again revealing my science training, I tend to like knowing “the answer”. So I can feel cast adrift with art, because I don’t feel “the answer” is being made available to me. Now sometimes I know there is no answer, and that’s kind of the point. I can appreciate that. But other times I do wonder if there *is* some point that I’m supposed to get but I’m missing. And that just makes me feel stupid.

Bottom line is that our needs as visitors are not all the same. As exhibit planners we need to understand, respect and accommodate these differences, which might sometimes mean doing things that satisfy our target audiences but drive us personally nuts.

[1] In the discussion it also emerged that there may be conservation issues with the way the exhibit is installed in relation to the painting, and also the hardware now looks clunky and dated some 7 years (and an app revolution) later. These critiques, while legitimate, are tangential to the debate here.


Museum Visitor Experiences Part 4: Broadening

This is Part 4 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1. Go to Part 2. Go to Part 3.

Broadening: visitors making sense of the museum experience

Broadening is the term Roppola uses to describe “[h]ow visitors find themselves in relationship with the interpretive content of museums” (Roppola, 2012, p.216) as they negotiate “the poetics and politics of display” (ibid. p. 217, original emphasis). Examples of broadening that take place in museums include:

  • Experiential broadening: seeing or doing something you would not normally have the chance to
  • Conceptual broadening: improving understanding of a theoretical principle
  • Affective broadening: exploration on an emotional level
  • Discursive broadening: considering an issue from another point of view

Roppola’s study encompassed a wide range of exhibit types – classical dioramas, multimedia exhibits, artefact-based displays and so on – covering topics across the sciences and the humanities. I’ll summarise some examples very briefly.

Broadening in the sciences:

  • Physical to Theoretical, Theoretical to Physical: the links people made between conceptual scientific knowledge and the physical experience of using hands-on interactive exhibits.
  • Standing in testimony to life: the ability for natural history and nature-based exhibits to increase an appreciation of the value and beauty of the natural world.
  • Science as storied: exhibits provoking visitors to think about the processes of science, science as having agency and acting in a broader social and political context.

Broadening in the humanities:

  • The guts story of people: engaging with powerful human stories on a visceral and emotional level
  • Who is telling whose story, and how? The representation of different cultural groups in the museum context prompts visitors to critically evaluate the way different cultures are presented and from whose perspective.
  • Speaking silences out loud: exhibits providing an opportunity for visitors to talk about things which usually remain unspoken – for instance death or a family member’s experience of war

Conclusion: Bringing it all Together

Framing, Resonating, Channelling and Broadening are not a sequence of processes that visitors undergo – all four can be seen taking place simultaneously over the course of a museum visit. What I find appealing about this study is that the theoretical constructs have emerged from the words of actual visitors in an exhibition context – it is a ‘home grown’ museological theory. Interestingly as well, three of the four concepts, Framing, Resonating and Channelling, are all relatively “content neutral” in that they describe the relationship between visitors and exhibits in a way that transcends the specific interpretive messages that exhibits are meant to convey. This is a novel insight, particularly since most museum visitor research historically has taken as its starting point what visitors “learn” from a given exhibition (however learning is defined).  It’s also encouraging as it mirrors the content-neutral approach my own research has attempted to take:  trying to understand the gamut of visitor experiences that include but are not limited to the specifics of exhibit content.

Summarising the complexities and nuances of a whole book in a mere 4 blog posts is an impossible task – I’ve necessarily been superficial in my treatment. However, I hope I’ve adequately conveyed the main ideas (and encouraged you to read further).


Museum Visitor Experiences Part 3: Channelling

This is Part 3 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1. Go to Part 2.

Channelling: the museum visit through space and time

Museum exhibitions can be considered as four-dimensional media – we physically move through them in both space and time. Roppola describes how visitors navigate this trajectory in terms of “channelling”. More than simply wayfinding, channeling describes how “visitors [find] their way through museums conceptually, attentionally, perceptually as well as physically” (Roppola 2012, p. 174). She defines three different types of channels – spatial channels, narrative channels, and multimodal/multimedial channels.

Spatial channels

The most literal interpretation of the channelling concept, spatial channels pertain to the way that visitors ‘read’ museum environments and act accordingly. Some spaces encourage visitors to linger, others chivvy them along. Seating allows time to rest, recharge and ponder. Where seating is provided, it sends visitors a message that lingering is encouraged. Visitors are more likely to sit and watch a video to the end if there’s a place to sit. Conversely, thin galleries may be perceived as corridors and moved through quickly. Doorways and escalators can have a magnetic effect, pulling visitors towards them. But for other visitors, such thresholds may act as a barrier and they hover at the edges rather than enter. In the same way, small enclosed spaces are inviting to some, offputting to others. (In my own research, I’ve noticed how doorways or even just a slight narrowing of gallery can act as a sort of “reset” function– visitors can be seen to act as if they are in a new environment once they’ve crossed that threshold.)  

