|Scene from Bagdad Cafe
In his book Designing Exhibitions, Giles
Velarde begins “Exhibitions are, at best, magic and, at worst, dreary
trudges around gloomy trade shows or museums.”
Fans of the film Bagdad Café will recall that it was a box of
cheap magic tricks that helped the enigmatic Bavarian tourist Jasmin to
transform the resident misfits of a remote diner in the wind-swept
Mojave Desert. Not only did she humanise the residents, she made Bagdad
Café the roaring stop-over for the thirsty drivers of passing rigs. In
this issue, we look at exhibitions and their role in turning museums
into Bagdad cafés.
Accumulated expertise is available in the books on our shelves, the
recent Museums Australia national conference and other sources.
From the bookshelves
The latest version of the National Standards for
Australian Museums and Galleries, published in December 2010 on the
Museums and Galleries Queensland site, promotes a general principle:
“Objects on display are arranged to convey significant collection areas,
themes, stories, [and] ideas.”
Museum Methods, Museum Australia’s publication for small museums and
galleries (2002), is currently being reassessed with a view to a new
edition. As a practical manual, it makes the point that exhibitions, as
the most visible expression of a museum’s ambitions, must “excite and
Exhibitions: a Practical Guide for Small Museums, edited by
Georgia Rouette and published by the Victorian Branch in 2007, not only
updates practical considerations, it includes a series of templates for
exhibition briefs, policies, project management, touring and other
aspects of exhibition production. Importantly, it also has a chapter
that amplifies design elements as they relate to layout, displays,
lighting, colour, labels and text panels, and sound.
Two general publications on museum practice are worth
dipping into. The Manual of Museum Planning, edited by Gail
Dexter Lord and Barry Lord, published in 1991, has a section on
exhibition planning processes. Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to
Museum Practices, published 1984, draws attention to visitor
psychology, communication, and evaluation, among other aspects. Giles
Verlarde, in his section of the manual, says the type of museum usually
drives design considerations. He distinguishes between object-oriented
and narrative-oriented exhibitions. And, as if to dispel the notion that
the curator is always the king pin in exhibition production, Douglas
Bassett and David Prince, in their chapter, stress that “successful
exhibition design is a team affair.”
Other titles offering useful advice have been relegated to the lower
shelves because of the date of their publication. They include
Designing Exhibitions by Giles Velarde, (the Design Council, 1988),
Exhibition Planning and Design: a Guide for Exhibitors Designers and
Contractors (Batsford, 1989), The Exhibition Handbook by
Christopher Heath (MA Vic 1997), and Travelling Exhibitions: A
Practical Handbook for Non-State Metropolitan Regional Galleries and
Museums by Sara Kelly (NETS Victoria, 1994).
Imagineering: a Behind-the-Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real,
by the Imagineers at Walt Disney (1996), underscores the fact that
blood, sweat and tears are involved in transforming fantasy into
something that will draw an audience.
The Victorian Branch’s latest publication is Exhibition Design for
Galleries and Museums: an Insider’s View (2010). Edited by Georgia
Rouette, it gathers up the views of twenty experts who consider design
in a range museum types and situations.
Considering the audience
Michael Ostwald encourages curators and designers to
take on board education strategies as a planning prerequisite when
developing an exhibition. People learn in different ways, he reminds us.
Museums must become sites for informal learning, a process that relies
on the use of spaces, interactivity, and technology.
Anita Kocsis, Carolyn Barnes and Stephen Huxley say that exhibitions
are, above all, an experience. “A focus on experience in a complete
sense could create a common purpose in exhibition development, mediating
between curatorial aims, design strategies and audience needs and
Exhibitions in art museums
A number of writers focus on design in art museums.
Jane Deeth suggests a discursive approach as a way of grabbing the
attention of people who visit contemporary art exhibitions. Ted Snell
considers the mission of university art museums within their context as
centres of learning: they need to be thought provokers when engaging
multiple communities. Alison Inglis reflects on the role of curators in
balancing design and content, based on two case studies – the Salvador
Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Sidney Nolan
Ned Kelly series exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, both
presented in 2009. Tony Ellwood’s chapter covers blockbusters.
Karen Quinlan gives a perspective on presenting exhibitions in regional
galleries, which are subject to variable funding levels and other
constraints, while Georgia Cribb considers the challenges of designing
touring exhibitions for regional buildings which are characterised by an
“idiosyncratic mix of architectural styles.”
