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Museums
Collection points

How does an idea about a collection evolve into a memorable, attention-grabbing exhibition? Three interpreters give advice on how to achieve it

By Kathleen Whyman | Published in Attractions Management 2013 issue 1




Juliette Fritsch Chief of education and interpretation Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts, USA

 

Juliette Fritsch
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
Interpretation is a process, not an outcome. The worst thing you can do is start a project by saying: “Right, we’ll make three videos and an audio tour.”
It’s got to come out of what you’re trying to communicate, what your visitors want to communicate and what the collection is. If you decide before you start that you’re going to make a film, then it’s topsy-turvy – the idea should come out when working through the stories.

What makes an exhibition?
An exhibition needs to have an element of the collection in it. There are places that call themselves museums, but instead of having objects that they’ve taken into care, they have interactives, which I find challenging.

An exhibition needs some kind of object – something that’s been designated as special, that’s been taken into care and studied and protected and put on display with other things to make some kind of statement or tell a story.

How do you start the process?
We decide on the relationship between the key message and the objects on display. The other element is, who’s the target audience? If the exhibition is for schoolchildren, you’ll need more space for large groups, which will dictate case positions: for example, 360-degree cases so people can walk all the way round.

How are exhibitions created?
The interpretation manager works closely with the curator and designer. After a period of discussion and brainstorming, which can take months or even years for a big project, we start developing proposals for interpreting devices.

There are drawings, mock-ups, then the installation, which always results in seeing things that don’t work and that need moving around and tweaking. Then you open it and see what happens.

What makes an exhibition good?
When people come out and they’re talking about it. And they remember it – hopefully not because it was so dreadful it stuck in their mind.

What was one of your recent exhibitions?
Our Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art exhibition, which had three key audiences: schoolchildren; people who are interested in contemporary art; and people who are interested in Native American art. Those three audiences have different needs and perceptions and understanding of the exhibition materials.

With this exhibition, there’s an interpretive device all the way through, as we wanted visitors to be able to respond to the issues that were being discussed and have a dialogue with other visitors.

The key message is that Native American art is contemporary art, so we steered clear of established themes associated with Native American art, such as terracotta and wood, and gave it a very modern pallet. It’s not traditional and was a pleasant surprise. That came about through many talks.

What are you currently working on?
A very ambitious $650m (£403m, E498m) reinstallation of the Peabody Essex museum, which we started working on last November.


 



Modern palette: The Peabody Essex Museum wanted to show that Native American Art is also contemporary art


Roger Mann Co-founder and Creative Director Casson Mann

 

Roger Mann
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
The process of exhibition interpretation begins with the brief and involves understanding the story that needs to be told, the objects, themes or concepts involved, the space in which the exhibition will be held and the audience it aims to attract.

Once these essential elements are clear, we begin to play around with various design approaches, storytelling narratives and tools until we have a design concept that’s as compelling and as simple as possible.

What elements make up an exhibition?
There are two kinds of exhibitions: the ones that are story-led and those that are collection-led. In the first instance, an idea, concept or theme forms the basis of the brief and objects are then sourced to realise it. The collection-led approach takes its inspiration from a number of available objects, perhaps an inherited or bequeathed collection, and then a theme or story is devised to weave the objects together in a way that fits the museum’s remit.

How do you choose the displays?
We only use interactive displays if we think that they add value and help to create a more engaging experience – we never rely on them to tell a story.

In an exhibition, media should deliver a completely different experience to what you can get at home – it should be bigger, more immersive.

How did you interpret the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition?
For Hollywood Costume, the brief from the V&A and guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis was clear and thorough. The challenge was to create an experience that was very different to other costume or couture exhibitions in that it goes beyond the clothes, character and actor.

The exhibition tells the story of costume design and its role in the creation of the real person and supporting the frame with silhouette, texture and colour.

The key element was this idea of getting people to look beyond the costume of their favourite film character and letting them see the details of that costume and how they contribute to that character’s authenticity.

With Indiana Jones, what are the elements that make him recognisably Indy, that give us clues to his character and personality? The tools we draw on to tell this story go beyond the costume and accessories to the annotated screenplay and scripts, sketches, swatches, pictures, images and real conversations.


“Media should deliver a completely different experience to what you can get at home”

 



The V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition tells the story of film character creation


Elin Simonsson Interpretation Developer Natural History Museum, London, UK

 

Elin Simonsson
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
It’s telling stories and communicating a message alongside artefacts or collections in a way that’s interesting and compelling, and in a way that works for that target audience. Multi-layered interpretation is important – we often use a combination of film, text, models, soundscapes, projections and interactivities.
There isn’t just one way of interpreting an exhibition – it depends on who you’re doing it for, the message you want to convey and the budget you have.

