Balancing Story and Design

July 10, 2015 Museum Life

How do you tell stories in three dimensions?  Do exhibits need to lead people through a story, providing intellectual and artistic breadcrumbs?  Some exhibits are more akin to the internet where users can pick and choose their way through content, making their own meaning along the way, while others are like a movie or an amusement ride that transports participants through a experiences to a predetermined conclusion.  Which is best, is an unfair question. It isn’t even the right question to ask.  After talking with David Mandel this morning on the show, I think a better question is what type of experience supports the story that is needing to be told?  Understanding that the word story does not necessarily mean a linear, tell-a-tale-around-the-campfire narrative, an exhibit story may play out entirely in a participant’s mind or emotion.  It may be evocative and ethereal. It may not have an ending. But to be well told, an exhibit story must be supported by the it environment.

Immersive is another word that needs better definition and David did a wonderful job of defining it:”Immersive environments are those that transform the viewer in some way.” This definition is beautiful in its simple elegance.  Note that David did not define the way(s) in which the viewer or participant would be transformed, only that there would be a change: the viewer would be different from how they were before. Web designers call this transformation conversion, when a user is changed after visiting a web site.  Often, the measure of conversion is a specific action such as a purchase or a click. But regardless of the measure, the goal of the experience is to change the participant. David went on to give a couple of useful examples including the Terracotta Warrior exhibit in which participants were presented with life-size statutes and an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s sculptural mobiles, playfully hung in an architecturally beautiful space.

The examples and definitions are incredibly useful to me as I continue to refine my thinking and hone my skills as an exhibit developer and have led me to adopt the following guidelines:

1.  Less is more.  Just as theatrical set design has shifted away from detailed recreations in favor of suggestive props, leaving out details invites participants to fill in the blanks with their own experiences and imaginations. The best thing about reading a book is creating my own images based upon the author’s words, and often I am disappointed when the book is made into a movie and the lead character looks nothing like I imagined.  So, too, exhibit environments are powerful when they suggest and evoke a mood.

2.  Leave room for the audience.  This is an important variation on the less is more rule, but is perhaps the one that is most violated in exhibits, particularly those that have the luxury of budget and can throw in “all the bells and whistles.” Whether the storyline is so tightly crafted that it leaves no room for wonder or personal observation or a designed space that is so chock-a-block full of the latest technologies that audiences simply can’t move without bumping up against a high-tech wonder, crowded exhibits becomes a passive experience.

3.  Question bells and whistles. There seems to be a common belief that some bells and whistles are necessary to attract audiences to museums, but there is little data to support this assumption.  Visitor studies and audience research do not often have the chance to do a controlled experiment of delivering the same content plus or minus some technology or lighting effect. Therefore, we are left with extrapolating from the success of another exhibit, assuming that the success was due to a particular technique rather than an overall balancing of story and design. We also tend to believe that technology use can be universally applied.  Just because many of us use our cell phones in the grocery doesn’t mean that we  should use them in the theater. In fact, museum exhibits may be most effective when they provide a counterpoint to every day situations.

4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  The exhibit examples David provided illustrate respect for the exhibit content and stories.  Some exhibits will be designed around objects and others around ideas, but either way, the design needs to serve the object or ideas, not the other way around. And while David did not have a magic recipe for developing a great exhibit team, it is clear from his description of the creative team that developed the Civil and Human Rights Museum, that there was mutual respect all around the table.

5.  Content-Design-Client.  Tripods are stable because all three legs are the same length.  Amazing exhibits come from teams that have equal strength in content, design and client vision.  One cannot be stronger or weaker than the others. Reflecting upon less-than-successful projects, trouble began when this tripod  was out of balance whether because of weak content. weak client or overpowering design.  Perhaps we can all avoid trouble down the line if we take time to shore up any weaknesses early in the project.

I intend to use these five guidelines in my upcoming projects. Please share your guidelines with me.