Exhibition design is about the design of all the 'tools' or materials a Museum can use to tell its story. It goes all the way from architectural design - the design of the building - to display design: how a single object or story is displayed.
Museums in the past had walls of paintings, rooms of statues, and cabinets full of artefacts. Mostly: just to look at. No touching!
The Van Gogh Museum: a traditional museum. Image Resource : wikimedia.org
The Dunn Museum (Libertyville, USA) offers a sneak peek at their exhibition design process, from concept to fabrication.:
Display cases and panels come in all sizes and sorts, and from cheap or even home-made to very expensive. They are important because they keep the exhibits safe, while the visitors can view them from the best possible angle - or from all angles.
Examples of display cases and panels:
Display mounts are the supports that are used to display objects.
Display panels can be used for texts, photos, videos. They also come in all sorts and sizes, from cheap and maybe home-made to expensive.
The lighting challenge for museums is that, on the one hand, they want their artefacts to stand-out and be well-lit. But on the other hand: too much light may damage paintings and documents.
Of practical concern: reflection of lights on displays. And the costs of having so many lights on, all day.
Labels, Panels and Navigation
Labels can show the title of an exhibit, and maybe a year or place. Or a label can tell a whole story - and be so large that it does not fit on a simple card but needs an entire panel. Writing labels and panels is an art in itself., with quite a few guidelines and 'how to' guides (see "Further Reading", below).
Again, in the past, the curator decided what the visitor needed to know about an exhibit. Now, labels can go two ways. On the one end: the label will tell you very little, because each visitor should be allowed to create his/her own story. At the other end: the story itself is the exhibit, there may not even be an object to look at.
Much of course, depends on the visitors: what do they already know? And: what do they want to know?
"Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to museum displays - no matter how big or how small the project may be. Unless you identify your target audience and tailor your work to what they find exciting, you will face the danger that the end result is “ok” for all, but no one really likes it. "
"Effective museum labels anticipate and answer visitors’ unspoken questions about the artwork or object they accompany. At the same time they forge emotional connections with those visitors. It’s obvious, then, that anyone writing gallery or exhibition labels needs detailed knowledge in two areas: the objects themselves and the visitors who will be looking at them. Plus, they need a clear goal that defines what they hope visitors might think, feel or do in response."
When you create your display ask yourself what would be the one thing you wish visitors to remember about seeing the display after their visit:
- Is your message relevant to your visitors? Be realistic and ask yourself: so what?
- Does your message reveal something interesting about the subject that people would not normally know?
- Check with fellow volunteers: can they tell from your display what your message is?"
"Do not put too much text on a panel. People will not read 'a book on the wall'.
If you do have longer texts or longer videos: make sure that there are benches or seats in front of the panel, so that people can sit while they read or watch."
Meredith Peruzzi, 20 October 2022, Deaf Museums meeting
Signs and labels for navigation - both outside and inside the Museum - are important, too. Visitors should know what else they can see, and: where they have to go to see it. Visitor research (see chapter 6) actually tracks visitors to see where they go, where they hesitate or backtrack. And where the 'dead spots' are, where no-one goes.
Bathrooms, staircases, elevators: where are they? Safety: where do visitors go, in case of an emergency?
Signage is the collective word, especially used for commercial or public display signs.
Sign house a part of the Swiss Museum of Transport (Lucern, Switzerland).
All labels and panels and especially labels and signs for navigation, should be accessible to all visitors, including visitors who are blind or who have visual problems. Visitors who are Deaf may prefer information in a sign language. Visitors from other countries may not know the language that is used on the labels and signs, and may depend on icons or pictures. More about this, later in this chapter.
A participatory approach means that a Museum or exhibition involves a community - its future visitors - into the design of the exhibition or Museum from the very start. Other names that are also used: participation practice, community approach and community-centred approach.
A community can be a local community: the people living in a certain area or city. It can also be a community of people who share some other interest or characteristic: a community of train lovers, of immigrants, of speakers of Esperanto.
The Museum invites volunteers and other people from this community to help set up an exhibition or even a Museum. The volunteers contribute artefacts, stories. They discuss and contribute to the design, the labels. They may become tour guides.
- the Museum or exhibition speaks the language of the community, of the the future visitors;
- the Museum or exhibition tells the story of the community; the community will recognize itself in the artefacts, stories, displays;
- the community considers itself the 'owners' of the Museum or exhibition and will promote it wherever they can;
- the Museum or exhibition may have a major impact on the community; it may promote cohesion, understanding, it may become a launching pad for other activities in the community.
