While I’m on this exhibit kick, here are some of my favorite devices for success. But first, we need to define success?
You likely have your definition, and the definition may change with each exhibit or location or type of site. For example, in a park visitor center you may measure success differently that in an urban nature center, and that would be different from an exploration-type museum, and all might be considerably different from a botanical garden. But given that, there are elements that are identical.
The Visitor Studies Association, and specifically the work of Steven Bitgood, PhD, confirm that successful exhibits have at minimum, these characteristics:
1 – They attract attention – they make people look at them and are enticing so that they draw people to them. If you don’t see the exhibit, if it’s uninteresting, and if you don’t go take a look, nothing happens. Instant failure.
2 – They hold attention and interest – you might see the exhibit, you might walk over to it, but if you don’t stay long enough to inspect the images and objects, read the headings, captions, and text, little knowledge, understanding, or emotion will be gained. Instant failure. (You can measure this my having five friends count the seconds it takes to read an exhibit. Then watch visitors and count the time they spend at the exhibit. If it takes 45 seconds to read and your visitors spend an average of 23 seconds, your message is not getting through.)
3 – They present the story in a way that is easily understood, enjoyable, and memorable so that the message is retained. How often do we see exhibits that have great potential and pass items 1 and 2 well, but the writing and layout are stiff, blocky, hard to comprehend, and we just say: ”What was that about?” Instant failure.
Here are things I like to see in exhibits that help move them from failure to success:
- Be sure everything is in the exhibit for a reason, everything must relate to the message.
- Don’t make me guess – put your message or theme right there in my face so I don’t miss it. If I know what the exhibit’s purpose is I can then figure out how everything relates to it right from the beginning.
- Remember that your audience is not you. You have studied all this stuff, I haven’t. Write in the language I can understand and enjoy, but don’t talk down to me either.
- Recognize what I read and what I don’t. I’m going to read the heading, then look at the objects and pictures and probably read their captions. That’s it. Write headings and captions that have meaning – NEVER: “Arrowhead;” ALWAYS: “The delicate, sharp edges of this arrowhead show the skill of these people, a skill that enabled them to survive.” Give me a meaningful message, not a name.
- Know what I don’t read: Any big block of text – the body copy. It ain’t gonna happen, unless it’s something I’m already interested in and know a lot about. Then I’m reading it to see if you know what you’re talking about. Get rid of paragraphs of text. Instead, ‘chunk’ that text, in short sentences next to the pictures and objects, because that’s where I’m looking and thus where I’m most likely to read something. Small paragraphs wrapped around what I’m looking at is much easier to read than a book on a wall.
- Remember Maslow – he lives here, too. Everyone gets bored and tired standing, walking, standing, looking, and standing in exhibit galleries. Give me a place to sit within the exhibit area, not off in the lobby or hallway somewhere. A few minutes of sitting and I’m ready to begin again (unless you make me sit in the lobby – then after resting I’ll walk out the door). It pays to be sensitive to your visitor’s comfort.
- Entice me to do something; Give me some action. Ask me an interesting question and make me lift a panel to find the answer, make me slide a panel to reveal a hidden scene from a historic home or a rotted log, let me hear a short, oral history or interesting story (short), ask me to look around: … it was as long as from where you are standing to the door on your right, let me color something, make a rubbing, hammer a nail, DO SOMETHING!
- Know that “Three is free, but four is bored!” Don’t get stuck on something and repeat it over and over. Three times is plenty. This seems to be especially true with electronics, You like audio, and you know a push button audio stick is a type of interactive element … but control yourself. Use it three times then use something else. Don’t fill an exhibit with the same thing. Over repetition = boring. Electronics can be interesting and effective, but after the visitor pushes the button and sees a video, or hears an audio about three times it’s over, it has lost its charm and they just stop using it. This ‘boredom effect’ doesn’t seem to happen as quickly with simple lift panels, maybe because they are so simple and quick. Lift the panel, slide the slider, rotate the table, peek inside, and see the answer. You’re not committing to 30-seconds of standing and listening to something, again. It’s active, interesting, quick, easy … then move on.
- Have a strong conclusion that restates what you want me to know, and tells me what to do. Is your exhibit just to be pretty, or does it have a purpose? You’ve spent some pretty good money on these exhibits, and you want the visitor to know, feel and take action. Tell me how I can use the knowledge and emotional connections I’ve made. If you don’t, I’ll wander off and spend five or ten dollars on coffee at Starbucks, and you are history.
Got a better idea? Tell me.