Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Real Principles of Exhibit Design and Evaluation

The main measure of success for any museum exhibit is how well it accomplishes  educational objectives. Note that I don’t say “it’s” educational objectives, because we might decide that its educational objectives are weak, non-existent, or otherwise insufficient. I freely admit that this is a subjective pursuit because I am asking the exhibit evaluator to imagine what the objectives should be, not what the exhibitors say they are.
But regardless of what experts say about exhibit design and educational objectives, there is an often overlooked super-principal of exhibit design that ought to be considered above educational objectives, and that is, is the exhibit a hit with the consumer? If the consumer is bored, unimpressed, or otherwise turned off from the exhibit it is doomed for failure.
Ergo, the goal of the exhibit designer is to take educational objectives and transform them into interesting and informational museum experience.
Its’ important to say EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES three times, because you may not make an exhibit with out them (that is, you can make an exhibit without them, but you may not). This is for both practical and ethical reasons. 
First, the ethical reason. By adopting the title of museum you are implying to the visitor that your exhibits will have informative educational content. They may or may not have an expectation to be entertained, but they most definitely feel cheated if you don’t teach them, or their children, something interesting or significant. Furthermore, museums almost always accept the 501(c)3 non-profit tax exemption on the charitable grounds that they provide an educational service to the community.
Secondly, the practical reason is that with educational objectives you are more likely to make a well-thought-out exhibit. Educational objectives provide a nice framework for conceiving of your exhibit design, and if properly executed, results in a sort of “payoff” to the visitor. Once the consumer has gained something they are more likely to have positive feelings about your museum, which may result in return visits and word of mouth referrals. Over time your museum will develop a good public reputation by having strong exhibits that follow these principles.
What is the alternative to basing an exhibit on educational exhibits that you should avoid? I’m glad you asked. This leads me to directly to…
Ten Principles of Good Exhibit Design
In the old days you could get away with an object with a boring descriptive placard, but in today’s museum world that won’t cut it. Museum visitors want to be visually engaged. Employ as many of the good design principles below as possible.
Principle #1 Base your exhibit on educational objectives; not objects.
If you base your exhibit on objects proceed at your own peril. Generally speaking the worst exhibits are those that lack an educational focus. Very few objects speak for themselves. It is the job of the exhibit designer to take educational objectives and transform them into museum experiences that incorporate museum objects effectively, along with other educational content delivery methods. Therefore, begin with what you want your museum visitors to get out of your exhibit.
Principle #2 Use objects to accomplish your educational objectives
However, use objects to accomplish your educational objectives. If you have objects that can help tell you story, feature them with prominent placement and lighting. Show them in a way that creates a sense of respect around them. The truth is, people typically go to museums to see “real” things. While your information panels may do a great deal of the content delivery, they won’t create the sense of awe and wonder which is the raison d’ĂȘtre of the museum.
Principle #3 Think Big
One theme that runs through each of these design principles is “make it easy for your visitor to learn.” Visitors prefer a good size text panel over a dinky one, yet how many times have you been to a museum and there is a panel smaller than 11 x 17, sometimes combining both images and text -- often dwarfed by the wall or artifact it’s illustrating.
Size your panels to take advantage of wall space; if you have an 8’ ceiling, consider an 8’ panel. Although its arbitrary, I have found that panels in the range of 3 to 7’ per side are very affective. Photographs should be big enough to distinguish details at 8 to 10’ away, as should they majority of the text. If you find your visitors need to approach within arms length of a panel to read it or make sense of its visuals, then its way too small.
Don’t make it so big that it looks ridiculous; here are some starting suggestions:
  • Headers 150 point minimum
  • Subheadings 76 point minimum
  • Body Text 48 point minimum
