Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What is Innovative Exhibition Design?

As often happens at museum conferences, some of the most interesting conversations and ideas come about outside the formal presentations and sessions.  A few months ago at a conference, Axel Huttinger (of Kurt Hüttinger GmbH & Co. in Germany) and I spoke briefly about my blog post “What's The Big Idea?

Afterwards Axel kindly sent me the unpublished (until now!) abstract below, entitled "What is Innovative Exhibition Design?" which he says he wrote while sitting in a "rubbish" planning meeting for the most terrible project he's ever worked on!  With that build up,  I hope you enjoy reading Axel's piece as a great way to kick off your own exhibition design process in 2015.

What is Innovative Exhibition Design?

What, in fact, is really good? As clichéd as the question may sound, it hits the nail squarely on the head of our dilemma as exhibition makers. Is an exhibition innovative and, therefore,  good if it goes into the subject in depth?  Is it good if it offers fun to the visitors?  Does it touch the visitors if or because it is the place where they encounter the original?

None of these questions make any sense if one does not start doing something where one actually wants to achieve something, i.e. with our actual clients, the visitors.  Unfortunately, the exhibition designer seldom (in most cases, never) has the opportunity to make use of this approach in his real life, because we as exhibition designers do not usually depend directly (financially) on the visitors. As a rule, exhibition designers are paid by the client. The latter, in turn, are financed by corporations which are usually subject to other contingencies than orientation towards the needs of visitors. Apart from that, it is in the nature of projects of this kind that the paying client usually gets the opportunity only once in his lifetime to implement a large exhibition project.  This fact, in turn, has, of course, an effect on the conduct of the client in the course of the project.  I will disregard this reality and take a normative point of view, i.e. I will describe the world as it ideally is supposed to be.

“Know your audience.”  I heard this sentence with a certain insistent emphasis from an American exhibition designer for the first time. This statement has left a lasting impression with me. Of course, this statement is of no particular interest for a museum curator who has received a thorough scientific education, let alone whether it would fit in his view of the world.  The latter has, of course, other worries, for instance, whether using the academic degree should be common practice when addressing people in the daily museum routine. At least, people are certainly discussing this issue at some length on public e-mail lists.  Orientation towards the needs of visitors is a lesser issue on the list of topics in this context.

Nevertheless, the sentence about the visitors is worth to be taken seriously, even though it seems a little trite on first sight. A popular-science exhibition in a museum, science centre, children’s museum or in a scientific visitor centre is not a scientific publication. The “exhibition” is the worst possible medium for communicating the required depth of scientific content directly with the audience. An exhibition is just a little sequential medium. An exhibition should and can pursue only one single aim: It is designed to motivate people in WANTING to understand and learn. To this end, it must, however, give them a sense of security and a certain amount of self-confidence. It should give people the impression that they are taken seriously and that they have understood, or can understand something. The nuclear physicist and founder of the Exploratorium, Frank Oppenheimer, once said with reference to an exhibition organized by him that nobody must leave the room with the feeling that he is “more stupid than another person.”

As an exhibition designer or scenographer, if one favours this term, one is faced with the question of how far one should go regarding depth of content, without giving the visitors the impression that they are “stupid.”  Pages of books, copied on text boards and charts in exhibitions are not exactly the optimum means of giving people a good or motivating feeling.  Personally, I think that I am relatively well educated.  Middle-class general knowledge has always played and still plays an important role in my life as a result of my upbringing. Yet I feel bored, if not to say a little annoyed, in an exhibition with charts containing texts which are longer than 3 or 4 sentences. If I want to read a book this is something one should rather do at home in peace and quiet.  If, by contrast, you attend an exhibition, I expect the use of other or additional mediа for transferring knowledge.  I, therefore, doubt that the intellectual target group -- educated classes leaves an exhibition with enthusiasm, in which pictures are pinned up on the walls. Incidentally, the educated classes in Germany are about to become extinct and do not offer themselves as the main target group for exhibitions anyway.

The phrase “Know your audience” is misinterpreted as “Know yourself” by the majority of curators, but also by so-called scenographers. At the last European Hands-on Conference in Vienna in November 2005, the forum for European children’s museums, the Dutch social researcher, Fritz Spangenberg, has politely pointed out to the designers of children’s museums that one should always keep in mind who one is actually working for. This reproach is certainly paradoxical, for it should be self-evident that, when planning a facility for visitors, it should be modelled exactly for them. It is, however, apparently necessary to clarify the orientation towards the needs of visitors in relation to the programme. And still, it usually is difficult to concentrate on one target group. Irrespective of whether the investor, the designer or the curator find it difficult or not, in the end, there is no other choice: No matter, whether one works for a children’s museum, a science centre or a traditional museum, the facility cannot and will not be a success if the question for whom the facility was designed has not been clarified in an honest, pragmatic way. “First of all, we clarify the scientific content and then we try to find a good scenographer who fuses everything into a popular exhibition architecture.”  This, in my opinion, is the wrong approach, if not to say a naive one.

