by Suzanne Francis-Brown, UWI Museum Curator
Something has happened to me over the past few years. Now, when I visit museums, the artifacts are taking second place to the story, the presentation, the infrastructure…
I’m looking for ideas; for simple techniques we can adopt. I’ll give you an example. So I was able to visit the Rembrandthuis, a museum in the house where famed Dutch painter Rembrandt spent several productive years. It was great, but one of the things I was impressed by was a simple idea that may solve a challenge we have. They had a small artifact with important material on both sides. So they display it lying on a clear shelf a clear case that is mirrored on the bottom. The viewer can see the top – and then can see a reflection of the flip side. So simple!
I walked around looking at how the story is conveyed; a lot of museums are using audio guides and sometimes more complex digital guides that viewers take around with them and activate for explanation of particular artifacts or periods or spaces. But sometimes, that results in crowds of people motionless before this or that exhibit, while they consume this audio or other input; rather than actually focusing on the exhibit itself.
There were some great timelines. I’m a big fan of timelines and I remember one at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England; and another at the Imperial War Museum, London, England (though that one was on a digital screen and the scope was a challenge to capture).
There were also some interesting low-tech as well as more high-tech efforts to engage audiences. One that I’d also come across at the Chicago History Museum, USA last year is a simple but sturdy folder where visitors can find additional information on an adjacent artifact by just turning a page! We adopted something similar next to our UWI Chancellor’s gown; and again I saw this sort of approach, among others, in the International Slavery Museum.
At many museums I found myself looking at display cases, whether they were mounted to the walls or standing on their own; peering at lightboxes; considering the relationship between artifacts, text panels, audio-visual material and displays that viewers could move, remove and replace, or otherwise interact with.
Another great idea relates to museums that interface with historic ruins. This is something that the UWI Mona campus, with it’s range of historic layers, might consider in some areas. In the old City of London, there are places where the old Roman wall are visible. The Museum of London has integrated a section of the wall in a relevant exhibit through the simple placement of a window. And outside on the busy street, a clear display etched with a relevant section of the wall as it was originally, is placed where viewers can look through and see the identical section of today’s ruined wall.
Oh yes – and I did get to some of those artifacts, including some famed ones too.