What does a complex museum exhibition look like?

In a keynote address for MuseumNext, Melbourne (2016) – The Importance of And – Elaine Gurian spoke about complexity theory and how museums could use these principles when planning exhibitions. I have quoted from her talk below, highlighting points that stood out to me, and the whole text can be accessed on the MuseumNext website.

… what might a complex museum exhibition look like? The exhibition content, responding to complexity theory, will be multivariate, non-linear, and while there may be a curator-led contingent narrative it will be described as only one way to understand the exhibition.

Like libraries, the system of use will be non-judgmental and filled with material that will seem tangential to some, while not to others. Browsing will be, at baseline, a respected and supported activity. A visitor will be able to wander through a multiplicity of sources that are visual, tactile, verbal, etc. and can personalize interests through surfing, combining and recombining – understanding that [their] idea trail will be unlike others. And there will be ways that the visitor can affect the exhibition and that effect will add to the cumulative ways that the exhibition can be used by others.

Importantly, the creators of the exhibition will have intended it to be that way and their training in exhibition work will, of necessity, be enlarged to include complexity theory and its practical outcomes.

There are obvious problems in this approach. If by multi-varied, we mean keeping unrationalized, and therefore inelegant and conflicting viewpoints simultaneously in mind, we might be creating intellectual overload that leads to stasis rather than action. And however, that frozen phase might come about, it is not the outcome that is useful in a public education space. So, modification for understanding will need to be experimented with.

I hope by example, our visitors will take away not just specific content of interest but will come to appreciate that all systems are complicated, that action steps for amelioration are themselves complex, and multivariate. In summary, museum audiences will become more empathic and patient citizens willing to see incremental activity as useful, and trial and error as essential.

Empathy, wonder and activisim

Gurian notes that one outcome of complexity is that audiences will become more empathetic. I have written about empathy – and wonder – here. As museums are often cited by visitors as places of wonder, it is worth thinking about using this concept as a ‘way into’ complexity within the context of difficult subjects, themes and ideas:

“… [the] connection between wonder and empathy is natural. When you experience a wonder moment and then share it with others (empathy), you are moving up the wonder scale to activation”. (Ausman, et al, 2016, p.106 – references are here).

Visitors and difficult topics

When I was an Osher Fellow at the Exploratorium in 2017 we had many chats about how to talk with visitors about the ‘hard stuff’. In research I have conducted over recent years, not only is it expected that museums will address the ‘hard stuff,’ but visitors also want to be able to have their say in some way. Some examples in this post – Penguins, postcards, pledges: visitors and a “call to action.

As mentioned in my last post about working more productively, we will be looking at some of these issues in a workshop next week and I’ll report how we went.


Productivity and writing – getting started, and sticking to it

As part of a workshop I’m facilitating next week I’m collecting some thoughts around being more productive and tops for starting (and continuing!) writing.

Being more productive

Here’s some guidelines I wrote for myself when I first started my own business:

  • Create lists – and lots of them!
  • Tasks committed to paper (feels good to tick them off too!)
  • Schedule small blocks of time to attend to emails
  • Do big jobs earlier in the day
  • Take short breaks, even if just to the letterbox (or the chickens!)
  • Assess when you’re most productive, work with it
  • Ditch social media and other distractions, or turn off notifications
  • Set regular phone reminders for stretching and change of scenery (20 minutes – see below)
  • Add a fun activity to daily list, as a reward
  • Regular exercise for clarity of mind
  • Playlists queued up for motivation

The Pomodoro Technique

I discovered this thanks to Courtney Johnson and have found it incredibly useful for focussing on tasks to hand (including writing). According to Wikipedia, the Pomodoro Technique:

“is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a kitchen timer to break work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a university student.”

And, all in an easy seven steps:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer (typically for 25 minutes)
  3. Work on the task
  4. End work when the timer rings and take a short break (typically 5–10 minutes)
  5. Do this three times (or three pomodoros)
  6. Then do the fourth pomodoro and take a long break (typically 20 to 30 minutes)
  7. Once the long break is finished, return to step 2.
Real pomodoro!

Writing – some links and tips

How to Begin Writing – a useful article from wikiHow on getting started and keeping going!