What are the different types of exhibition?
At the Natural History Museum (NHM), the essence is inspiring people about the natural world. To achieve this, we do many specimen-rich exhibitions that use multi-layered approaches to interpretations. Our Age of the Dinosaur exhibition is animatronic-based, while Scott’s Last Expedition has many artefacts, but uses the design, imagery, photography, projection and film to tell a complete story and communicate that in an exciting way.

What are the elements that make up an exhibition?
Physical considerations are the scale of the exhibition, whether it’s permanent or temporary, and the budget. Then we think about who the exhibition is for and what we want to get across. How do we want people to react and feel when they’re in it – what do we want people to walk away with? We use all these elements in suitable, creative and exciting ways, to make the content and artefacts come alive.

We know that if we make the exhibition immersive and play on people’s senses, it becomes more real.

What’s most important?
It’s all about the audience that it’s for. Who is this for and how can we communicate this content in a way that works for them? For example, an exhibition about insects for families with young children is going to look very different to an exhibition about insects for adults.

Where do you get your inspiration?
We look at other museums and talk to overseas contacts about what they do. Television is very good at telling stories in a similar way to how we communicate. We look at zoos, parks, and historic houses – anywhere that uses interpretation methods. It’s very interesting and important to look outside your own field.

Theatre can also offer an inspiring way of how to do things. It’s mainly about being aware of and open to new ideas.

What was one of your recent exhibitions?
With Scott’s Last Expedition, which is now at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand until June 2013, we thought beyond the obvious story and looked at it from a scientific expedition angle rather than purely a race to the pole. We looked at what’s out there – archive footage, pictures by the expedition photographer, artefacts – and came up with the idea of interpreting everyday life in an area that represents the base camp in Antarctica today.

It tells the story of the expedition beyond the South Pole and we hoped people would feel surprised there were so many people involved and that it was actually a scientific expedition. Visitors get the sense of what it would have been like inside the hut in Antarctica. I’m really pleased with that design feature.


 



A multi-layered approach to interpretation is key to telling the whole story
The Scott exhibition aims to give people a sense of how it really felt to be in Antarctica - Natural History Museum, london
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Jobs    News   Products   Magazine
Museums
Collection points

How does an idea about a collection evolve into a memorable, attention-grabbing exhibition? Three interpreters give advice on how to achieve it

By Kathleen Whyman | Published in Attractions Management 2013 issue 1




Juliette Fritsch Chief of education and interpretation Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts, USA

 

Juliette Fritsch
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
Interpretation is a process, not an outcome. The worst thing you can do is start a project by saying: “Right, we’ll make three videos and an audio tour.”
It’s got to come out of what you’re trying to communicate, what your visitors want to communicate and what the collection is. If you decide before you start that you’re going to make a film, then it’s topsy-turvy – the idea should come out when working through the stories.

What makes an exhibition?
An exhibition needs to have an element of the collection in it. There are places that call themselves museums, but instead of having objects that they’ve taken into care, they have interactives, which I find challenging.

An exhibition needs some kind of object – something that’s been designated as special, that’s been taken into care and studied and protected and put on display with other things to make some kind of statement or tell a story.

How do you start the process?
We decide on the relationship between the key message and the objects on display. The other element is, who’s the target audience? If the exhibition is for schoolchildren, you’ll need more space for large groups, which will dictate case positions: for example, 360-degree cases so people can walk all the way round.

How are exhibitions created?
The interpretation manager works closely with the curator and designer. After a period of discussion and brainstorming, which can take months or even years for a big project, we start developing proposals for interpreting devices.

There are drawings, mock-ups, then the installation, which always results in seeing things that don’t work and that need moving around and tweaking. Then you open it and see what happens.

What makes an exhibition good?
When people come out and they’re talking about it. And they remember it – hopefully not because it was so dreadful it stuck in their mind.

What was one of your recent exhibitions?
Our Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art exhibition, which had three key audiences: schoolchildren; people who are interested in contemporary art; and people who are interested in Native American art. Those three audiences have different needs and perceptions and understanding of the exhibition materials.

With this exhibition, there’s an interpretive device all the way through, as we wanted visitors to be able to respond to the issues that were being discussed and have a dialogue with other visitors.

The key message is that Native American art is contemporary art, so we steered clear of established themes associated with Native American art, such as terracotta and wood, and gave it a very modern pallet. It’s not traditional and was a pleasant surprise. That came about through many talks.

What are you currently working on?
A very ambitious $650m (£403m, E498m) reinstallation of the Peabody Essex museum, which we started working on last November.