Exhibitions in small museums
Euan McGilvray looks at exhibition design in
underfunded community museums. While the majority of them “ collect
historical material – in many cases vast amounts of it – they may not
include a conscious effort to use design to enhance the experience of
visitors.” Although many local historical societies and community
museums use exhibition design as an organising principle, “exhibition
design in the sense that it is understood in the museum industry is
Given the conditions under which many community museums operate, he is
cautious about attempting to shoehorn better standards and more inclined
to accept the “glorious randomness” they offer. “Visitors are
increasingly capable of dipping, skimming and flipping through a forest
of content to glean some personal knowledge or insights, or just to have
On the other hand, his recipe for improved design on a shoestring
involves better interpretation, selecting fewer items and giving
attention to the visitor experience as part of the process of preparing
Advice on design in small museums was also touched on at the recent
Museums Australia national conference by Lisa Fletcher from the Museum
of Samoa and Georgia Rouette. Fletcher, in her workshop DIY Design for
Small Museums, urged participants to “think like a designer”. Rouette,
in Pushing the Boundaries: Small Galleries and Museums Challenging the
Status Quo, argued that small museums, without the bureaucratic,
political and economic constraints that large museums encounter, have
“opportunities to unleash creativity in all its potential and take risks
with some astonishing outcomes.”
Other types of museums
Designing exhibitions in other types of museums are
explored, in Exhibition Design for Museums and Galleries, by Donna
Leslie (on Australian indigenous exhibitions), Padmini Sebastian
(multiple narratives in immigration museums), Garrett Donnelly
(multi-disciplinary collections in historic buildings), and Glenn
Gresgusson and Gabrelle Tydd (natural history museums).
Dealing with issues
Carole Hammond zooms in on how to integrate
environmental sustainability into museum production, while Bernice
Murphy reflects on the thorny question of dealing with controversial
content, based on her experiences over the Bill Henson saga in 2008, the
Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1995 and the seizing of Juan
Davila’s Stupid as a Painter in 1982. “Museums have a complex task in
negotiating their relationships with society…On the one hand, as public
institutions, museums must sign up to the protocols and obligations that
shape engagements in the public sphere. On the other hand, they have a
responsibility to promote understanding of the complex languages and
encoded nature of cultural objects and images and their often
challenging content. If museums’ abilities to keep their programs
diverse, challenging, informative and reflexive were jeopardised, the
loss to imaginative and intellectual life would be severe. For these
qualities are essential to the flourishing of all societies.”
On Museum Australia’s social media site, maNexus, Des Griffin recently
posed the question: are social history exhibitions in our museums still
collections of trophies without reference to their past? He had been
prompted by Amanda Lohrey’s article “The Absent Heart” in the June 2010
issue of The Monthly. She had been critical of several social history
exhibitions in major museums that left her with the impression that
curators are more concerned about the preservation of the artefact than
they are to give any account of the history that produced it.” She
complained that too often objects are exhibited as trophies. “Until
their displays of social history are more imaginatively conceived, our
museums will remain lacklustre models of fragmentation and perfunctory
exposition. There is a metaphorical heart missing from this frame, a
manifest passion and flair, for the telling of our history.”
A number of people entered the fray. Sebastian Gurciullo was less
concerned about “the fragmentariness of the exhibitions”, the lack of a
single narrative. He was more concerned that too many exhibitions were
inert: they seem to avoid any kind of controversy lest the political
masters react in a hostile manner.
Gillian Savage urged us to consider real evidence about visitor
experiences before we make too many assumptions. She was more concerned
about the use of replicas for the real thing. “This is the problem of
story-centred exhibition. Not enough authentic objects.” Regan Forrest
questioned whether people were all that concerned about whether objects
were real, an assertion supported by Christine Dauber: “in the digital
age, where the democratisation of knowledge is running full force, the
traditional style of exhibition with objects as its focus and the
professional as the ‘expert’ providing instructive information will not
engage the majority of audiences.”
For further exploration of these sentiments you might
be tempted by Steven Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects?
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY
Exhibition Design for Galleries and Museums nibbles at the impact
of technology on exhibitions in the digital age. Brian Looker compares
the pros and cons of traditional and contemporary dioramas, mixed media
displays, models and materials. “Different from traditional dioramas,
the contemporary diorama is now just as popular and can be viewed as a
display rather than a diorama.” From his experience “a good exhibit is
not always the largest or the most expensive, but rather one that has
been created with great imagination, allowing scope for adaption or
change over time.” Georgia Rouette, in her chapter, considers
convergent, immersive technology inspired by the 19th century static
painted panorama. And Diane Lorenz anticipates the impact of the next
wave of digitally-savvy museum-goers.
This was a topic considered by Tim Rolfe at the
MA2010 national conference, when he commented on the significant shift
in audience expectations. “The goal posts have changed for museum
exhibition design: visitors’ expectations are higher than at any other
time in history. Few museum collection objects have the power to stand
alone in a showcase with a simple label.”
For a deeper consideration of the impact of
technology on the production and presentation of exhibitions, we turned
to a recent report by the Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the
Arts, 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition (www.nmc.org/pdf/2010-Horizon-Report-Museum.pdf).
Technology, it said, is offering more choices to museums in all parts of
their operations. Rich media — images, videos, audio, augmented reality,
and animations — are becoming increasingly valuable assets in digital
interpretation. Digitisation and cataloguing projects are calling on a
significant share of museum resources.