  • images: for main elements no less than 2’ on the shortest side. For minor images you can use your judgment. 10” on the shortest side would be small, but possibly appropriate for a subordinate image that illustrates something in particular in greater detail. The maximum size for images is only limited by whats comfortable for the visitor given the vantage point provided by the display area.
Principle #4 Use Color
Black on white is “ok” for simple elegance, but you might be amazed at how color turns a drab exhibit into an exciting one. Human beings are visually oriented and somewhat moody. If you use black and white, or shades of gray as the main colors on your exhibit, expect to elicit a somber response. I can’t tell you what colors to pick, but go for something that fits the subject matter AND the aesthetics of the display area. If you are able to paint the display area to match your exhibit all the better. Tying the color scheme of your exhibit  to the area is a key technique to give the exhibit a sense of belonging. You can also use color to guide the eye, and even connect different parts of the exhibit together. Thing of creative ways to use colors. 
  • Heres a few tips though:
  • Make sure your typeface contrasts sharply with the background color. Hard to read is worse than boring.
  • Be careful not to camouflage images by picking colors that match your image palette too closely.
  • Picking complimentary colors and being consistent throughout your exhibit will help your visitors feel comfortable.
Principle #5 Use high quality materials
Most of the time you simply can’t do a quality job with your own inkjet printer. It might look alright when you get done printing it, but unless you have specialized equipment, chances are its too small and will readily fade. If you do it yourself and you end up with bubbles in your mounting, or curling labels, you are hurting yourself a great deal. If you do it yourself, get the highest quality materials you can find and take great care to do it just right.
If you don’t have professional grade printing solutions, I strongly recommend taking your print jobs to a print shop. Print shops are surprisingly affordable, can do excellent work, can print on most anything, and when you tell them what you need they should be able to provide you with professional recommendations.
You need something that is physically durable and fade resistant. You can have things printed on paper, foam core, PVC, wood, acrylic… the choices are yours. Discuss it with your printer.
We have found that printing on PVC is an excellent choice (thank you to Nikke Ferre for turning me on  to this); it’s rollable like paper and scratch resistant like acrylic. It doesn't work in all lighting conditions, and it doesn't give you the same depth that form core might. Mounting PVC on a painted wood frame can affordably create a durable panel with a nice thickness that jumps off the wall at visitors.
Principle #6 Layer your content
Your exhibit has to have at least 3 layers of content. 1) Major Headings; 2) Major subheadings and information; and 3) Minor subheadings and information. Why is this important?
Because every visitor does not want the same level of information from each panel. Hopefully you have made your panel large enough, colorful enough, and with a big header, so that someone from 10’ (or more) knows what that panel is for, without having to wonder. The panel has to call to them; sing even, and the lyrics need to be something other than “guess what’s over here.” Don’t make your visitors struggle to get the message. The headers on your panel are the main points of your exhibit. Some people will choose to NOT read the text depending on their time available and level of interest. The header is important in helping them make that decision, so the header should be informative.
If someone has been attracted by the panel or accompanying object, you second level of text provides more details; presumably the most important details about header subject. You don't need to, or even want to, overwhelm the visitor here with text. Remember, you have at least one other level of information, but provide meaningful content in case they choose to not pursue it.
If you have additional details, put them in your third level. This is probably as detailed as you want, but again, don’t write a novel. I think your third level of text is should be largely ancillary (or “extra credit” if you will) to the main point of the exhibit. Your main educational objectives should be met at a higher level than this.
How much content? No more than 3 minutes worth. You will have to figure out what that means based on the size of your panel and the font size.
Principle #7 Use more than one content delivery method
I know we have only really talked about two content delivery methods: the static text panel and the object on display (mentioned briefly in #2 above). Add other content delivery types if at all possible. Including video (a/v), interactives, ambient sound or music, docents, touch carts, free literature or printed guides, etc. You don’t need many of these add ons to make REALLY improve the visitor appeal of the exhibit. 
Principle #8 Layout the exhibit so it flows logically and naturally
