A post from Jane Cockcroft, Families Learning Officer and Natasha Podro, Interpretation Manager about a prototype display that allowed us to test ways of delivering engaging gallery text and open up a wider conversation with our audiences about what they want from a gallery experience.
Take a walk around the Ashmolean and you will find a vast amount of interpretative text on panels and object labels. Combined with graphics, text is currently our principal way of telling stories. If you imagine that the objects are bread and the text is butter, to be served this combination, however delicious, in every gallery (with rare exceptions where we have interactive displays) does get a little monotonous – where are the other flavours and textures?
A core aim of Ashmolean for All is to change the way we relate to our audiences, particularly local people who do not choose to visit us. Central to this is making our permanent galleries more dynamic and engaging, and offering a wider range of ‘ways in’ to accessing and enjoying our collections, putting consultation at the heart of this process. We are also actively involving our communities through co-production work, to introduce different voices, perspectives and creative responses.
Gallery 8 Display: Doing things Differently, February 2019.
But how do we tell stories using text – which will always be a key interpretative tool – in a way that engages the broadest possible audience? An opportunity to create a ‘test’ display, cropped up earlier this year when our Gallery 8 space became free. Linking to the planned redevelopment of the Ancient Near East Gallery, the test display allowed us to experiment with different styles of text and approaches to storytelling.
The display focused on a small selection of objects which will tell the ‘First Farmers’ story in the redeveloped Ancient Near East gallery. We also tested a variety of audio tracks, and a new kind of gallery design with a ‘living room’ feel complete with comfortable seating. We asked drop-in visitors to feed back by completing questionnaires, and ran a series of focus groups with groups of local people for more in-depth responses.
What did we learn?
Gallery introduction panels
1. Headlines are more engaging than questions
Is a 9,000-year-old skull for eyes the first portrait?’
This is one of the questions featured in gallery introduction panel option B (see image above) – a very different approach to the more traditional, informative style of panel A. The idea was to use the questions as hooks, to grab visitor attention and make them curious. In fact, the questions in this test, and questions overall, had the opposite effect – they irritated almost everybody involved in the consultation. Focus group participants were able to unpack this for us, explaining that by being asked a question that they couldn’t possibly answer (without having explored the exhibition) became a barrier, i.e., the museum ‘voice’ made them feel disempowered and patronised. As a result, we changed the questions to hook ‘headlines’, so for example, the skull question became:
A 9,000-year-old skull with shells for eyes
The change in the response was dramatic – almost entirely positive, with the intended impact. We will be testing this approach further, as there is potential to engage a broader audience.
2. We should change the name of the gallery
The consultation revealed that the ‘Ancient Near East’ did not make sense to visitors and focus group participants. As one participant pointed out: “where is it near to?”. There were discussions too about a western-centric tone to the description of this part of the world. The preference was for The Middle East (with dates) and the ‘Ancient Middle East’. This acts as a reminder that we must revise problematic language throughout the museum.
3. Focus objects are a useful storytelling device
Discussions during the focus groups revealed that a ‘focus object’ approach to storytelling was successful. The Jericho skull was interpreted with three different object labels as part of the test, each with a different approach: firstly looking at the individual object in close detail; secondly trying to reconstruct the society that had produced it; and thirdly looking at the broader question of rituals around death, and the ethics of displaying human remains. This stimulated interesting conversations about which label was most engaging and why . The next step is to explore how to introduce new modes of interpretation and interactivity other than text, in ways that sustain and enrich this interest.
4. Visuals matter
Although there were a few images, the minimal use of visual interpretative content prompted useful comments and discussions, i.e., this was noted and criticised. In essence, we were reminded just how important good graphics and visual content is. There were also useful comments about the general accessibility of text in terms of font size and contrast, and about the need for other languages, particularly Arabic in this context.
5. Comfort is key
The comfortable arm chairs were a resounding hit with all our visitors and focus group participants. Comfort in museums is often overlooked, but a comfortable visitor is a more relaxed visitor and arguably more reflective and receptive to learning as a result.
Overall, a key learning for the museum is that we need to build in more time for testing and consultation of this kind. But what resonated the most for all those involved was the audience focus of this project; both in terms of how much we can learn from our visitors and communities, and the great potential to engage and involve them in the transformation of the Ashmolean.