Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Museums and Heritage Show Part 1

It is the end of day one of the Museums and Heritage Show and I am exhausted.  There is a jam packed schedule of talks and stalls to keep you stimulated all day long.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to reflect on some of the talks that I attended and flesh out some of the ideas that started to formulate as I sat predominantly on the floor of the lecture theatres.  I should preface this by saying that the National Theatre has just opened its first dedicated archive exhibition space front of house, the Lyttelton Lounge, and I have unexpectedly found myself deep in exhibition territory.

The first talk was on the choice between high tech and low tech exhibitions.  Although this was the topic of the talk, the focus was really on your interpretation of the subject area and how that should lead you to the decision of whether you need a high or low tech solution for your exhibition.  It hadn't occurred to me that I am an interpreter in that I help people to appreciate and explore theatre history - there is an Association of Heritage Interpretation, which I am sorry to say I hadn't heard of before.  A couple of the trustees were speaking and it was very interesting to hear the work they are doing to advocate interpretation as a profession in and of itself.  They are encouraging everyone to think about their exhibitions so that they are thematic (rather than fact based), organised (so that they are easy to follow for people who will be in 'leisure-mode'), relevant (personal and meaningful) and enjoyable.  Having just worked on two exhibitions, one purely digital and one both physical and digital, it is very helpful now to reflect on some of the questions that we should perhaps have asked ourselves before the whole process started.

One of the adorable programme animals

The second talk was on transforming thresholds.  I wasn't entirely sure what this meant before the talk but any ideas about how to improve visitor experience in terms of space and signage are always welcome.  The main thrust was that AHRC funded research has been carried out to look at how thresholds are used in museums and in what ways they can be made more effective.  In order to carry out this research, the team looked to three sectors, which are more used to considering threshold use: retail; gaming; and performance.

In retail there is a lot of focus on the threshold of a shop and trying to engage users from their first entry through the doors.  Gaming also considers thresholds in terms of the start of a game and how users can be educated in the rules, goals and size of the game.  The one that really stood out to me was the use of performance in the research.

Directors and actors need to consider the theatre space and where and when a performance is deemed to have started.  The research team decided to use 'invisible' performance, which is where a performance or rehearsals take place in public without those around being aware.  This took the form of actors embedding themselves in a threshold space and asking for information, going up stairs, reading signage and engaging with the space as a visitor is expected to do.  The research team had studied visitor flow prior to the 'performance' and visitors tended to get their heads down and walk through the space completely ignorant of the signage and features.  Once the visitors were mixed with actors they were far more likely to engage with material.  This suggests that people feel the need to be given permission, in a sense, to stop and engage.  I have spotted this in our Lyttelton Lounge where, if one person stops to read text, more people will be likely to.  This is particularly true of AV material or listening posts.  The next step is figuring out how to take this forward.  We are already considering how else we can advertise the digital aspect of our Lounge so that people are encouraged to hire an iPad or use their own device and perhaps the sense of permission and encouragement needs to be integrated into those plans.

The third talk I want to mention was on designing successful temporary exhibitions on a tight budget.  The budget of the exhibition being presented was actually fairly large in my opinion but the points were very valuable all the same!  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we have approached the Lyttelton Lounge with many of the ideas expressed in this talk.  We have used large graphics to engage visitors instantly and in a cost effective way.  We have also made sure that the capital expenditure on shelving has resulted in a reusable and adaptable solution.  There was a big focus again on identifying the audiences and desired outcomes of an exhibition and this was repeated in several of the talks I attended, whether they be geared towards interpretation strategies, marketing or visitor engagement.

All in all, it was a very interesting day and I am looking forward to tomorrow, which promises to be more techy, starting with a feature on 'Tech for newbies'!

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