Visitors also vary in the extent to which they want spatial channels to guide them along a certain path – something which emerged in my visitor interviews and which I’ve commented on previously.  

Narrative Channels

While spatial channels address the physical movement through an exhibition, narrative channels pertain to the conceptual journey of the visitor. Again, this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, with respect to my own approach to museum visits. An absence of narrative is often confusing and disconcerting for visitors, but then again not always: it depends on your expectations – do you want to take control or are you happy to go along for the ride? (This brings us back to the concept of Framing which was discussed in Part 1 of this series.)

Without a discernible narrative, an exhibition can be seen as “all mixed up”, “all over the place”, “cluttered”, or having “no real point” (visitors quoted in Roppola, 2012, pp. 204-205). Many visitors described the importance of some kind of theme as a way of organising an exhibition (which will be music to the ears of many interpreters!)

Multimodal/Multimedial Channels

Multimodality is a semiotic concept that encompasses all ways a culture might express meaning. Text, speech, images, gestures and sounds are all examples of semiotic modes. Even fonts and colours can be considered modes in some contexts. Multimodality is thus the integration of multiple modes in the creation of meaning – in a conversation, for instance, meaning is conveyed not just in the words spoken but through tone of voice, gestures and proximity of the speakers. Furthermore, individual modes can be manifested through different media – the mode of text can be communicated through a wide range of media such as a magazine, a scroll of parchment, or an exhibit label.

Multimodal and multimedial channelling thus describes how visitors interact with the different modes and media embodied in museum exhibits. Roppola  describes the following:

  • Restorative channelling: a diversity of media helps “break up” content, enhancing interest and reducing fatigue associated with reading “panels and panels and panels of text” (visitor quoted in Roppola, 2012, p.190).
  • Selective channelling: a way of directing visitor attention. Less is more with selective channeling –  a minimalist approach helps to provide a clear focal point to a display. Text hierarchies are also a form of selective channeling by suggesting an order in which to engage with the content.
  • Fragmented channelling: caused by too much complexity without sufficient coherence to enable visitors to make sense of it (touching on Kaplan’s theories I’ve described previously – complexity is only pleasant if it’s legible enough for us to make sense of). Fragmented channels can also result from having too large a physical distance between related items (e.g. a label too far away from the object it describes), or having adjacent exhibits competing with each other for visitor attention.
  • Synchronous channelling: a harmonious relationship between the multimedial elements of an exhibit. The different parts of the exhibit enhance and complement each other rather than competing for attention. Unlike in fragmented challenging, the complexity of multiple modes and media is complemented by coherence.

One good example of channelling I’ve seen is the “Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary” exhibit (see here). This combined synchronous channelling (the pairing of text, audio and images) and spatial channelling (the sequential positioning of the images along a corridor) help to create a coherent experience through space and time.

Next week – Broadening.


Museum Visitor Experiences Part 2: Resonating

This is Part 2 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1.

Resonating: features that attract and repel visitors

In interviews, visitors often described feeling “drawn to” particular exhibition environments and displays. Roppola uses the concept of resonance to characterise this interaction between visitors and features of the exhibition environment. In physics, ‘resonance’ is used to describe the amplification effect observed when two bodies vibrate at the same wavelength. Similarly, visitors and exhibits can be considered as being in a resonant relationship when they are ‘in tune’ with one another.

Certain environmental features, such as “size, beauty, colour, light, a quality of realism, sensory change/movement and opportunity for action” (Roppola, 2012, p. 126) tend to attract visitors and draw them in. Spatial characteristics can also be resonant – environments that feel pleasant to be in owing to characteristics such as light, spaciousness or aesthetic appeal.

Perceptual resonance

Resonance can be achieved by the way that sensory cues of exhibits interact with our perceptual systems. Sensory cues can be seen as “bottom up” data, which we interpret using “top down” mental constructs – an example is how we readily interpret two dots and a curved line as a smiley face (see below). This process of “filling in” the gap between bottom up sensory data and top down constructs can happen within one sense or between multiple senses (eg. visual cues working with auditory information to create an integrated whole).

Perceptual resonance in the visual sense. This image comprises just three lines but we use this bottom-up visual cue along with our top-down concept of a human face to “fill in” the gaps and perceive this as a picture of a smiley face.

