By Mike Denison, former Principal/Design Director at Roto
Great exhibits can be transformational – leaving visitors enlightened, inspired, or simply grinning from ear to ear. A museum experience can even change the course of someone’s life. These exhibits allow us to see the world, and ourselves, in new ways.
To have this kind of reaction, though, an exhibit must have impact. It may be fleeting enjoyment or longer-lasting meaning, but the experience allowed a visitor to care enough to have a reaction beyond indifference. A great exhibit allows visitors to connect their life to the story being told. It creates space for visitors to both be seen and see themselves. A great exhibit has relevance.
We’re among friends here, right? Museum folks are a passionate bunch. We care deeply about what we do and often feel incredibly invested in the mission of the institutions we’ve dedicated our careers to. We believe that our work, and the work our museums do, is important. We want the exhibits and programs we create to be about important ideas – ideas that serve and fulfill the museum’s mission.
Important isn’t the same as relevant, though.
Too often, our passion for mission-driven content can obscure the need to create exhibits that our visitors also find interesting, compelling, and…relevant. The sorts of experiences that can be transformational. To help see the issue a bit more clearly, I sketched out a simple quadrant chart plotting “Importance” on one axis and “Relevance” on the other:
Not Important, Not Relevant
The less said about this the better. None of us aim to create these exhibits but we’ve all seen them. A donor’s pet project probably being the classic example.
Important but Not Relevant
This is probably the most common exhibit out there – created with the best of intentions to explain a particular concept, phenomena, story, or group of artifacts and demonstrate why it “matters.” But too often we assume that because an idea matters to us as passionate museum nerds, the general public will and should feel the same . And if it doesn’t appeal to our audience, maybe it’s “on them”? Sometimes we even convince ourselves that if we create a snazzy enough exhibit wrapper it will be obvious to our visitors why the story we’re telling is worth telling. Don’t get me wrong, design and the “way” we tell a story can have a large impact on a visitor’s experience. But throwing cutting-edge technology or beautiful art-direction at an exhibit topic visitors don’t care about will not make them care more. Think about the vast majority of climate-change exhibits, for example. They fall into this category, unfortunately.
None of our passion or mission-driven focus means anything if we can’t answer a fundamental question on behalf of our visitors – “Why should they care?”
Relevant but Not Important
This is where IP blockbusters are born. There are plenty of exhibits out there that feature popular stories and brands that visitors are already invested in. The meaning is built-in or comes from the act of sharing the experience with others. It’s not that these types of exhibits don’t feature important content (many of them do), it’s whether that information is aligned to our particular institutional mission. It may be important, but is it important to us? Aligned or not, exhibits like these are often seen as compelling choices that help draw audiences in the hopes of having them stick around long enough to see the other, more “important” exhibits.
There’s nothing that says an exhibit featuring popular brands or stories can’t also speak to an institution’s mission. We may just have to work a bit harder. This sort of familiarity, or cultural relevancy, is also not the only form of visitor connection we can appeal to. There are many topics that visitors find inherently compelling – ideas that possess intellectual, educational, or even emotional relevance – that museums can use as lenses, hooks or ways of approaching content.
Relevant and Important
This, of course, is the dream – the perfect blend of the personal and the powerful. A visitor’s story and the exhibit’s story become one. Sometimes, an exhibit’s content inherently lies in the sweet spot of visitor relevance, and those connections are easier to make. Think of exhibits like Race: Are We So Different? or The Science Behind Pixar.
More often than not, though, it takes intentional thought and hard work to push an exhibit idea to be both relevant and important. This is where experienced exhibit designers can be really useful. They are visitor advocates adept at blending institutional ambitions and audience needs. As impartial sets of eyes, exhibit designers can help see a museum’s important content in unconventional ways and propose surprising frames capable of pulling visitors into the story:
• An exhibit about STEM careers that lies at the heart of a science center’s mission but feels dry to visitors becomes an experience about the fusion of fashion and technology. Still brimming with stories about futures available in advanced manufacturing, coding, and material science, but now visitors see that content through the lens of a subject they are already passionate about.
• At the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame, Roto took the client’s desire to showcase their industry’s amazing breadth and history of innovation (an “important” story) and framed it for visitors as the surprising untold story behind the objects that furnish our lives (a “relevant” story). The audience is already emotionally invested in Grandpa’s favorite recliner or the furniture they bought to decorate their first house and that connection gives them reason to care about the people and processes that created those beloved objects.
• A popular travelling exhibit about comic books becomes an experience that traces the parallels between fictional worlds and the real social issues that shaped them when augmented with the collections and interpretive expertise of a history museum. Stories from the past that many visitors couldn’t relate to are now suddenly alive and fans get see the art they love in ways they hadn’t before.
We all want to develop experiences that realize the crucial institutional missions we believe in. We also want to create work that our visitors find impactful and positively impact their lives. A truly great exhibit, one with transformational potential, must do both.