The Psychology of Writer’s Block (And How to Overcome It) – a good article from Open Colleges, explaining why we get writer’s block and suggesting nine ways to combat it:

  • Exercise
  • Switch tasks
  • Change your scenery
  • Try free-writing – just write something!
  • Do not disturb – switch off notifications and put a sign on your office/home door/desk
  • Change your (circadian) rhythm – that is, if you’re a morning person try writing in the afternoon/evening and vice versa, because psychologically our circadian rhythms are not set (despite what we think)
  • Don’t binge-write, try chunking
  • Try doing nothing for awhile (i.e., be bored)
  • Look to progress, not perfection

There seems to be some common threads here. We’ll be generating our own tips at the workshop so will share here.


As part of a client briefing I’m revisiting some work around young adults (without children). I realise that they are by no means a homogenous group, so read these case studies with that in mind.

CASE STUDY #1: Jurassic Lounge (JL), Australian Museum

I worked on this program when it was first realised back in 2011, specifically on the evaluations (with my esteemed colleague, Chris Lang). JL is a great case study for how to program for a young audience in ways that meet their interests in socialising, coupled with cool science – fun and learning! We blogged some of our findings:

And what did ChatGPT generate from the above responses?

People attended Jurassic Lounge at the Australian Museum for various reasons, including the opportunity to have a unique and fun experience that combined science and culture with socialising and entertainment. Many enjoyed the idea of exploring the museum after hours in a relaxed and social atmosphere, with the added bonus of having a drink in hand while enjoying live music and performances. Others were attracted by the selection of acts and the opportunity to see local performers in a historic venue. Some appreciated the affordable price point and the chance to have a mid-week activity that was not a typical bar or restaurant outing. Overall, it seems that people attended Jurassic Lounge for the novelty of the event, the combination of different elements, and the chance to spend time with friends in a new and exciting way.

The Museum has continued to offer JL in a variety of forms, including a terrific recent program – the World Pride Edition, so worth keeping an eye on as it changes and evolves.

CASE STUDY #2: Engaging Young Adults in Museums, Masters Study by Emma Shrapnel

This work used JL as a jumping off point for research with young adults about what they wany from museums. Summaries of each area of the study are below:

Overall, it was found that young adults want:

  • night-time events, due to lack of time during daytime visiting hours and perception that daytime is for families and school children (which is probably is!)
  • to see and experience something new, unique and entertaining, interested in ‘underground’, edgy and unique events
  • a low-cost event, as a large portion of this group are still students or just starting their careers
  • museums to be more sociable as they visit with friends

CASE STUDY 3: Engaging Millennials in Heritage Sites

A research paper unpacking why Millennials do not visit historic house museums – Morton, I. (2018). Engaging Millennials in Historic House Museum. MUSE 102, Spring – found:

  • Millennials are smallest proportion of visitors to these museums – many are unaware of house museums in their local area
  • Millennials have an interest in local history, architecture and design but presentation methods do not suit their interests or needs
  • A disconnect “… a failure to adapt to the needs and interests of a younger generation that is a valuable resource when considering legacy and longevity”
  • Millennials’ online activity based around making connections, not seeking information
  • Social media has revolutionised how Millennials define friends, community and relationships, with social media, and friend’s recommendations, a driving factor in making decisions about visiting
  • Historical interpretation often seen as repetitive, boring and questionable
  • Opportunities:
    • Offer carefully planned tours and experiences on themes of interest to Millennials
    • Consider their need to contribute and create content, rather than as a passive bystander
    • Millennials rely on in-person communication and value face-to-face experiences, which are often on offer at historic house museums and sites
    • Settings of historic house museums (and sites) have unique settings and architecture that lend themselves to events, festivals and other activities such as farmers and arts/craft markets
  • Overall, take advantage of the unique assets that house museums (and historic sites) already possess, especially first-person interpretation, unique architecture and potential for outdoor events

CASE STUDY #4: My recent research

Young adults are interested in visiting museums and galleries with the following opportunities identified by them

