Sunday, February 14, 2010

Should Your Next Exhibit Be Designed Like The Web?

Should the loosely connected, surf anywhere you like approach that makes the Web so popular serve as the design model for your next exhibit?

What got me thinking about this was the review (and subsequent comments) over on the ExhibitFiles website concerning the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry's new human body exhibit entitled "YOU!" 

Many exhibit designers seem to feel that exhibitions need a clear storyline or narrative thread that helps visitors walk away with clear messages.  The folks involved in the YOU! exhibition seemed to be guided not only by the disjointed architecture of the spaces they had to fit the exhibition into, but also by an acknowledgment of the user-centered, Web-based manner that many members of their target audience gather their information these days.

While the Web is great for wading through vast oceans of information, it still seems that "sticky" narratives are the best way for acquiring  long-lasting knowledge.   Using the Web as a model for design criteria seems like it could easily lapse into the "let's just fill up the space with cool stuff and let the visitors sort it out..." school of exhibit (or museum) design. 

So, can a museum exhibition composed of free-standing units that can be viewed in any order, any more or less effective than the traditionally-styled exhibition hung on a clear narrative structure? The folks from Chicago involved with the YOU! project have indicated that they'll be releasing their summative evaluation reports, so stay tuned...

What do you think?  Are folks from the narrative thread school of exhibit design just old fuddy-duddies that aren't keeping up with the Web-savvy public?  Or can museums serve as an antidote from click-based info-surfing,  and provide real objects, experiences, and stories that people can dive more deeply into?  Share your own deep (or shallow!) thoughts in the "Comments" section below.

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  1. An exhibition is a different medium so it should be treated like that. You can off course draw comparisons with the web, just like you could with a movie, a novel, a newspaper etc or any other medium whatsoever. I prefer a straightforward narrative, but some people love to wander around more. It probably depends on the way people learn and interact. There are some theories about how people learn and that there are differences among people. A theory I am familiar with is the Experiential Learning Model from Kolb

  2. Hi Paul, you could simplify things by saying people go surf the web for two reasons: 1) they're looking for something specific, in which case they're going to construct their own narrative from the sites they visit; 2) they're open to serendipity, in which case they may or may not stumble upon a narrative. I think when people go to museums they expect a narrative - in other words, some guidance from a story arc, to help define the experience they're having. You can't force people down the path but you can tempt them to follow it with good design. As a designer of interactives and web experiences this is something we have to think about all the time!

  3. Hi Paul, I learned my trade at the London Science Museum where they abandoned linear narrative exhibitions about 15 years ago. I've always preferred this approach, clustering groups of related exhibits but designing each to stand on its own, as it makes it easier for visitors to navigate at their own pace (and to return to exhibits if there's a queue). It's hard work to do well but I find it ultimately more satisfying.

  4. While the web can be free form and certainly looks like it is, the body of research indicates that it isn't actually used that way. Even the most absurdly interconnected corner of the internet, Wikipedia, is composed of narrative passages. The web itself tends to cluster.

    There will always be issues of proximity and a limited amount of likely paths for a visitor. These will convey meaning whether intended or not.

    Having a single path may not be the best approach, but the most truly web savvy will expect meaningful proximity and stretches of narrative.

  5. Hi Paul, not a designer by myself, in fact a developer, we may have different views from another world. Like touch screen interactives, we have two interface design policy: for specialties or generic visitors. A sales person is familiar with the system and can do all the iphone like gestures -- like you are using your phone, but visitors they have no idea about what's in front of them. Same to the web -- it's for people to sit down and surf, having enough time to get familiar, or abandoned, while exhibts are more into "1 second understood or gave up".