Sunday, October 31, 2010

Inside Out or Outside in?

Imagine two different exhibitions.  Both take up about the same amount of space.  Both look to have about the same level of "fit and finish."  Both have comparable amounts of labels, graphics, and exhibit furniture.

But one exhibition gallery is filled with happy, engaged people, while the other gallery stands forlornly --- practically empty.

How did that happen?  Are the exhibits inside the empty gallery "bad" or was the exhibit development process flawed in some way?

In an effort to stir up some discussion without directly answering those questions, I'd like to commend a book to your attention, and then ask you to consider if you are developing exhibits from the "inside out" or from the "outside in."

First the book:

Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement is a book about an NSF-funded project at the Exploratorium that digs deeply into how exhibit components can foster "APE behavior." (APE is the acronym for Active Prolonged Engagement.)  Namely, how can exhibits be developed (or in many cases, re-designed) to allow visitors to take active roles in creating their own experiences in ways that compel them to spend longer periods of time at the exhibits?

If Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement isn't already on your museum exhibit design reference bookshelf, you should buy a copy today.

Now the consideration:

Are museum exhibit designers, developers, funders, and audiences too concerned with the outward aspects of exhibit galleries  --- the ad campaign?  the portfolio shots?  the "hip" materials and color schemes?

Should an exhibition be developed "inside out" that is, with the inside values (like thoughtful content messages and true visitor engagement in mind) first,  rather than "outside in" with the outside values (color schemes or high-concept  PR themes) first?   

It's worth considering when you're figuring out who to work with and how to spend your money on your next exhibit project.  Is someone who is trained to think about the surfaces and shells of a situation (like an architect, or marketing person, say) really able to help you design your exhibition from the "inside out"?

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  1. I am such a fan of the inside out approach. And, yes, a designer (the right kind of designer), can do an amazing job of working "inside". I would say the inside comes from a team routed in the simultaneous development of content and design. For me, it's the only way to work.

  2. Do these exhibit examples actually exist?

    I think a lot of exhibition design rests on untested assumptions. I'm not sure if we can point the finger at any one place / field / area of expertise though. Your marketing person should have a really good grasp on what makes your audiences tick and how to switch them on. If they don't, then they're not a very good marketing person.

  3. @Regan.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, I've encountered this type of situation (comparable galleries -- one busy, one empty) in many visits, to many different types of museums. I was in a museum like that just a few days ago, which prompted that post.

    I'm sure most marketeers can "switch on" visitors. However, if marketing drives exhibit decisions, then it's just a numbers game.

  4. You're right that too much emphasis on shiny visuals can lead to boring exhibitions, but I think that some museum directors have sub-consciously been reacting against an old-style, curator led model which was often as dull. As with all things, it's all about the balance. I think you can get excellent results with an external design team, but only if the internal team (or individual!) is able to drive objectives like content, learning etc and make those key decisions to steer the project. I've used external designers and contractors more than I have internal workshops, but that doesn't mean the work is completely handed over to outsiders. I think the role of "client" in a project is quite often under-valued.