Make sure your exhibit is well planed out. It should have a clear beginning and an end, and it should be easy to find the path between the two. The visitor might not even know the intended route, but a well designed exhibit will be structured to encourage a progression through the exhibit that strengthens its ability to get across is educational objectives.
Visitors who feel lost or confused by an exhibit layout are more likely to give up on the exhibit. You have to do this on purpose; exhibits don't lay themselves out.
Principle #9 Pay careful attention to lighting (aesthetically)
We’ll get to preventive conservation in a moment, but for now I want to focus on lighting aesthetics. Design your lighting so to minimize glare, and to direct attention where you want it. You id this easily by dimming the overall lighting, and raising the lighting on the exhibits. This creates a nice respectful ambiance in the museum and also helps with traffic flow (6 above).
Principle #10 Pay careful attention to all preventive conservation
Make sure everything in your exhibit is as protected as is reasonably possible. Obviously this goes for museum objects, but here I am also talking about panels. Quite often I hear that you don’t need to protect panels because they are not “real” things. Au contrere, if you don't take care of your panels they can fade, crack, peel, break, and otherwise deteriorate. As mentioned in the opening of this article, this is bad for your credibility, reputations, and business. Consequently, protect EVERYTHING as is reasonably practicable.
This isn't the place to go over all preventive conservation measures that can be taken, and obviously you can only minimize visitor impacts on your exhibit. But, heres a few oft-overlooked aspects of exhibit management. 
  • Light. If your exhibits are exposed to natural lighting they will fade, that’s all there is to it. Use quality fade resistant materials, minimize exposure to natural light, and position panels to where they will be least impacted. After that, keep your eye on them and replace them when they are faded. You’ll probably need to monitor this because the slow fading that objects on display undergo over long term periods of exposure can be subtle. 
  • Temperature and humidity. Chances are you already worry about this for your objects. If your museum does not have humidity fluctuations in check, or if it has high humidity, you may not want to use paper for your panel mounts, or anything else that could arp or peel. Here again, PVC works well as it isn't particularly affected by humidity or dryness.
  • Physical security. Most information panels will get touched by visitors. Therefore, picking a durable printing medium is important. If you print on paper or foam core, be aware that they damage easily. If you have a high traffic area or an area frequented by children, you might want to use something tougher. Here again, printing on PVC has been a real miracle.
  • By the way, PVC is also resistant to insects, easy to clean, and affordable.
Principle #11 Make sure the exhibit has a payoff!!!
When they are done with your exhibit, will the visitors feel ripped off? While you can’t account for individual tasters, if you have made sure that theres a solid educational core foundation to your exhibit, and its presented in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, chances are you will get favorable results. 
Principle #12 Do not underestimate the visitor
Your visitors are intelligent, have diverse interests and backgrounds, and pick up on details that you might consider insignificant. Visitors might not think about why they like or dislike an exhibit, but they surely can tell a good one from a bad one. If the visitor feels cheated when then leave your museum, you are on on the pathway to failure. You absolutely can not let this happen.
Principle #13 Maintain the exhibit
Check often to make sure that all parts of the exhibit look good. This is way more imperative than most museum personnel realize. Faded images or text, peeling or missing labels, broken interactives ⎯ these things not only make your exhibit look bad, they ruin your credibility with the visitor. It conveys to the visitor that you don’t care (even if its not true). This can easily damage your reputation, destroying repeat visits, and as word gets out, decreases your overall visitorship as well.
Did anyone notice I gave 13 instead on 10 principles? I could’t resist. Maybe I can collapse them in the next version of this document. On the other hand, I might have been able to go on to 20. 
The point is, good exhibits don’t happen on accident. They take careful planning and execution. Anyone can do it, on just about any budget. Take a look at your favorite exhibit. Is it well designed? Does it use my design principles? Maybe you disagree that all these are “good” principles. Send me your comments, and add your own to the list.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The mythology of Roman religion

