Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Missing Ingredient In Exhibition Narratives?

I've been helping to develop some really great exhibitions recently, and one common thread between these eclectic projects is that they all feature prominent "Big Ideas" inside strong narrative arcs.

I've written before about the importance of finding these Big Ideas inside exhibitions, but one thing struck me recently about these exhibition narratives: it's not just about telling a compelling story, but instead framing the story in a way that will compel visitors to tell it to other people.

Museums often have a way of talking at folks instead of allowing visitors the space (and respect) to find the parts of the exhibition narrative that are so exciting and meaningful that they can't help but tell their friends and family about them!

And that's the heart of "word of mouth" advertising isn't it?

It might seem like a self-evident thing, but setting up exhibition stories so that visitors can (and will!) tell them to others has helped to shift my thinking about how to craft narrative exhibition experiences that are more fulfilling.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

FREE Exhibit Design Resources

Who doesn't like free stuff?  Here are some links to some great exhibit design resources that come from the POW! website:

The Great Big Exhibit Resource List
A constantly updated compendium of resources for museum design and exhibit fabrication (including websites and contact information.

Downloadable Exhibit Articles: 
"Producing Great Exhibits on a (Not So Great) Budget"
My article from the January/February 2014 issue of ASTC's Dimensions magazine. Some simple, inexpensive ways to add to your exhibits program.

"Green Design Nuts and Bolts"
An article jam-packed with resources and techniques to help you expand your green exhibit design toolkit.

"Million Dollar Pencils and Duct Tape: Some Thoughts on Prototyping"
Concrete examples and tips about how to move through each phase of the exhibit prototyping process.

"Good Things Come In Small Packages" (Small Museums Article)
Lessons learned from over thirty years of working with a variety of different types and sizes of museums.

Have some free exhibit resources of your own to recommend?  Let us know more in the "Comments" section below!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Do Museums Adapt To What's Changing Around Us?

One of the many responses to the recent ExhibiTricks post entitled "What Is Innovative Exhibition Design?"  came from Walter Staveloz, the Director of International Relations at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in Washington, D.C.

With Walter's kind permission, I've printed his response in today's post.  (PLEASE NOTE: Although Walter works for ASTC, the words below represent his views only, not necessarily those of ASTC.)

I think it's great that we are finally discussing how effective our field is in its core business. Thanks to Axel and Paul for launching this discussion. I will not try to respond or comment on most of what Axel says, I want to make some side observations to contribute to the discussion.

I think that my first remark would be that we cannot or should not see an exhibit (hands-on or not) isolated from the rest of the museum experience. As Axel points out, there is no way that an isolated exhibit will deliver what we expect. Even the most effective and most surprising exhibit, such as a counter-intuitive experience, does not teach a lot of anything, as has been proved by the Exploratorium. There needs to be a favourable environment that includes cultural dimensions: "Counterintuitive experience does not necessarily support inquiry, neither does straightforward hands-on. It’s all the other aspects like: great aesthetics, opportunities for creation and intriguing representations". J.P. Gutwill: Journal of Museum Education, Volume 33, 2. 2008.

In addition, a science centre experience has to build on the social dimension of the visit. It is and has to be different from a visit to an art museum because it does not appeal only to emotions - it is supposed to help us understand something that will hopefully be meaningful for the visitor’s future life. The best strategy to build on is to stimulate group learning, as a family or as a school group.

In South Africa, Prof. Jan Smit applies this through the POE method. It's a three phase process where visitors are invited to predict, then to observe and discuss and finally and only after, read the explanation about what they saw. That only works if visitors create a dialogue among themselves. Something that was successfully tested at the Exploratorium using the GIVE project.

The team built experiments where groups discussed so called "juicy questions" in order to have a fruitful discussion as well as a "hands off" one. The results are absolutely positive:

"Families and field trip groups who’d learned one of the inquiry games did more “linked” investigations than those who hadn’t been taught the games. In other words, their questions built on each other to create a line of investigation, rather than being lots of unrelated questions….. In particular, groups who had learned to play “Juicy Question” interpreted their results most often. Families in Juicy Question spent more time at the exhibit than other families. Families and field trip groups who’d learned one of the inquiry games made more “consecutive interpretations” than those who hadn’t been taught the games – meaning group members made interpretations in a back-and-forth conversational way, rather than making interpretations in isolation.  This suggests they were trying to make meaning of their results together, in collaboration.”
Group Inquiry by Visitors at Exhibits (GIVE) in Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits by  Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S.. Exploratorium Museum Professional Series, Left Coast Press 2010.   (Here is a link to a related research report.)

