Exhibitions about people: what appeals to visitors?

cowan_20080209Earlier 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
    • VR
    • 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.

Who knew?

[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!

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