Earlier this year I conducted a study for the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) about exhibitions that have a person as their central focus. Four focus groups were held to unpack a range of ideas and issues, and as part of their homework, participants selected one person from a list of six historical figures and asked to respond to three areas:
- All the questions they had / information they wanted about this person (before looking online or consulting Wikipedia!)
- Imagine they were designing an exhibition about their chosen person – what themes would be in it?
- How to make the exhibition the standout so all their friends and family want to come along
They could choose on of the following: Captain Cook; Mary McKillop; Don Bradman; Edith Cowan; Ned Kelly and Truganini.
Throughout the discussion the following general findings emerged that can be broadly applied across topics of this type.
Exhibitions about people: interests
- Focus on their life, achievements, different life stages and pathways:
- What motivated them?
- How did they die?
- Fun, fast facts
- What was happening in Australia / the world at the time:
- Provides context
- How they have influenced modern day society:
- Their legacy
- Flow on effect of their work and how they influenced others, who else they worked with
- Why are they famous and why should we care?
- What their contemporaries thought of them
- As well as some of the ‘back story’:
- Living / social conditions at the time
Exhibitions about people: prior knowledge
- For some, not knowing very much about the person is a key attractor:
- Truganini – who was she? Focus on a female Aboriginal figure is different and surprising
- Edith Cowan, OBE – why is she on the $50 note? How did she make a difference?
- For others, being familiar with the person grabs their attention:
- Ned Kelly – ‘I’m immediately interested’
- Cook – what was his legacy?
- Bradman – the man behind the ‘icon’, suggests an interactive experience
- But, still tell me the unknown story
Exhibitions about people: how to make interesting for an audience?
- Interactivity and immersion are key with some of their suggestions:
- Wear Ned Kelly’s armour / helmet
- Bowl to Bradman
- Large displays (e.g. $50 note)
- Holograms – ‘virtually interact’ with the person, mock interviews
- Live performances
- Music / song (Truganini)
- Touch objects
- Seeing things from their perspective:
- Ned Kelly’s final battle from between the eye holes of his helmet
- Cook and life on a ship – rolling movements, cramped spaces, sounds, sea smells, food
So, overall who was the person they most chose to talk about? To my surprise it was Edith Cowan OBE – mostly as she was a figure people ‘kind of knew’ and that she must have been important to be on the $50 note. Overall, participants were surprised that she had achieved so much, especially given the time period she lived through, and being female.
[Thanks to the ANMM for allowing me to share this research]
And, here’s more on exhibition topics generally. I’ll be doing more work in this area over the next month or two, so watch this space!