An exhibition is an emotive medium. A good exhibition can generate so-called aha experiences. Factual knowledge can be conveyed at exhibitions only to a limited extent. What part should and must the design proper of an exhibition play?  Designers, who have specialized in scientific communication, can work successfully only if they have a sufficient degree of freedom. In my opinion, it is our task to plan a public venue that is authentic and generates real physical experiences which can be experienced with all senses: “Real things and real processes!”  Ideally, an exhibition is a public laboratory, in which the visitors themselves become researchers and scientists.  Laboratories that give people a good feeling: “It is, after all, not all that difficult and, what’s more, I have understood everything.”  In Anglo-Saxon countries this hypothesis is paraphrased as “hands-on, minds-on or hearts-on.”  And this hypothesis plainly applies not only to science centres and children’s museums.

Exhibition design, particularly in Germany, is strongly determined by interior architecture and design. Scenery design and stage design are other important components. Their use marked the preliminary culmination in the Expo design in Hanover in 2000. Unfortunately, as a rule, specific learning theory and psychology play a minor role in relation to formal exhibition designs.  Negative examples exist in large numbers and celebrating failures is also fun, after all.  However, the primary aim should be to learn from one’s mistakes committed in the past. With many projects, the design was not given adequate significance. Often it was worked out or interpreted in competition to the object or to the interactive exhibit, thus becoming an artistic end in itself, being rather a means of drawing attention to objects, for getting oneself in the right frame of mind for something emotionally, for sensitizing one’s senses or for motivating visitors in connection with exhibition design to deal with a topic interactively.  Best of all, everything taken together.

A prerequisite for designing successful exhibitions is the knowledge of human psychological mechanisms that play a role when visiting an exhibition.  First of all, we are talking about quite simple everyday problems that become a must for enjoying an exhibition “intellectually.”  Just imagine a family with two children after a nerve-racking journey that lasted several hours. Car journey, looking for a parking space, standing in a long queue to buy tickets, “mummy I need the loo.”  These are stress factors which are not very likely to let the visit proper to an exhibition start in a really funny way, let alone reading a book in eight-point type in dark-grey on light-grey. The old motto to “pick up people where they are at a particular moment in this context means to give people – and the children – a feeling of security, the avoidance of the said stress factors having, of course, been given adequate attention in the design of the external setting of the exhibition.

“I know what it is about“, and this I know straight away.“  No eccentric artistic installation should demand too much of the visitor intellectually, no matter which target group he belongs to. The best example of a pleasant discovery tour that I have ever seen was in the Natural History Museum in Lyon. At the entrance of the special exhibition there was hung a huge picture of an aesthetic photo of a desert with the caption “Sable” (Sand) extending over the whole wall.  Simple – yes, that’s right, but exactly this degree of simplicity is brilliant as a start.  Every visitor, no matter to which cultured class he belongs, now knows what the topic is: Namely, sand.  The complexity of the theme can then still be explored to a sufficient degree. The lead-in to the topic must, however, be associated with the conveying of a feeling of security, otherwise it will be very difficult to achieve the desired learning effect.

To remain with the example of a successful dramaturgy, an example with which the human psychological mechanisms are taken so wonderfully seriously,  I would like to briefly describe the further arrangement of the exhibition rooms of the said exhibition.  In the next room, the walls were used for displaying small test tubes filled with a wide range of sand samples. In the centre of the room there were microscopes, with the aid of which the visitors were able to examine a range of different samples of sand. Microscopes are one of the most “unproblematic” means of interaction as far as wear and “disarranging things” are concerned. For the use in schools they are usually very robust, so that trouble-free operation is nearly always guaranteed. On first sight, the room can easily be surveyed like the first one and yet gently gives people an understanding of the complexity of the topic. The experience of the microscope stations is the preliminary highlight of the mis-en-scène, which is designed to generate this feeling of security. That is the reason one can now dare to go deeper into the content of the exhibition in the following rooms. In the special exhibition “Sable”, traditional ways of representing things, such as stuffed animals in showcases, are used, even graphics boards were installed. A critic would refer to the information depth of the special exhibition as homoeopathic.

By contrast, I see it as pragmatic in a visionary way. And exactly this assessment is true regarding the entire exhibition: Adequately detailed, but not overloaded content-related information with a tremendously exciting and varied focus on different fields of life and knowledge, in which the exhibit, sand, is shown. In the following rooms and installations of the special exhibition, the topic is sand in art and culture.  In terms of design, the topic now manifests itself in scenographic installations such as, for instance, in a mini-cinema, where sequences from Hollywood films are shown: A cursing Will Smith, who in the film “Independence Day” drags a shot-down alien through the desert.  At another place, the visitors are confronted with a “glass-sand-sculpture.”   The conclusion of the exhibition is a collection of interactive exhibits concentrated in space, picking out the physical phenomenon sand as the central topic. The impressive thing about the exhibition was definitely not the specific design. The purely structural implementation in terms of quality and durability was also not world class. The way the visitors were being dealt with has made a lasting impression on me.  In no place were the visitors overburdened with prefabricated concepts and metaphors. Everything hit the heart at the right time.