 



Modern palette: The Peabody Essex Museum wanted to show that Native American Art is also contemporary art


Roger Mann Co-founder and Creative Director Casson Mann

 

Roger Mann
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
The process of exhibition interpretation begins with the brief and involves understanding the story that needs to be told, the objects, themes or concepts involved, the space in which the exhibition will be held and the audience it aims to attract.

Once these essential elements are clear, we begin to play around with various design approaches, storytelling narratives and tools until we have a design concept that’s as compelling and as simple as possible.

What elements make up an exhibition?
There are two kinds of exhibitions: the ones that are story-led and those that are collection-led. In the first instance, an idea, concept or theme forms the basis of the brief and objects are then sourced to realise it. The collection-led approach takes its inspiration from a number of available objects, perhaps an inherited or bequeathed collection, and then a theme or story is devised to weave the objects together in a way that fits the museum’s remit.

How do you choose the displays?
We only use interactive displays if we think that they add value and help to create a more engaging experience – we never rely on them to tell a story.

In an exhibition, media should deliver a completely different experience to what you can get at home – it should be bigger, more immersive.

How did you interpret the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition?
For Hollywood Costume, the brief from the V&A and guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis was clear and thorough. The challenge was to create an experience that was very different to other costume or couture exhibitions in that it goes beyond the clothes, character and actor.

The exhibition tells the story of costume design and its role in the creation of the real person and supporting the frame with silhouette, texture and colour.

The key element was this idea of getting people to look beyond the costume of their favourite film character and letting them see the details of that costume and how they contribute to that character’s authenticity.

With Indiana Jones, what are the elements that make him recognisably Indy, that give us clues to his character and personality? The tools we draw on to tell this story go beyond the costume and accessories to the annotated screenplay and scripts, sketches, swatches, pictures, images and real conversations.


“Media should deliver a completely different experience to what you can get at home”

 



The V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition tells the story of film character creation


Elin Simonsson Interpretation Developer Natural History Museum, London, UK

 

Elin Simonsson
 

What is exhibition interpretation?
It’s telling stories and communicating a message alongside artefacts or collections in a way that’s interesting and compelling, and in a way that works for that target audience. Multi-layered interpretation is important – we often use a combination of film, text, models, soundscapes, projections and interactivities.
There isn’t just one way of interpreting an exhibition – it depends on who you’re doing it for, the message you want to convey and the budget you have.

What are the different types of exhibition?
At the Natural History Museum (NHM), the essence is inspiring people about the natural world. To achieve this, we do many specimen-rich exhibitions that use multi-layered approaches to interpretations. Our Age of the Dinosaur exhibition is animatronic-based, while Scott’s Last Expedition has many artefacts, but uses the design, imagery, photography, projection and film to tell a complete story and communicate that in an exciting way.

What are the elements that make up an exhibition?
Physical considerations are the scale of the exhibition, whether it’s permanent or temporary, and the budget. Then we think about who the exhibition is for and what we want to get across. How do we want people to react and feel when they’re in it – what do we want people to walk away with? We use all these elements in suitable, creative and exciting ways, to make the content and artefacts come alive.

We know that if we make the exhibition immersive and play on people’s senses, it becomes more real.

What’s most important?
It’s all about the audience that it’s for. Who is this for and how can we communicate this content in a way that works for them? For example, an exhibition about insects for families with young children is going to look very different to an exhibition about insects for adults.

Where do you get your inspiration?
We look at other museums and talk to overseas contacts about what they do. Television is very good at telling stories in a similar way to how we communicate. We look at zoos, parks, and historic houses – anywhere that uses interpretation methods. It’s very interesting and important to look outside your own field.

Theatre can also offer an inspiring way of how to do things. It’s mainly about being aware of and open to new ideas.

What was one of your recent exhibitions?
With Scott’s Last Expedition, which is now at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand until June 2013, we thought beyond the obvious story and looked at it from a scientific expedition angle rather than purely a race to the pole. We looked at what’s out there – archive footage, pictures by the expedition photographer, artefacts – and came up with the idea of interpreting everyday life in an area that represents the base camp in Antarctica today.

It tells the story of the expedition beyond the South Pole and we hoped people would feel surprised there were so many people involved and that it was actually a scientific expedition. Visitors get the sense of what it would have been like inside the hut in Antarctica. I’m really pleased with that design feature.


 



A multi-layered approach to interpretation is key to telling the whole story
The Scott exhibition aims to give people a sense of how it really felt to be in Antarctica - Natural History Museum, london
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©Cybertrek 2022

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