Government funding cuts affect all Australian museums. Museums are always looking for a point of difference – to produce newer and more engaging exhibitions to claim a larger share of the tourism/leisure sector dollar. They aim to increase their revenue by growing visitor numbers, partnering with corporates and attracting new sponsors to work with them into the future.
When a permanent gallery is no longer seen as an attractive option for visitors, it is important to reflect on why it may have lost its pulling power with audiences before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. A case study for discussion is the Watermarks gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum which will be replaced by a new permanent exhibition in late 2016 / 2017.
A study of the Watermarks gallery looked at the visitor response to both the objects on display within the space and the layout of the gallery. Museum visitors were observed over two weeks during school holidays which resulted in several findings about the space.
Firstly, 17 guided educational tours had been developed by the Learning and Education team in Watermarks for school groups. Each tour was designed to address criteria outlined in the Australian National Curriculum Guidelines (for Kindergarten – Year 12), looking at – waterways and the environment, Australian colonial history, Australian history in general,
maritime archaeology, navigation, identity, transport, swimwear and textiles. The objects within the space offered good sensory, emotional and educational possibilities to connect with the past but without the guided educational tour, their significance seemed lost in the flow and layout of the existing gallery which left self-guided visitors disengaged. A simple experiment was conducted with Post-It notes. Visitors were asked to tag their favourite objects and write on butcher’s paper about the thematic areas that they felt should remain on display and intact within the museum (or possibly in a travelling exhibition for other museums/galleries). As a result, visitors spent longer in Watermarks, engaged more with all of the objects and voted strongly for certain objects and sections which should be kept on display.
Secondly, there were four entry and exit points to the exhibition which resulted in many visitors not understanding the original inspiration for the gallery which was “Australia’s ongoing relationship with water” viewed through the themes of Swimming, Rowing, Regattas, Sailing, Surfing and Indigenous Australia. In a gallery with so many entry and exit points, I observed that three simple solutions could have been applied to help restore the intended narrative:
- reduce the number of pathways through the space
- label every entry point with a text panel which reflects the inspiration for the area and its relevance for the gallery
- ensure that each themed area has a narrative of its own which can stand alone and yet remain connected to the original Watermarks interpretation.
Thirdly, it was noted that the digital components of the gallery had great content but were not necessarily in optimum positions within the space to show off that content. For audiences to successfully engage with the digital components of any exhibition or permanent gallery, it is critical that:
- Audio Visual (AV) stations and touch screens are working correctly
- AV stations are well positioned
- For substantial content, e.g. films lasting several minutes, that seating is available for the viewer
- Text panels supporting the AV stations provide sufficient explanation on the way that the station should be used. For example, films may be self-explanatory whereas other interactive stations may require a little more context for their optimal use.
Finally, museums and department stores have traditionally had comparisons drawn when it comes to aesthetics and audience engagement. Perhaps museums could learn from the mistakes of the department stores in the current economic climate. It may be that cutting floor staff numbers will not necessarily increase profits. My observations in Watermarks have only strengthened my opinion that many visitors like to see the presence of facilitators, invigilators, educators, security or guides in the gallery or exhibition space. I have observed that visitors:
- stop to ask questions or for directions or assistance
- might ask for extra information about a display or gallery
- might have their own narrative to share triggered by seeing an object in the space
- may have feedback for the museum about their visit.
It seems a pity when the audience is captive in the space, not to utilise that opportunity for engagement and feedback and to build relationships with the public, particularly when museums and galleries are striving to be “must see” destinations. In short, even if a gallery appears to have lost its pulling power, it may still have one last lesson to give museum staff before its removal.