The question posed at the beginning (of my paper) “what, in fact, is good”,  can now be answered at least by 50 percent, drawing attention to the clever and well thought-out human psychological mechanisms. In terms of “disciplines” it is, first and foremost, a challenge for the designers or the so-called scenographers, for the space configuration produces an immediate and direct effect on the visitors.  And it is exactly this, what matters: The creation of speaking scenarios, in which the visitors move and interact with the exhibition. Our American colleagues express it like this: “Environments that truly connect with people”. The longer-term aim of an exhibition, however, is the knowledge transfer in a highly conventional sense. The visitors are supposed to leave the room knowing more than when they entered it. We are doing all this “not for fun”, i.e. we are not designers of leisure and theme parks, which first and foremost want to amuse people and must make money.  Thus, our seemingly cumbersome educative approach, in my opinion, is the second part of the answer to the question posed:

An exhibition is only good if “learning” really takes place.  In America, experts have been trying for decades to evaluate this, for most of their funding commitments are linked with a positive answer to the question whether people learn something. With his treatise “Learning in the Museum”,  George E. Heim has written a standard work, in which he appeals to the designers of museums and exhibitions: Create a “Constructivist Museum.”  His theoretical approach is modelled in a simplified form on the diverse theories of (Neo)constructivism in literature and social sciences and is really very helpful and quite fascinating. Visitors should not experience knowledge as something strange, but construct it in their heads themselves. For us as exhibition designers this means that the exhibition must become a laboratory, in which there virtually are no prefabricated results which the visitors are served.  Results should rather be generated individually by the visitors themselves.  At first glance, this requirement is a contradiction to the usual scenographic approach. A walk-on stage setting is static and “worn” after one visit.  It may please, but it expresses nothing else than the knowledge which the scenographer puts into effect, and is, therefore, not any better than a push-button exhibit version of the year 1890.

What we, on the contrary, are passionately striving for is true interaction in an emotional exhibition with open platforms to experiment that do not provide results in advance. A few years ago, in 1971, Simon Nicholson published the book “Theory of loose parts.”   In it, he said  "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."   In simple terms, this theory means that the amount of knowledge transferred is directly proportional to the number of loose parts in an installation. The more things are lying about, the more one can play with them, the more creative occasions for interaction arise. Ideally, the implementation of this idea or theory would not be a problem, were there not the objections of the exhibition operators - which can be understood from a sheer practical point of view - who are always anxious to keep the running costs as low as possible. That is why glass showcases and graphics boards are so tremendously comfortable … The only thing that wears away at this design are the ravages of time, but definitely none of the “creative” hands of visitors, who sometimes have unbelievable ideas for disarranging things.

Let me be provocative for a moment: The true opponent of effective learning in exhibitions is the operators’ unwillingness to take risks. Very few of them are willing to be faced with the “totally normal chaos” of true interaction, i.e. the danger of higher design and maintenance costs.  Although again and again we see that loose parts or fragile stations for carrying out experiments cause people to feel: “Here I am taken seriously and people trust me”,  this kind of exhibition design is not very popular. Owing to the fact that nowadays a minimum of “interaction” is needed so that one can say that one is up-to-date, the exhibits are planned individually, which is an “idiocy” in the true sense of the word [for the word “idiot” is derived from the Greek word “idiotes” – individual, private]. Everything must work as maintenance-free as possible, as if the exhibits were standing there “privately”, not wishing to have anything to do with anybody, so that, ultimately, everything is reduced to mere demonstration models, i.e. push-button exhibits.  What a waste of money and what a missed opportunity to make something really good! For us exhibition designers this means that, in the long term, we do not have a chance of fulfilling George E. Hein’s hypothesis.

At a museum conference, once, an English client under the influence of alcohol said to me that “the Germans are getting on my nerves.” The latter are having discussions, you know, which the others (i.e. the Britons) had as long as 20 years ago. This statement has a virtually brutal political background.  In the eighties the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, reduced the budget for museums drastically, thus forcing the museums to re-define and re-appraise their mission.  The concentration on collecting, research, and publishing shifted markedly in the direction of “show collections” and the idea of the so-called “Public Understanding of Sciences.”  In Germany, the latter is readily misinterpreted as “Disneyfication.”  What an unbelievable ignorance and arrogance this is to bring orientation towards the needs of visitors into discredit in such a way!?  Of course, in the wake of such a pioneering change, which has taken place in England and which should take place also here in Germany, one will sometimes overshoot the mark and make mistakes.  Nevertheless, static stage sets or glass showcases with neat shelf details are no alternative!  In order to create something really good – as always – everybody must move. However, in this case, the saying is true: “The fish starts to rot from the head.”  But the head includes those who finance us bidders. Of course, we do almost everything for money,  because we are subject to the usual financial burdens and constraints.  However, we would enjoy our work a lot more, and our motivation to achieve something would increase tremendously,  if we were given an opportunity of helping to change the world.

Thanks again Axel, for letting ExhibiTricks publish your essay!

What do you think of what Axel had to say?  Share your thoughts in the "Comments" Section below!

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