Learning from Outliers: Exhibits in Everyday Places

By Matt Kirchman, President & Principal Planner, Object Idea and NEMA Board Member

On my way to meet my tax preparer, I paused inside the professional building of the Cummings Center in Danvers – distracted by text panels, images, and artifacts. I can’t help it. I’m a museum person.

Between the rows and rows of numbered office doors, one finds simple display cases containing pieces of machinery, timecards, handwritten ledger books, and personal items like pocket watches and antique fountain pens. These things, along with the refurbished equipment and large-format photographs that grace the halls, represent the heritage of the United Shoe Machinery Company. From the early 1900s to the mid-70s the Cummings Center (at one time the largest concrete structure in America) was fondly and simply known as “The Shoe.”

Since the purchase of the property in 1996, Cummings Properties has worked closely with Beverly Historical Society to preserve much of The Shoe's rich history.

Take notice. From IKEA to Starbucks, to Bank of America, be on the lookout for exhibits in unconventional places.

I was offered a calendar of seasonal “new acquisitions” at my local Whole Foods Market; educational displays about treading lightly and wilderness safety were be found at REI. There’s a “transparent engine” at my Jeep dealer that engaged me for an hour. And recently, at international airports, I’ve learned about the histories of television and Superman.

So while these exhibits reached for my attention, I thought, “what can these non-museum venues teach us about the exhibitions we museum professions put out there?” Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Audiences are on the move and easily distracted.
    Viewing, reading, learning, making connections – while walking – is exhausting! Use laser-focused language, a rigorous graphic system, and clear organizational devices to help people intellectually navigate your exhibition spaces with the utmost of ease. Be blatant – not subtle – with how you’ve organized your information. And do your best to let design prompts (instead of lengthy text panels) address the primary communication aims.
  • Audiences are extremely diverse.
    Whether you’re a “serious” historical society or a children’s museum, assume that visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities are among your guests. When developing exhibitions, certainly think about your target audience, but then make sure a general audience is considered as well. In exhibition planning we often aim to identify our target audience, but perhaps there’s some value in actually thinking about the “untargeted” or un-intentioned visitor. What should we provide for them?
  • Exhibition attendance usually dovetails with other motivations.
    Just like the person seeking coffee or the customer seeking financial services that happen upon an informative display, museum visitors may be seeking more than just the exhibition experience. They have come for a social outing, to walk, to browse your gift shop, to sit peacefully with companions. Very few exhibitions are removed from this “overall visit” context. Keep exhibitions brief and browseable so that they may plug into the social structure of the entire museum exhibit. Provide break-out and respite spaces within the context of the exhibition space.

Be on the lookout for exhibit experience in your daily non-museum life (yeah, like that really exists), and take notice in what manner it gives you pause, engages you and others, and educates or delights your intellect or physical senses.

I went to see my dentist last week and discovered, thanks to a small but beautiful exhibit installation in the office, that the oldest cultivated fruit tree in North America was just outside the window: the Endicott Pear Tree – in Danvers. That tree had seen so much! And the exhibit made me value the time in the chair that much more.

 

Photos:

History of Television exhibit among the moving walkways at LAX

Superman! Cleveland International Airport

Clover Food Labs, Kendall Square.

 

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