Museum vs. Modernity: Why Exhibit Designers Have A Tightrope To Walk

Posted by Sasha on Monday, December 9th, 2013

Mammoth Skeletons in the North Geological Gallery of the British Museum, London - late 1800sMuseums have come a long way from being collections of artifacts in dusty display cases. Today’s museum experiences are accompanied by some of the same high-tech accouterments as top entertainment venues, such as large-scale interactive installations, haptic and virtual technology, augmented reality and thematic environments. As museums become more technological and entertaining, the gap between museums and entertainment venues seems to be narrowing.

Adler Planetarium

This is not surprising, since the process of designing an exhibit is not dissimilar from that of a theme park: there’s a central story or “theme” around which exhibits are choreographed, often integrating a variety of technological and artistic disciplines. The major difference is that museums have a duty to educate and rally behind messages with deeper social, scientific or historical meaning. If theme parks are candy, museums are chocolate-covered almonds.

The healthy “almond” center, or the underlying mission to educate and inform the public, gets translated in different ways depending on the type of museum. Science centers are inherently more interactive and playful, while art and history museums are arguably still learning how to have fun. Kathleen McLean, museum consultant and former Director at the San Francisco Exploratorium, ascribes this difference in tone to the subject matter: science is more playful precisely because it results from playing around, experimenting and being curious about the unknown. While art relies on a similar kind of wackiness, the public’s interaction with art in museums is much more serious. Also, unlike science centers, art and history museums do not typically invite guests to participate.

But this is starting to change. Today’s audiences expect their experiences to be user-driven and customizable. As a result, historical, cultural and art exhibits have begun allowing more visitor participation, such as the collaborative storytelling experiences designed by interaction design company Local Projects. Jake Barton, Principal and Founder of Local Projects, believes that museum visitors should be making meaningful stories of their own – essentially becoming authors of their experience. Local Projects is currently designing the interactive experience of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which will give visitors a platform to tell their own stories and answer questions about their experience of the infamous day.

Local Projects uses technology to support the overall message: “Our goal is to make innovation have a point. Any tool can be amazing, but it can also be random if it doesn’t have the capacity to tell a larger story. We try to leverage people’s natural curiosity about why they’re at a particular venue, and the installations are meant to extend their love and interest in the content, not detract from it,” Barton explains.

Local Projects digital experience at Gallery One

For example, when integrated thoughtlessly, glowing screens not only detract from exhibit content, but can also alienate visitors from each other. Andrea Rolleri, Principal of exhibit design firm Van Sickle & Rolleri, feels that technology can be a good tool for teaching and a hook for young audiences, but has concerns about its long-term social effects: “Technology can make for an odd social discourse: often, people interact with the display, but not with each other. People go to museums to be amongst other people, in part, but technology changes our social dynamics.” Rolleri’s company recently served as lead designer of the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum, an outdoor “museum without walls” with 8 acres of educational themed areas and teaching spaces. The Children’s Garden couldn’t be more different from the typical museum: in an effort to reengage children with nature, it is a sprawling landscape of living, growing things. Small instances of technology, including animations, help augment the learning process by showing life cycles that can’t be seen in a day’s visit. The gadgetry comes second to nature, but is still key for engaging urban kids who might otherwise be averse to the outdoors.

Layout of Rory Meyer's Children's Adventure Garden, Dallas Arboretum

These days, integrating technology is hardly about keeping up with the times. Today’s youth learns to use touch screens before they can talk and as McLean aptly points out, will one day think we’re crazy for ever having seen technology as separate from life itself. At its most basic level, technology is an answer to the latest trends and audience expectations, but it has much deeper implications: “It used to be that the most important thing [at a museum] is the object, such as a painting or a vase. But people growing up today value the virtual object more: you can stretch a virtual object, turn it inside out, experience what it’s like to be inside it, and even see what it looks like in different contexts. The virtual object is more interesting because it provides a fuller picture of what the object is all about,” McLean explains.