  • Attending after work activities, for example curator talk/tour, exhibition openings, partnering with local restaurants and bars
  • Exhibitions and programs that focus on edgy topics and contemporary culture (including fashion, design, pop culture, music, TV and movies), as well as issues-based topics such as climate change, environmental and sustainability issues, social justice
  • Digital, immersive experiences, multimedia
  • Seamless online bookings critical
  • Image-rich experiences – Facebook and Instagram-able moments, selfies
  • Activities with opportunity to discuss and express opinions
  • Value face-to-face experiences
  • Social media is a critical tool for finding out and sharing experiences



Exhibition text and labels revisited

About to embark on some exciting work with a new client where we will be looking at best practice interpretation for exhibition labels. In advance of this thought I’d put some resources together – some readings may be seen as old; however, I believe the exhibition model has not radically changed, apart from maybe more digital labels and interactivity, along with (some organisations) embracing difficult content and diverse views, as well as uncertainty.

Overall, the one thing I keep coming back to is The Big Idea – coined by Beverly Serrell and unpacked in her excellent book, Exhibit labels: An Interpretive Approach. You can also purchase the dedicated workbook, The Big Idea: Getting to an exhibition’s big idea, on her website. As she states: A powerful exhibition idea will clarify, limit, and focus the nature and scope of an exhibition and provide a well-defined goal against which to rate its success.

There’s more info on this blog post, What’s the big idea: Tweetable moments (you’ll get the tweetable moments bit when you read the post…).

Now for some resources – I’ll keep adding to these as we embark on our quest for the perfect approach to writing exhibition text, if there is such a thing!

Visitor needs and behaviours:

Digital labels and interactives:

Other interesting reads:

Climate change and museum exhibitions, ChatGPT and #AMAGA2023

Following from my previous post, Should GLAM Be Addressing Big Issues?, one of the key issues audiences talked about was climate change and how GLAM could address this in their programs as well as in their organisation’s processes (that is beyond just some exhibitions and programs – how are they being more climate-aware in their work practices for example?).

For students and young people in particular, the whole area of natural disasters (bushfires, floods), sustainability, war and global conflicts, fast fashion, and consumerism all contribute to their concerns around climate change:

The state of our planet, most prominently climate change and the lack of action that is continuing the destroy our planet. The way we have seen such limited action by current leader despite the science being so evidently clear. The destruction, war, violence, and displacement of so many people which continues to occur, why can we not live in peace and allow all people to have access to food, water, healthcare and a safe and stable community? Also, the mental health of our country and continuing increase in anxiety, depression and suicide amount young Australia’s and those across the globe. (Year 11 student)

When analysing data for this presentation I asked ChatGPT the following: Give me an image of a museum addressing climate change. Here’s what it had to say:

I’m sure I’ve been to that exhibition!

Anyways, on this note, the AMaGA 2023 conference will be hosting a workshop, Together for action: Museums & Galleries advancing Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), to empower climate action, discussing the role museums and galleries play in helping communities understand and engage with climate change. If you have registered you would have received an email about this with details about pre-workshops and registration. You can email Jenny Newell, jenny.newell@australian.museum, with any queries.

And, still time to register for the conference – go here for registration details.


Museums are important as I think they are pretty good for educating the younger generations … they have a great impact on kids. Exhibits, stories and details from past events, etc. make the kids very aware about what is right and what is not.

The Visitor Research Forum was held a few weeks ago. Here’s a Wakelet story of all the tweets which is pretty much a summary of the day (better late than never I guess!).

I gave a presentation called Visitors. Big Issues. GLAM, that presented research gathered over the past four years about audiences’ views around big issues, hot topics and how GLAM institutions could best portray these within their programs in ways that visitors want to engage, across a wide range of audiences. My summary notes are below.


  • I think that cultural institutions are the perfect way to address issues in society – For example, there was a display at the Brisbane Museum a while ago that addressed the problem of single-use plastics by creating sculptures out of the plastics collected from the beach. And MONA provokes you with the topic of normality of the female body through its proactive display of the female vulva.
  • Art galleries and museums can be places of searing, insightful commentary/


Supporting artists who are addressing these issues

  • Artists are often in the forefront of expressing provocative view points and expressing controversial opinions forcing us to confront issues. so institutions need to be brave in showcasing artists of all kinds so that these views can be seen and heard … showcasing minority artists, divisive topics.