This is not surprising and in a way is confirmed by the most recent findings on what the new pedagogy should be. The most recent publication of the Open University in the UK: Innovative Pedagogy 2014. Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3.Milton Keynes: The Open University, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom.© The Open University, 2014.

There is much of the Innovative Pedagogy report that is worth citing and relates to topics such as:

Massive open social learning; Learning design informed by analytics; Bring your own devices; Dynamic assessment; Event-based learning; Learning through storytelling; Threshold concepts and Bricolage that all apply to science center activity in some way.  But I will stick to the element called "Flipped Learning" and the need to incorporate the "Learning to Learn” concept.

The flipped classroom reverses the traditional classroom approach to teaching and learning. It moves direct instruction into the learner’s own space. At home, or in individual study time, students watch video lectures that offer them opportunities to work at their own pace, pausing to make notes where necessary. This allows time in class to be spent on activities that exercise critical thinking, with the teacher guiding students in creative exploration of the topics they are studying. Flipped learning is sometimes seen simply as a different approach to delivering content. It also offers opportunities for the classroom to become a more flexible environment, where the physical layout can be shifted to enable group work, where students can make use of their own devices, and where new approaches to learning and assessment are put into practice.

Learning to learn: We are always learning. Throughout our lifetime we take on board new ideas and develop new skills. What we find difficult are learning what others want to teach us, and managing our learning in order to achieve particular goals and outcomes. Self-determined learning involves learning how to be an effective learner, and having the confidence to manage our own learning processes. ‘Double-loop learning’ is central to this process, for double-loop learners not only work out how to solve a problem or reach a goal, but also reflect on that process as a whole, questioning assumptions and considering how to become more effective.

What I find particularly interesting in this report is that it actually confirms what I believe and Axel mentions as well. The most efficient way to help people learn and not become overwhelmed with information is to familiarize them with the scientific method. Transform every citizen into a researcher if you will. Not such a stupid idea. It's the ambition of Prof. F. Taddei from the CRI (Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire - INSERM the French Institute of Health and medical Research) in Paris. He has created the "Savanturiers" project (a contraction of savant and aventurier) Prof. Taddei, who was a speaker at the SCWC in Mechelen (March 2014), motivates his project as follows:

 "The mission of the schools today is defined by the response to the question: can they deliver youth that become flexible and thinking actors in society? This identity crisis of the education system opens the doors to a renewed pedagogy resulting from the digital transformation of our society. Our learning project with the youngest children is based on the scientific research method and ethics. Scientific research is a combination of engagement, collaborative projects, questioning, creativity and rigor, opening to the world, inspiration from shared knowledge and the will to explore the unknown to serve the greater good. The capacity to identify the problems and to ask a new and the right questions is what defines innovators whatever the field they are in.

The kids we work with value the constraints of permanent scientific questioning. They learn how to formulate solid and pertinent research questions, to define concepts and to share results with their peers. In this way, the learning of the scientific thinking becomes part of their cultural values and a product of collective intelligence".

"This concept is the result of research in cognitive sciences that shows that all kids have the ability to correctly question natural and cultural phenomena…. Individuals for whom learning is as fun and rewarding as necessary. We don’t want to train only professional researchers, but to offer all citizens the critical thinking skills, the engagement and the entrepreneurial spirit of researchers (...)

But this also changes the relationship between the researchers and the citizens. Citizens will still recognize the specificity of the research profession, but they will not think anymore that they should be excluded from research itself, the debates it generates or the way it influences society as a whole"

This is an interesting connection and evolution of the thinking within the scientific community. We have moved away from the deficit model of the nineties and have implemented in several places around the world significant "science in society" or "science for society" programs. These programs enable us to rethink the place of science and scientists, and their role in society through a renewed dialogue with the public. This is a great achievement in itself. Taddei's position, however, goes beyond that - the dialogue does not only serve a better engagement of the public with scientific issues, it is the core for improved science learning.