Increasingly, museum visitors and staff expect to be able to work,
learn, study, and connect with their social networks in all places and
at all times using whichever device they choose. The abundance of
resources and relationships offered by open content repositories and
social networks is challenging museums to revisit their role as
From nearly 50 emerging technologies, the Horizon report selected 6 as
the ones to watch and it gives specific consideration to their impact on
interpretation and exhibitions, with examples of applications currently
Mobile technology will take greater advantage of the devices people
carry and will reduce overhead costs for services like audio tours.
Social media will continue to tap into the “endlessly expressive and
creative” voice of the audience.
New augmented reality applications are poised to enter the mainstream;
museums - traditionally places in which visitors can rarely touch the
objects - will use augmented reality to create new forms of interaction
Location-based services – geotagging and geocaching – will enable museum
to “pin” information to a given object or gallery location and have it
pushed to a user once he or she has reached that location.
Although the full potential of gesture-based
computing is several years away, this technology will enable museums to
create a better understanding of the functions and aesthetics of objects
– in much the same way as the iPad application Elements allows users to
manipulate and “touch” chemical compounds, metals and radioactive
substances in an engaging way.
And, finally, the Semantic Web not only promises to help us connect to
digital objects that are currently invisible to current search
algorithms, it has potential to improve the workflow and process of
organising collections and exhibitions. “Implementing agreed-upon
standards and applications that allow content to be discoverable via its
context could potentially eliminate much duplication of effort in terms
of data entry and back-and-forth communication that occurs as a result
of institution-specific collections information records.”
The Horizon report pinpoints significant challenges
overall. Far too few museums, it said, have a comprehensive strategy to
ensure that they can keep pace with even the most proven technologies.
Funding for technology projects is too often done outside operational
budgets. Requirements for managing technology are not well understood.
Demands for business cases can create a “chicken versus egg” conundrum.
Museum workflows are too often ill-suited to modern content production
techniques in which content is created simultaneously for multiple
delivery modes. At a time when their role is more important than ever,
too many museum educators lack the training, resources or support to
address the technological opportunities and challenges they face.
András Szántó, in The Arts Newspaper 2 December 2010, picked up these
threads. He urged museums to “lose control.” Although they have made
great strides in adapting to the digital age, they need to go much
further. “With few exceptions, museums came late to the digital party.
Until quite recently, most have used their websites as extended online
brochures, limited to practical information and collection highlights.”
Dramatic changes that have occurred during the past 18 months point to
First, technology is changing the relationship between objects, curators
and visitors. Improved collection searching is exemplified on the
Victoria and Albert Museum website (collections.vam.ac.uk). Multimedia
experiments are reflected in the work of the Louvre Lab (louvre.fr).
Second - and reinforcing a point of the Horizon report - much of this
innovation is being spurred by an explosion in usage of mobile media,
including the use of smart phones and tablets.
Third, museums are venturing beyond traditional curatorial material.
Homepages are beginning to look like magazine sites, with channels for
news and audience dialogue. Blogs, written by staff, routinely attract
the most traffic on museum websites. New distribution platforms, such as
ArtBabble (artbabble.org), are putting museums in the communications
Fourth, technology is revitalising museum education – as exemplified by
the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s multimedia scavenger hunt, “Ghost
of a Chance”, in which players used text messages, email and the web to
find hidden objects in the museum, and MoMA’s education portal.
Fifth, social media initiatives are blending
education and marketing, as exemplified by the international web event
in 2010 called Ask a Curator (askacurator. com) and the Guggenheim
Museum’s creative video biennial, “YouTube Play”, a collaborative
enterprise with YouTube, HP and Intel (youtube.com/play).
Last but not least, technology is transforming professional practice, as
exemplified by the Museum Dashboard at Indianapolis Museum of Art at
Museums, he said, are feeling their way toward a digital future, but
technological change hasn’t seeped yet all the way into museums’
innermost structures and attitudes. Digital innovation doesn’t just
enable institutions to do old things in new ways. It forces fundamental
and often painful realignments involving questions about what to
NSW members don’t need to go far to explore some of these developments.
Just got to the Powerhouse Museum. See, for example,
www.powerhousemuseum.com/imageservices/index.php/ 2008/11/ which plays
with a single photograph of a park and a bandstand to create a video
story in much the same way as Ric Burns used a single photo to flesh out
a story of a factory fire in his documentary film New York. Just as a
painter can sometimes make a better picture with a simple triad than a
full palette of colours, museums can make a great exhibition with few
objects and little technology.
A LASTING IMPRESSION
Exhibitions mean different things to different
people. Those who present exhibitions in museums are called upon to
become film producers, broadcasters, educators, entertainers and
In essence, and to borrow the words of the song at the end of Bagdad
Café. “It’s all about magic, magic at the Bagdad Café.”
When Jasmin created her bit of magic, though, it was not so much the box
of tricks that did the trick. It was the emotions she tapped into.
To create a bit of magic, we need to leave a lasting impression.