A successful exhibit should attract visitors with striking design, hold attention by employing color, action and learning styles, convey a message built around a ‘big idea’ significant to the park, and entice action.
Exhibit evaluation is often conducted at two points in the design process: before and after. However, in my experience there’s another point that’s even more critical: during.
Often designers get pretty good direction, and after the exhibit is installed it’s reviewed as people look at it and generally say it’s real pretty. Folks in the Visitor Studies Association will give you a lot more feedback than that. However, it’s during the design process that the magic happens. It’s then that an exhibit becomes a bunch of flat stuff on the wall, or is transformed into a dramatic, engaging, exciting interpretive exhibit that grabs attention, provokes thought and fosters action. That’s a wide swing, from flat stuff on the wall to an engaging and memorable exhibit.
This ‘in design’ evaluation point is fluid and should occur at the time the visualness of the exhibit takes shape. If you attempt this too early there’s nothing concrete to evaluate; if you wait too late then it’s almost fully designed and designers get extremely defensive about making changes to something they’ve practically completed. The ‘sweet spot’ for this evaluation may be at around 60% to 70% of design completion, the time when you have a framework to evaluate and the creative juices are still fully flowing.
My concept is that at this point you can see the layout of text, images, and objects in their design relationships, and you ask a relatively simple question: How can we make this exhibit more interpretive?
This relates to the quality and character of interpretation itself and to the question: How do you change information into interpretation? Freeman Tilden told us that information and facts are important, but not sufficient: “interpretation is based on information, but they are entirely different things.” Exhibits are an interpretive medium and we want them to present information in an engaging, interpretive way. We don’t want words and pictures on a wall; we want interpretation. So can we answer the question: How can we make this exhibit more interpretive?
I’ve put together a checklist to generate thought about the process of changing information into interpretation. This is a work in progress. I’d like to hear your thoughts about it. Apply this to exhibits at your site and tell me how it works. Does it stimulate thought? What should I delete or add.
Evaluation during design
• Assesses visitor reaction using mock-ups and public viewing prior to fabrication.
• The exhibit plan is reviewed and evaluated against project goals and best practice.
• Designers ask “what can be done to make this more interactive, exciting and memorable?”
• Is visually attractive and stimulating, using images, color, textures and other visual elements effectively.
• Exhibit and graphic design effectively convey exhibit theme and tone.
• Is clearly organized and uncluttered. All graphic elements are purposefully aligned to make clear associations between text and illustrations or objects, fosters easy navigation, and moves the eye purposefully through the exhibit.
• Headings and captions are complete phrases; preferably complete sentences.
• Is not filled with text, but provides ways to access additional information
• Is not repetitive in design – that is – does not repeat the same audio, interactive, etc. more than three times, and those are spaced between other media to reduce redundancy.
• Uses compelling images and story rather than lists of facts.
• Design is easy to understand and follow – is intuitive, based on reading patterns and a knowledge of museum/exhibit behavior.
• Text is easy to read and jargon-free, with a consistent tone and age-appropriate, accessible style.
• Is durable, safe and easy to maintain.
• All elements work.
• Photos and illustrations are compelling, in focus, clearly depict their subjects, and credited.
• Graphic and photo reproduction is of high quality.
• Information is accurate; sources are cited and available.
• Is built around a “big idea,” a significant interpretive theme, that is visible to visitors and identifiable in design.
• Employs techniques that transform information/facts into interpretation.
• Is designed to reveal, to surprise, and to discover through action opportunities to lift, slide, touch, listen, and use multiple senses.
• Delivers multiple viewpoints.
• Is written and designed not to tell and teach, but to provoke thought, spark imagination, encourage exploration, or inspire action.
• Answers what this means, how it fits together, and why it matters.
• Facilitates getting surface questions answered easily, then moves into deeper meanings and relationships. Provides for deeper thought and action.
• Answers: So What? Why is this exhibit story important here? What does it mean to me?
Connection to the resource
• Effectively interprets the park by connecting concepts to the park resources and experiences. Examples used are from the park.
• Connects the visitor with the resource and provides means and encouragement to move the visitor into the resource.
• The storyline connects with the site resource and encourages visitors to observe/experience it; connect to what is seen and experience on-site.
• Creates awareness of opportunity to experience things they can only experience at the park.
Sensitivity to the visitor
• Developed with one or more specific and obvious target audience (s) in mind.
• Connects with the visitor and his or her experiences, addressing visitors’ knowledge, interests and/or misconceptions.
• Content has an appropriate balance of information, neither too much nor too little for target audience.
• Offers new perspective, insight, and/or information. Promotes a change in people’s knowledge, thinking, feeling and/or action.
• Designed for and accessible to audiences diverse in age, learning style, size, ethnic/cultural background, level of knowledge, interests and physical ability
• Promotes multiple modes of learning including family and group learning.
• Incorporates all learning styles.
• Goes beyond the immediate exhibit to consider the approach, entrance, exhibits connections, publications, A-V, experiencing the park, and exit.
• Interpretive resale, publications, programs, signage, and the other media are considered and prepared simultaneously for release at the exhibit opening.
• Includes ‘next step’ action items.
• Gives instructions on places in the park to experience the exhibit story.
• References programs, tours, activities and events that extend the exhibit theme and story into real experiences in the park.
• Notes publications, technology or other means to provide further information.
I used the following sources as references for this list:
• National Association for interpretation, Interpretation Planning Best Practices
• National Association for Interpretation Media Awards, Judging Criteria for Site Publications
• The National Zoo’s Interpretive Exhibit Assessment score sheet