"Access to and participation in culture is a basic human right. Everyone has a right to representation and agency in museums, and communities should have the power to decide how they engage."Museum Association: https://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/learning-and-engagement/cultural-rights-and-cultural-democracy-2/
- Show by Polish artist Pawel Althamer, which includes a highly public, participatory aspect. Alongside the artist’s immediately recognizable sculptural works, the show welcomed visitors to paint the walls of the museum’s spacious lobby,
- Power to the People
- No longer us and them. How to change into a participatory museum and gallery
- The Participatory Museum, by Nina Simon, 2010 (free online book and 2012 TEDx talk)
Interactivity and Gamification
"No touching!" was - and is - standard in traditional Museums. Interactive displays on the other hand MUST be touched. The advantages of interactive displays: visitors participate and act instead of observing, they spend more time on an exhibit and they will remember the experience better.
"Interactive exhibitions have the power to pull the audience closer to artworks, performances, and installations. The act of engagement creates a more memorable experience and a message that can be digested in an easier manner."
source: 20 Interactive Exhibitions
Interactivity can take many forms:
- interactive displays that can be touched;
- artefacts that can be used, manipulated;
- displays that visitors can write on or paint.
- installations that respond to visitors with sound, visual displays, even smell.
Interactive exhibits are especially interesting for children and young people. They can also be very 'Instagrammable' leading to promotion on social media channels.
Examples of interactive Museum exhibits on Pinterest:
source: Interactive Exhibits
Gamification goes one step further. Exhibits become games, visitors can compete, win awards, become top-scorers. Again: especially interesting for young people and children.
According to Andrea Marshall on MuseumNext, gamification achieved buzzword status and was hailed as the “next new thing” in museums in 2011. She also adds a warning:
"But after the initial urge to collect points fades, consumers can find themselves asking – “what was the point of that?” (..) Gaming in museums can be highly educational and leave a lasting impact on visitors, but they must be done well to be effective with our audiences. It’s not enough to lure visitors with the promise of points or badges if these don’t serve to educate."
Games can be as basic as a treasure or scavenger hunt with printed forms that children have to fill in. Or they can be video games that visitors can play on a display, on a Tablet or on their own mobile phone.
source: Van Gogh Museum
Source: Google Arts and Culture
In recent years, the focus of Museums has shifted from objects to experiences. At first: using displays and stories to make visitors 'feel' the exhibits, to make them respond not just with their heads, but with their hearts, their emotion.
Then, exhibits became 'immersive': 3D, interactive, moving and affecting as many of the senses as possible: vision, hearing, sound, smell, sometimes even taste. All to attract, entertain and educate the visitors.
This is an important difference between today's Museums and 'traditional' Museums that 'just' display objects.
For an example of an immersive exhibition, see the report of Junhui Yang's visit to the immersive Van Gogh Alive experience.
"At the exhibition venue, Rubbena Aurangzeb-Tariq, well-known Deaf Artist and Art Therapist in mental health and education (https://www.rubbena.com/), was the BSL guide, along with a hearing team interpreter. We went to a darkened room with varied large-sized displaying screens, which was daunting at first. Images of Van Gogh’s artwork were projected around the room to tell his life story. The BSL guide Rubbena was spotlighted and successfully expressed the mood that was being set by the accompanying music and narratives.
It was also interesting to learn which musical instruments produced which sounds (I was wearing my new digital hearing aids). The clever use of technology created an immersive and emotive experience. The BSL access is very important for me as it enabled me to take part and enjoy in this multi-sensory experience."
Junhui Yang, February 2022
For the full story, see: https://www.deafmuseums.eu/index.php/en/resources/all-resources/item/junhui-yang
UN CRPD, United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Article 30-1 pf the UN CRPD (see: https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html ) states that persons with disabilities have the right to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life, and that states have to take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities:
a) Enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats;
b) Enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats;
c) Enjoy access to places for cultural performances or services, such as theatres, museums, cinemas, libraries and tourism services, and, as far as possible, enjoy access to monuments and sites of national cultural importance.
Then, article 30-4 states that persons with disabilities are entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture.