Exhibits can take advantage of this intrasensory augmentation to create an enhanced sense of realism – for instance simulator exhibits combine immersive visual stimuli with a relatively modest amount of movement to create a feeling of flying or being in motion. In immersive exhibits or recreated environments, sound effects and smell can be used to enhance realism by hinting at the presence of things unseen – such as bread baking in an oven or the faint cry of a child in the distance. However, simply combining sounds, sights, smells and textures does not automatically create a coherent perceptual whole; the sensory information needs to be congruent with the top-level mental constructs through which visitors interpret them.



Coalescent resonance and how visitors define “interactivity”

Coalescent resonance occurs when two separate entities come together to form a complementary whole. In an exhibit context, this can mean feeling “part of” the exhibition environment: “visitors can physically, personally and socially interact with, or feel part of, exhibition environments” (Roppola p. 151, original emphasis). Physical coalescence can be literal, such as being able to directly touch or get up close to exhibits; it can also be conceptual as visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in a given setting or scenario.

Interestingly, Roppola describes several instances where visitors use the term “interactive” in a sense that is very different from the way exhibit designers and other museum professionals use it – namely, that an “interactive” exhibit is one that visitors physically touch or manipulate in some way. This prerequisite seemed less important to visitors, who also used the word “interactive” to pertain to exhibits that allowed physical proximity or social interaction, but not necessarily hands-on contact. A museum professional may call this latter type of exhibit “immersive” rather than “interactive” [1]. This different understanding of the term “interactive” shows the value of qualitative research in validating the terminology we use – when people say they want more “interactive” experiences, do they mean what we’ve assumed they mean?

Impeding Resonance

Just as environmental stimuli can enhance a resonant relationship between visitors and exhibits, they can also impede it. Things that can impede or block resonant experiences:

  • “You can only take so much in” – a museum visit can saturate your sensory and cognitive capacities. Visitors deploy strategies to allocate their time and mental budgets according to their interests. A sense of “too much to take in” can be overwhelming and prevent visitors from engaging with an exhibition.
  • “It’s all jumbled”- the sense of there being too much to take in can be exacerbated by the lack of a clear order or logic with which to make sense of an exhibit. The ‘signal’ of an interpretive message is lost in the ‘noise’ of an overly cluttered display – different features compete and cancel each other out.
  • “The people I’m with won’t let me” – visitors might spend less time on an exhibit than they would like if they feel they’re being hurried along by their companions. Queues and crowding can impede resonance by getting in the way or making an environment less pleasant by their presence.

Next week – Channelling

[1] In my own research, I found that “immersive” was not a word that resonated particularly with visitors when asked to describe exhibit environments. I used the word in my pilot questionnaire and several visitors said they didn’t know what the word meant (and the pilot results suggested these people were just the tip of the iceberg). Given the amount of museological discourse there currently is around “immersive experiences”, this is a point worth noting – we’re potentially talking about visitor experiences in terms visitors would not recognise.


Museum Visitor Experiences Part 1: Framing

Over the next few weeks I’ll be featuring “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola (Routledge) [1]. This book is based on Tiina’s PhD research, during which she interviewed over 200 visitors at more than 20 exhibits across a range of Australian museums. Four key elements of visitor experiences emerged from this qualitative, grounded study: Framing, Resonating, Channelling and Broadening. I’ll be presenting summaries of each of these in turn – this week: Framing.

Framing – the assumptions we bring with us

Framing is a semiotic concept used to describe the overarching structures people apply to objects and situations to aid their interpretation.  Frames are essentially a collection of categories, criteria and expectations we use as part of the meaning-making process.

People have frames for museums and for exhibits, which are informed by their past experiences. These “frame” the encounters they will have as visitors. Not everyone brings the same gamut of frames to their museum visit, although there are some common patterns. Accordingly, Roppola identified a number of frames that people tend have about museums and exhibits:

Museum Frames:

  • The “displayer of artefacts” frame: for visitors holding this frame, the defining characteristic of a museum is the display of material objects. Other types of displays and interpretive media may be dismissed or ignored as not being “real things”.
  • The “learning” frame: an expectation that museums are primarily a site for learning, and that the museum will be an authoritative source of facts and knowledge. People may visit museums to enact their identity of being learning-oriented people.
  • The “enjoyment” frame: held by visitors who find museums pleasurable places to be. This could be through interaction with certain kinds of interpretive content or simply through appreciation of the general ambiance. “Enjoyment” can mean “fun”, but not necessarily so: people can also talk about “enjoying” more solemn experiences in a museum context. [2]
  • The “pilgrimage” frame: applies to visits to see specific personally or culturally significant objects or sites. People queue to see the Mona Lisa so they can say that they’ve seen it. In an Australian context, many people visit Melbourne Museum specifically to see the racehorse Phar Lap. War Memorials are also a site of cultural pilgrimage.