I do believe that this brings us all to a new place. Public engagement and science learning cannot be seen separately anymore. They are the two necessary components to develop the scientific literacy of a country.

There is no surprise that change is coming at this point. On various occasions and through different means and voices, the scientific community has expressed a changing view of their role in society. There is a push for a better understanding of their role as experts and advisors. There is a vision that decision making processes should be based on scientific evidence that possibly puts the scientist in a role of advocate for certain causes. For more on this see:

· An open letter to the newly elected House and Senate to urge them to take action against global warming: Prof. Steve Schneider from Stanford University and a group of famous climate scientists (March 23 , 2009)

· An AAAS and NSF funded  workshop on October 17-18, 2011 at AAAS aiming to explore what role, if any, scientists should play as advocates for specific policies is a matter of heated debate both inside the scientific community and in society more generally.

· From Anne Glover, Chief scientific advisor to the European Commission 2012 -2014. From European Science and Technology - Issue 15 Research. A clearer path to prominence 10 July 2012: “The most positive thing is that, by and large, my appointment has been welcomed and one of the areas that people speak about is how we can get evidence to be more prominent in policymaking, how we can make it easier to give the evidence a higher profile and be able to speak about the evidence in a much more comfortable way.”

· At the Planet under Pressure Conference: "Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions". , Dr Lidia Brito and Dr Mark Stafford Smith, supported by the conference Scientific Organizing Committee. Co-Chairs (London, March 2012).

These statements link the changing role of scientists with a new relationship to the public:

· "There was growing momentum to establish a set of Principles for Science Advice as an instrument to galvanize a global commitment to evidence-informed public policy." (...) "As such, there was evidence not only of the rapidly changing relationship between science and society, but also the changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science". 28-29 August 2014, the International Council for Science (ICSU) organized a conference in Auckland (NZ) under the Presidency of Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand that addressed the issue of "Science Advice to Governments".

·  The mission of the scientist cannot be limited any longer to producing and disseminating knowledge because of the social and economic impact of scientific discovery. Scientists now have a collective responsibility to contribute to the citizens debates/discussions about priorities for the science activity, the scientific policy as it were. Prof. Jean Marc Levy-Leblond as developed in "Pour une nouvelle politique scientifique" in "Le Monde Science et Techno (10/11/2012).

How should science centers react to this global change in relation to their own mission and, in particular, to their key activity in building exhibits?

Allow me to isolate only one sentence out of the above citations and references. It relates to the ICSU conference in New Zealand: "As such, there was evidence not only of the rapidly changing relationship between science and society, but also the changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science"

This may be the key for us to understand what our new role should be. It tells us we need to go beyond the traditional self-explaining exhibit and the limited public engagement or relevance to our communities. I am indeed more and more convinced that we are facing a new deficit model regarding our connection with the community. There are of course significant exceptions, but overall, the connection with the community seems to be an increased effort to convince the community that they need us, while I think we should focus on the opposite question: "how can we help the community?"

Most of our science centers are in urban areas and today many cities face increased problems of sustainability because of global challenges for the planet. Cities increasingly understand the need to base their decisions on scientific evidence and the scientific community. The "Future Earth" program steps up to help in that context. If we then hear the message that the ICSU conference concluded with: “the evidence for a changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science" we should understand that there is a special role for science centers in the future which is to educate the public about the science that helps the community to make the right decisions.

After all, and citing George Hein, did he not say it already?  "What could be more worthwhile than consistently considering how our educational activities might support democracy and social justice? The important point is not only be that there is an unequivocal educational purpose for all museum activity, but also that education should be progressive, that the educational purpose be in the service of improving society". George E. Hein: Progressive Museum Practice; John Dewey and Democracy. August 2012.

Thanks again to Walter Staveloz for sharing his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!

How can museums be more effective in building bridges to their communities?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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To find out more about working with Paul Orselli and Paul Orselli Workshop, check out the POW! website.

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!

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