The convention was adopted on 13 December 2006. As of April 2022, it has 163 signatories and 185 parties, 184 states and the European Union (which ratified it on 23 December 2010) (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_the_Rights_of_Persons_with_Disabilities)
As a result of the CRPD convention, Museums that receive public funding - actually: all Museums - must take appropriate measures to make their collections, services, events and websites accessible to persons with disabilities. But Museums most still have a long way to go. On the website Museum for All, you can access an online database of Museums in more than 30 European countries, to find out about their accessibility. The aim of the Museums for All network is "to encourage Museums to push their limits in terms of accessibility, multisensory experiences and openness to all potential and actual visitors, onsite and online, whatever their personal characteristics. They want to make Museums understand the needs of their visitors and help them remove existing barriers to culture and knowledge."
Accessibility should influence the design of a Museum or exhibition from the very start: the story, the location, the exhibits, as well as the actual design. On our website, we have collected guidelines and good examples, see Resources.
Fifty percent of the Museum professionals who completed our Survey for mainstream Museum professionals answered that their collections are accessible to Deaf visitors and that they provide sign language guides. We did not ask about the accessibility of their events - are sign language interpreters provided at workshops, presentations, other events? Are all their videos subtitled?
As for CRPD article 30-4, 75% of our respondents answered that they would be willing to collaborate with the Deaf community on exhibitions about Deaf history and the Deaf community. Although several added that they did not know how to do this. Two quotes from our survey:
- "My top 3 requests for better Deaf provision in our Museum would be a handy list of things we could do which would help - in an exhibition that is entirely composed of objects on display and written text, is there anything more that should be provided? Secondly some suggestions of what a Deaf Exhibition might entail - I do not know where I would go about finding any information about the deaf communities interaction with our subject area specifically, and thirdly any information you can provide on contacting volunteers in the Deaf community who might want to volunteer at our Museum ."
- Advice: "Include consultation in your planning from the beginning; make sure that costs are included in budgeting from the beginning (Payment for consultation and experts, translation costs, technical requirements, etc); training for staff that centres what is needed by Deaf visitors, rather than what we assume might be needed and an understanding of *why*."
An illustration of the importance of consulting Deaf people from the start, by Hanna Mellemsether:
"A small group of people visited Trøndelag Folk Museum in Trondheim on a fine summer Sunday a few years ago. I watched as they wandered through the labyrinths in our permanent exhibition, Images of Life, which portrays life in the Trøndelag region during the last 150 years.
The group consists of elderly men and women, like so many of the museum's visitors who spend the weekend doing memory work.
But unlike other groups, they do not talk loudly together, or whisper and point, putting their heads together. This group uses hands and eyes, fluently signing their shared experiences and personal histories as they take the tour.
Watching from a distance, I notice that they walk rather fast, do not stop often to discuss the elegantly displayed and artistically lit objects behind the glass, nor do they read the text on the walls. At first I am confused.
The group comprises people with an interest in history, from a national organisation for Deaf history that had specifically asked to see the exhibitions.
Then I notice that, as they walk between the lighted objects and blocks of written information, their faces and hands are in shadow. Black walls surround the lighted showcases and blocks of texts, creating a dark, cave-like atmosphere in the exhibition gallery.
The function of the artistic lighting is to direct visitors' attention towards the objects, the history, the message that the curators themselves want to tell.
But the message is lost to this group of deaf men and women. They hurry politely through the exhibition, finding spots of lights outside of the intended pathway where they can see each other's hands and faces and communicate the way they do – in Sign Language."
Hanna Mellemsether, 2012. A Museum for All? The Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture,
In: Re-presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum
and see Resources Accessibility, on this website.
Display Techniques at Deaf Museums
The Deaf Museums in Europe vary widely in the design of their displays - mostly depending on the budget that they have available.
The temporary exhibition in Paris, The Silent History of the Deaf (Histoire_silencieuse_des_Sourds, 2019) used state-of-the-art and very large display panels.
The Norwegian Museum of the Deaf uses professional and often interactive displays for its exhibits.
Museum of Deaf Education
The Museum of Deaf Education in the Netherlands (now closed) was located in the chapel of the old school for the Deaf, two large spaces. Special 'pods' were used to divide the space. In each pod, a classroom was reconstructed from a different time period.
Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds
The Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds on the other hand, uses more basic (and probably less expensive) display cases and panels.
Deaf Heritage Centre UK
The Heritage Centre in the UK also uses basic display options, too.
