Tag Archives: art galleries

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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Museum Digitisation – A Case Study

I support the digitisation of museum and gallery collections. There are so many places that I’d like to go to but realistically I won’t have the time or money to travel to all the destinations that I have on my bucket list. Enter the digital museum. Museums with a strong digital presence allow the virtual visitor at least some entrée into their collections. When collections are digitised it also assists researchers access to a wealth of new information to study without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own home.

One of the best stories that I’ve read recently was in Cosmos Magazine[1] which reported on The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launching the Qatar Digital Library – a new bilingual, online portal which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science. Their vision was to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of a changing world by leading innovation in research and education[2]. (See Fig 1.)

Fig 1. Home page of Qatar Digital Library

The British Library (in London, England) has amassed one of the world’s greatest research collections and with the Qatar Foundation has undertaken a huge project to digitise more than half a million pages from their collection consisting of images, manuscripts, maps, sketches, personal archives and East India Company Office Records. The project is an ideal example of the role of the contemporary curator who as part of a project management team of curators, cataloguers, conservators and digitisation experts works to create a valuable online digital resource[3] from a significant collection of objects located in the British Library. The Qatar Digital Library[4] aims to bridge the gap between past and the future by providing access to information about the history and heritage of the Gulf and Arabic science. Before digitisation, researchers would have manually searched a printed catalogue or physically visited the library to access a particular item which would then be retrieved from the archives.

One of the pages now accessible online

One of the maps from the archive now available to study online.

The web-based, interactive, multilingual information is more searchable and accessible for new audiences in Qatar, the UK and other online researchers and hopes to inspire new forms of interpretation from the original historic documents. The project has created high quality contextual and interpretative material to facilitate the use and understanding of the digitised content. Digital technology has provided a  platform for the discovery of history from the gulf region by allowing access to the original primary source scientific documents in Arabic which can be reinterpreted in the future without physically visiting the British Library.

As part of the process, the curator has taken primary sources, such as a photograph album, showing the everyday life in Afghanistan (social, architectural, trade) during a one month period, and digitised the pages allowing the voice of the object to come alive for the researcher. Supporting text has been added to contextualise the objects for the online audience in the same way that they would be supported by curatorial staff in the British Library.[5]

In order to encourage new audiences, the project team has actively tested the portal with possible users such as academics, archivists and young people, to find out what they need from the content and how they would use the collection for their own purposes. The feedback has been used to create a better system. The online catalogue is intuitive and researchers will be able to access the collection more easily than the original objects in the British Library. Evaluation of the new website will be carried out to determine the project’s success by measuring website users, site feedback, media coverage and other Key Performance Indicators.

References:

[1] New Digital Home for 1,000 years of Arabic scientific manuscripts viewed online at http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/28/new-digital-home-for-1000-years-of-arabic-scientific-manuscripts?rq=Qatar%20digital%20library viewed online 20/2/2016

[2] Qatar Foundation vision and mission statement viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/qatar/ on 20/2/2016.

[3] The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/january/british-library-and-qatar-foundation-extend-partnership-to-digitise-images-of-gulf-history  on 20/2/2016

[4] Qatar Digital Library viewed online at http://www.qdl.qa/en on 20/2/2016

[5] Some of the information cannot be accurately interpreted without advice on the circumstances in which the records were created which is normally provided by archivists in the reading room at the British Library. Links to related material may also be provided by the curatorial staff in the British Library.

 

Museums in the 21st Century

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Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

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Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Musing on Text and Labels

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Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

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Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

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One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.