Visitors may also hold different frames for different types of museums. So what is deemed appropriate (ie.,frame-congrent) in an art gallery might be considered baffling or even offensive in the context of a natural or cultural history museum. In the art gallery, there is an expectation that exhibits may be metaphorical, but transplant the same item to a museum and it may be taken literally and not recognised as art at all.

Exhibit Frames:

  • “Materially distinct” – an expectation that exhibits will be different from things you can see elsewhere (e.g. in a book, on the web, or on TV).
  • “Explanatory” – exhibits should provide sufficient information and adequate labelling. Insufficient information can leave visitors frustrated and unsatisfied.
  • “Temporal” – exhibits should be regularly updated so that there is always something new to see.

In many cases, these frames were only specifically mentioned when they had been violated in some way. When visitors encountered exhibits that were contrary to their frames of what an exhibit is “supposed” to be, the response was often negative. This is typical of frames more generally – we aren’t consciously aware of them unless we encounter something which is incongruent with them.


Our frames are not static and they will evolve and change as we encounter new situations. This reframing can be both positive and negative. For instance, modern museum buildings that are open and bathed in natural light can represent a positive reframing for people who see the traditional museum as “dark and dusty”. But conversely, some visitors may find discordance in the juxtaposition of old objects and modern architecture.

Satisfying encounters with different types of interpretive media can lead to reframing – for instance moving from a more passive “displayer of artefacts” museum frame to one that incorporates a broader mix of media including more tactile and interactive elements.

Next week – Resonating

[1] I first met Tiina at the 2010 Museums Australia conference, where I tracked her down and quizzed her about her research (it was while I was developing my own PhD research proposal). We’ve since become friends and colleagues and her work has been a big influence on mine. As I go through my own data I’m seeing many parallels with her findings, although I remain in awe at the depth and sophistication of what she produced for her PhD. It’s an exemplary piece of qualitative research and I can’t really do it justice here. I highly recommend the book, which is richly illustrated with quotes from the visitor interviews.

[2] Roppola draws the distinction between “enjoyment” (a word that spontaneously emerged in her interviews) and “entertainment” (which was seldom mentioned). This is an important semantic difference to my mind, and one I’ll come back to in a future post. 


Parrawa, Parrawa! Go Away!

On my recent trip to Hobart I took in the recently refurbished Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Overall I was impressed, but now it’s a couple of months later I think the thing that sticks in my mind the most is an exhibit on the top floor of the refurbished Bond Store building – the Parrawa, Parrawa! exhibition. This deals with the European invasion of lutruwita (Tasmania) and the resulting war between 1823 and 1831.


The space is fairly understated in its design and is reasonably sparse with respect to density of exhibits (I mean this in a good, less is more sort of way).

The exhibit I spent the most time at was a set of paired projections – on opposite sides of the gallery from one another – one telling stories of battles from a European perspective and the other from an Aboriginal perspective. It’s hard to capture in images but here’s a few examples:





This short video clip (15 secs) might give a better idea of the juxtapostion of the screens within the gallery. I took the video from a bench that was positioned offset from but between the two screens. I sat there for a while alongside a fellow visitor, while we periodically turned our heads from side to side to see the two screens, as they are both screening simultaneously (I mused that we might have looked like spectators at a tennis match, although we weren’t always moving in sync with one another!).

It’s interesting for me to reflect on this experience from both the perspective of a visitor and a former exhibition designer. Had I been on the design team for this exhibition, I can imagine that I may well have argued against this positioning of the screens such that you had to keep turning your head to follow them both. However, I would have been proven wrong as I think in this instance it actually works.

For a start, it positions the two opposing views as more clearly “facing off” against one another. It’s hard to see both perspectives at once (which mirrors the intellectual concept of the exhibit nicely – war is often about ‘taking sides’ whether you want to or not). Also, the provision of a bench makes all the difference – it signals a vantage point from which you can view both screens without obstructing others. And viewing them seated also allows a more reflective engagement with the content. I overheard one visitor say to her companion that “it’s hard to look at*, but that’s good because it makes you want to watch it again.” 

This would be an fascinating exhibit to observe visitors at – once visitors did engage with it, they did seem to spend a fair bit of time at it. But if you breezed past, you may not necessarily have “got” what the exhibit was all about – it could have looked like two disconnected screens depending on what was going on when you walked past. I wonder how these different levels of engagement would look over an extended period of time – over to you, TMAG!


* From the context it was clear she meant physically difficult, not ‘hard’ as in the ‘hot’ nature of the subject matter – although that may also apply in this instance.