Visitors who recognize the photos, videos and objects in a Deaf Museum, will relive their past experiences, even without state-of-the-art display techniques. For them, the display cases or panels are far less important than the memories that are triggered by the exhibits. Or by the tour guide who tells the stories.
Peter Jackson at the Deaf Heritage Centre, UK
Visitors who are new to the Deaf world, but also younger visitors and children may expect the kind of displays and the interactivity that mainstream Museums offer. The importance of display techniques then also - or mostly? - depends on the target audience of a Deaf Museum: who are the persons that the Museum wants to welcome as visitors? More about this in the next chapter.
Hands Up, Rom X, Dialogue in Silence (Dialog im Stillen)
The Hands Up exhibition in Vienna uses immersion techniques to let hearing visitors experience - if only for 45 minutes - what it is like to be deaf and to communicate in sign language. The visitors wear headphones and are not allowed to talk. Rom X at the Deaf Museum in Norway and Dialogue in Silence (Hamburg) use similar immersion techniques. Of course, the experiences for Deaf visitors are very different: finally, an exhibition where everyone speaks sign language!
Accessibility and Deaf Museums
Deaf Museums have to be accessible to people with disabilities, like all Museums. Deaf Museums have two special groups to take into account: non-signers, and Deafblind persons.
Visitors, deaf or hearing, who do not know the national sign language. Of course, they will have to feel welcome, too.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution: QR codes. With a mobile phone, visitors can scan a QR code next to an exhibit. The QR code will send the visitor to a webpage with information in his or her preferred language. This can be the national sign language, a foreign sign language or International sign. But it can also be a spoken text in the national language or for instance spoken English. The spoken texts can be generated by a computer (text to speech conversion), or the audio can be a recording of an actual speaker.
There are computer programs that can convert written text to a signing avatar, but this is time consuming and still needs a lot of human help. So it may be easier to film a real live signer.
Videos in sign language will need subtitles, closed captions and/or a voice-over, for non-signers. On websites, it is best to add text transcripts also for Deafblind visitors..
At the Norwegian Deaf Museum, we found two good examples of access to exhibits for Deafblind visitors. Other Museums may have more or better examples, but we did not ask about this in our Survey.
Example 1: text on drums that can be turned round and round. When the drum is turned, text can be higher or lower, adapted to the height of the visitor. But as you can see on the photo below, the text drum also included text in Braille.
Example 2 is a photo that has been converted into a 3D model, so that blind and Deafblind people can 'see' the image with their fingers.
The photo is of Ragnhild Kåta. Raghnhild was born in Valdres in 1873. When she was three years old she got Scarlagens fever and lost her hearing, sight and sense of taste and smell. When Ragnhild was 15 years old, she was allowed to attend the deaf school in Hamar. Here Ragnhild learned to read, write and speak. She became a master of understanding what others were saying by placing her fingers on their lips while they were talking. Ragnhild had lovely handwriting and liked writing letters.
Accessibility and Museum Jobs
Heather Hollins (in: Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2010) distinguishes 4 stages through which Museums can progress in developing collaborative, empowering and reciprocal relationships with people with disabilities:
Source: Heather Hollins, Reciprocity, accountability, empowerment: emancipatory principles and practices in the museum. 2010
At the lowest level of accessibility, Deaf people can access the building and the exhibition. At the highest level, Deaf people would have top-jobs at the Museum, they would be involved in all decision-making.
In the survey that we sent to mainstream Museum professionals, we asked the professionals at what level Deaf people were involved in their Museum. In the table you can see the results of a small selection of mainstream Museums in several European countries.
|Our exhibitions and services are accessible to Deaf people; we provide sign language guides||50% YES|
|We regularly collaborate with Deaf professionals, Deaf consultants||75% YES|
|Deaf people are involved in long term consultation which takes on the form of a two-way dialogue and explores issues that are important to both parties||30% YES|
|Deaf people participate in the decision making process at the most senior level in the museum hierarchy and are able to directly influence decisions||15% YES|
|Our Museum currently employs one or more Deaf professionals||10% YES|
In 2021, we interviewed Daniel Milford-Cottam who worked as a curator in a large mainstream Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. After 11 years, the Museum lost the funding for his job and he was made redundant. Since then he has not been able to find a new job in any Museum. You can read the full interview elsewhere on this site.
For true accessibility of mainstream Museums at all levels, there is still much work to be done.