Even though one of my favorite shows of the last few years is Spartacus, I don't mistake it for historical fiction. The Romans of pop-culture, whether it's Spartacus or some other pop-manifestation are nearly always characterized an an oversexed population where the main form of social organization is structured authoritarianism, and the main vehicle of leadership is fear and coercion. Family values (as we think of them) are virtually unknown, and religion plays almost no role other than to provide epithets.

It's going to take a book or two for me to address these issues, so let me get straight to whats on my mind today: misbelief about Roman religion. Here are some major myths about Roman religion:

  • It was a religion without dogma;
  • It was without teachers and teachings;
  • It was uncreative or unoriginal, or that the Romans were uncreative or unoriginal in adopting Greek gods;
  • Romans were dispassionate about religion;
  • Romans were not particularly dedicated to their beliefs, as evidenced by their adopting of Greek gods and later conversion to Christianity.

These myths are untrue, absolutely. They have been perpetuated in our culture through books, theatre, movies, traditions, etc., which is no doubt the result of western civilization having strong Judeo-Christian roots. Modern pop culture has taken it a step further and portrayed Roman civic life as highly immoral, especially where it comes to human sexuality and respect for the dignity of others.

Religion permeated all aspects of Roman life, from civic to private. Each household had gods, and there was an official organized state religion. Even in the Republican and Imperial periods, where there was a strict belief in the separation of church and state, senators considered augury and divination, both central to Roman religion, were crucial elements of the republic. The belief in gods was a ubiquitous phenomena that even the most stoic philosophers took for granted.

However, the mythologies of the gods -- their fantastic stories, loves, rages, jealousies, and sometimes pettiness, were broadly considered by the well-educated civic populations to be artistic creations of the poets (Virgil, Ovid, and Homer for example), and lead to "superstitious" beliefs and practices.

The Roman elite, including the Roman religious officials, considered superstition to be a dangerous force. They would apply this rationale equally to someone blaming Zeus for throwing a lightning bolt at their house as someone claiming to be a god or demigod, which was the case when the Christians arrived on the scene (or in this case, they knew someone who knew someone who was the son of God).

To call the Romans "unimaginative" because they adopted the Greek mythologies as their own is to misunderstand how religions evolve over time, and the role that mythologies play in religion. All religions have mythologies that reinforce the principles of the religion and the world view or the culture. Roman belief systems were a synchretic blend of Hellenistic beliefs and other pre-existing belief systems on the Italian peninsula. A careful examination of Roman mythologies reveals it is extraordinarily different from Greek mythology. Indeed, one can argue that if it weren't for the fact that the early Italian civilizations found parallels to their indigenous gods in the Hellenistic ones that Greek stories may never have become associated with the later Roman empire.

The Romans had no doubt that the gods existed, but they argued widely about the nature of the gods. Some argued that the gods were manifestations of virtues, others that they were ethereal beings without interest in earthly affairs. Others even that they were human creations overlaying a cosmic reality of some divine power.

In any case, it was considered a major civic and individual obligation to show respect for the divine.  It was widely believed that to neglect religious obligations could result in the collapse of society. It's not a coincidence that Roman archaeological collections are literally filled with artwork commemorating the divine, and that public temples are one of the most enduring of the empire's archaeological survivors. It is not a coincidence that the highest ranking citizens in Roman life were leaders of the church (the emperor himself was considered the highest ranking religious official, much like how in the United States the president is considered the highest ranking military official.).

Perhaps the most important of all rituals was the maintenance of the eternal flame in Rome. This was entrusted to the Vestal Virgins. Tradition had it that this was, in fact, the ritual of all rituals -- that if the flame was not maintained and annually renewed, that Rome would cease to exist as they knew it.

Extinguishing that flame, and keeping it out, was one of the most important acts of the Christian emperors.

Suggested Reading: Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), published in 43 BC. He outlines the major religious schools of thought, but doesn't go into the ritual aspects of religious belief.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why do people believe in magic?

I've never been so disappointed as I was yesterday when I read Dirk van der Elst's chapter in Culture as Given, Culture as Choice, regarding magic and science. The chapter is called "The unquenchable thirst", alluding to humanities seemingly endless thirst for knowledge. The author pits science against magical thinking, stating confidently that "magical thinking results from an inability to extract the operating factor out of a successful behavior sequence" (van der Elst 2003).

This has been the western world's most popular explanation for magic for centuries; a driving force behind 19th century colonial characterizations of indigenous people as "primitive" and "ignorant". One of the first official tasks of the young discipline of Anthropology was to dispel this myth.