Manchester Museum is using haptic technologyThis change in cultural values indicates another shift in audience expectations: When people no longer value objects, it makes for a restless, easily bored audience. If objects no longer have a hold over us, and the main draw is the new technology, why bother going to a museum when you can access the virtual world and interact with glowing screens from anywhere (especially the comfort of your own home)? This question poses the most trouble for museums today. In order to keep audiences engaged and coming back for repeat visits, museums have become more open to creative, entertainment-based design approaches. Coinciding with fewer opportunities in U.S. leisure destinations, this shift in exhibit design is a welcome opportunity for themed entertainment professionals.

One of the largest crossover companies in themed entertainment and museums is Jack Rouse Associates. In partnership with InnoPark, JRA is developing interactive science centers and children’s museums in Russia and the Russian Commonwealth. Mike Meyer, Senior Project Director, tells Entertainment Designer that JRA’s goals are to supplement standard education and also challenge the academic approach to learning: “Imaginative thinking and creative problem solving have been gaining ground [in education]. Our goal for the Russian science centers is to establish this open-ended approach to learning as an educational standard.” While this project is grounded in education, JRA’s involvement suggests that the exhibits will be well themed and highly interactive.

InnoPark Interactive

When it comes to entertainment in museums, intelligent design is key. Often, a lack of budget, time, or expertise causes the entertainment aspect of exhibits to get retrofitted in a way the produces neither good education nor good entertainment.

But another common pitfall of “edutainment” cuts in a different direction: its tendency to try too hard to be entertaining, thus undermining the important issues that museums exist to share in the first place. “When things are done with an entertainment mentality, very often they’re done with a ‘now we all live happily ever after’ message. But some of the most engaging experiences are about tough problems and issues. Entertainment as an escape from reality is cutting the potential short,” McLean tells us. Unlike theme parks and entertainment venues, museums are a platform for examining life’s uglier issues, and while counter-intuitive, McLean argues that entertainment and even humor can actually enhance this. Rolleri also highlights the importance of intelligent entertainment: “A ‘wow’ experience is often a one-hit wonder – it amazes, but doesn’t necessarily have lasting meaning. Exhibits have the potential to preserve real information and act as the voice of authenticity.”

It seems that museums face a tough balancing act: fall behind in technology and entertainment and lose audience appeal; overcompensate and lose integrity. In the end, it’s about finding new relevance and longevity. Archival objects and academia used to be the main factors protecting a museum’s success and authenticity. But as cultural values shift, the consensus about what constitutes an “authentic” experience changes, and museums face murkier futures as important fixtures in society. Rolleri believes that exhibits need to move away from being static monuments and should instead be “nimble, able to change their look and content as quickly as visitors change their interests.” Meyer believes that exhibits need to have flexible boundaries in the sense that they “remain relevant to guests before, after and during a visit,” which might imply increased online engagement. Barton sees the future of museums as “moving away from having transient ‘visitors’ towards ‘authors’ who participate in the actual experience.” McLean, on the other hand, isn’t entirely sure that exhibits have a future at all. To her, it’s unclear whether museums will be able to keep pace.

Will museums like this be extinct in the near future?

One thing is clear, however: museums will not survive as the institutions that they were before the digital age. In order to keep up with shifting cultural values, outdated museums will need to redefine their place in society and reevaluate the way their exhibits are designed. At the same time, they’ll need to maintain their status as reliable places of preservation for their donors and supporters. Exhibit design firms will need to create environments of increasing flexibility and customization, which may pose a challenge to the companies that depend on a fast turnaround between projects.

It’s almost as if, in order to survive, exhibits need to become more like open-source technology: instantly accessible, editable by anyone, and infinitely changeable. Tomorrow’s museums will need to understand their audiences better than ever, because in the digital age, the audience is Number One.


image sources: LM3LABS.comRhino Resource Center, Adler Planetarium, Local Projects, Van Sickle & Rolleri,,, Jack Rouse Associates


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