Tag Archives: Australian Museum

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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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.