Consider the famous opening lines of the 1925 essay Primitive Man and His Religion:
"There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at once, any savage races lacking either in the scientific attitude or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them. In every primitive community, studied by trustworthy and competent observers, there have been found two clearly distinguishable domains, the Sacred and the Profane; in other words, the domain of Magic and Religion and that of Science."
Bronislaw Malinowski

Malinowski's choice of words like "primitive" and "savage" reveal his 19th century roots (he was born in 1884), but he was destined to help turn Anthropology away from from colonial heritage and bring it squarely into the middle of academia. So don't get distracted by the terms.

Malinowski wanted to test the prevailing idea that magical thinking resulted from incomplete understanding of real causes -- that it resulted from ignorance. He developed a simple hypothesis to test the theory: If profane knowledge trumps sacred knowledge, then the more someone understood about the "real" causes of something, the less likely they would be to have magical beliefs about it.

In 1914 he went into the southwestern Pacific to collect ethnographic data on this and many other subjects. His research there, published in a number of articles and also in the seminal volume, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1925), set the standard for Anthropological fieldwork expectations that exist to this day.

In the village of Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands (near Papua New Guinea), he found a society where magic, magical knowledge, and magical thinking permeated all aspects of life. This was a perfect place to test the old hypothesis. He began documenting the areas in which the Trobrianders had the most advanced technical skills and profane understanding of the natural environment.

The areas where they were undeniably most expert were in fishing, farming, boat-building, and navigation. By anyone's standards they had a highly sophisticated set of secular knowledge of how to do these things, and do them well. They were accomplished open-water navigators, with excellent seamanship skills, understanding of weather patterns and currents, seasons, astronomy, and knowledge of the stresses and limits their watercraft could withstand to make a voyage.

Simultaneously, he collected data on the areas of daily life where people used magic, or depended on magical knowledge the most. He found high incidences of magical knowledge and ritual associated with.... did you guess? Fishing, farming, boat-building, and navigation. This is precisely the opposite of what you would expect if profane knowledge was expected to eliminate or minimize dependence on magical knowledge.

Rather than being associated with ignorance of "real" causes, magical knowledge and magical ideologies were related to uncertainty and danger. Open water navigation was one of the most dangerous aspects of a male adult's life. One mistake at sea when out of sight of land could have deadly consequences. Furthermore, mistakes in reading weather or land signs would be magnified, not only risking your own life but the lives of others. Fishing is an activity with widely unpredictable results. Even the best fishermen can not guarantee results on any given day. Both fishing and farming are critical to survival, so failing at one of these should be considered dangerous.

So how does magic, religion, or an ideology of the supernatural help minimize danger or improve the odds of success? Malinowski couldn't say, but suggested the psychological benefits of these could be immense. Furthermore, ritual can often help people to help transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and serve as mnemonic devices to remember the multitude of successful actions that may need to be taken to be successful in these areas. The co-occurence of magic and technical knowledge in these areas is undoubtedly because both are needed to deal with these dangerous uncertain activities.

Regardless of the reason, Malinowski showed, rather finally, that belief in magic, or religion, is not founded on ignorance. There is literally no chance of a society dispensing with its supernatural beliefs because of science. Perhaps now is not the time to get into it, but religion does too many things for people that science doesn't do, such as provide social support, a local sociopolitical framework, a local educational network, and a fraternity of allies in times of crisis.

At best, science can provide ways of minimizing danger and improving the odds. In this sense, as technology becomes more advanced you might hypothesize that magical ways would become less prevalent. Consider the psychological benefits of Wellbutrin or Effexor? Perhaps with a combination of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, high tech boats with fish-finders, and refrigeration systems the Trobrianders won't need magic anymore.

No, people do not believe in magic because they are ignorant. They believe in magic because it works.

Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London [England] : Routledge & Kegan Paul.

van der Elst, D. (2003) Culture as Given, Culture as Choice. Prospect Heights [Illinois]: Waveland Press.