Providing a space and a platform for minority voices, supporting communities

  • I think cultural institutions could highlight or utilise spaces for vulnerable minorities to be able to showcase their work – a lot of people experiencing mental health issues challenges financial barriers have so much to gift society   or at least show a lived experience to help the wider community understand what is happening or what is their story not the twisted media version.
  • Provide opportunities to highlight minority voices e.g. videos / case study etc. that showcase their perspective and how that fits with the current viewpoints. Emotive stories tend to work well to change opinions / leave a lasting impact.

Supporting education programs about these issues – onsite and online

  • Education events and activities for children, teaching them about past issues and how to make better choices for the future.
  • I think exhibitions could/institutions could continue to help break down the barriers we have in our society, plus present information in different ways to account for different learning styles.
  • Thinking about the big issues I believe that museums have an important role to play, mostly because history repeats itself and continuous learning is important.

And, in ways that are interesting and will encourage them to visit

  • Definitely. Cultural institutions should be addressing the big issues. Their job is to do it in an accessible and digestible manner.
  • [Cultural institutions] Definitely need to keep diversifying the way info is presented. Cater for audio, visual, tactile learning styles.
  • What would get my attention is for museums to offer diversity in experience and experiences, a range of technology and information presentations as well as interactive and informative exhibits. Overall, new exciting experiences.

With a space for conversation

  • Encouraging understanding and connections between cultures is important. Forums, conferences, festivals are good.
  • Exhibitions and display can start conversations, by being featured in media when they are opening, and when visited.

As well as highlighting their own research, collections and staff expertise

  • They should play a pivotal role considering they would have ‘first hand’ knowledge and the people to contribute to the exhibitions. E.g. Sensitive cultural information from Indig. communities.
  • Allow their staff to have a voice on issues that matter and that they have expertise on to share. I know cultural institutions need to be careful when it comes to financial support however, I think that in order to display the expertise in the building more freedom of expression ought to be supported.


After I analysed my research I turned again to ChatGPT to see what it thought. As with my previous experiences with AI and data analysis, I think it did OK!

Thanks to all the organisers, Geoscience Australia and everyone who presented and attended in what was a terrific day full of research and ideas!

Keep an eyer out for #VRF24.


Logos for University of Canberra, University of Queensland and Geoscience Australia

We now have a final program for the 2023 VRF and it’s a cracker! The VRF is free to attend, both in-person and online.

BOOK HERE for the 2023 VRF.

The VRF will start with a Welcome to Country from Tyrone Bell, Thunderstone Aboriginal Cultural Services, and a tour of Geoscience Australia or you can take a walk through Earth’s history on GA’s TimeWalk, in the grounds of the building.

Then, we get into sessions, summarised below.

We think Earth science rocks … but does the public agree? Alice Ryder and Louise Soroka, Geoscience Australia

GA is developing a comprehensive plan to make public spaces and programs more inclusive for visitors and staff, informed by a series of audience research studies which will be presented in an interactive session with an honest account of the sometimes-rocky journey of behaviour change and education for science-based staff about the value of sharing their work meaningfully with the community

You need to do a survey, now what? Megan Baehnisch, Australian National Maritime Museum @MeganBaehnisch

This case study dives into teacher surveys at the ANMM to help other organisations and departments make better surveys using our real-world example that has evolved and improved over the past three years.

Encouraging informal conversations for formative evaluation outcomes. Bliss Jensen, Australian War Memorial

To deliver the AWM’s ambitious development program, the gallery development team has devised a unique and flexible approach to traditional formative evaluation methodologies. This case study will provide valuable insights into how an informal and conversational approach can provide meaningful qualitative feedback during the exhibition design and content development process.

Working with AIM: how Te Papa integrates audience research and evaluation into its programming process. Samuele De Stefani and Adrian Kingston, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa @adriankingston

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa developed the Audience Impact Model (AIM) as a tool to create experiences with people in mind, with audience research playing a central role. Our presentation discusses how internal and external research focused on understanding priority audiences’ needs, expectations, and experiences helped us develop an ambitious performance framework.

From Centre to Museum. Dr Indigo Holcombe-James and Tim Woodward, ACMI @Indigo_H_J

In 2021, and as part of the broader museum renewal, ACMI underwent an identity shift: from Australia’s centre for the moving image to Australia’s museum for screen culture. Drawing on our learnings to date, this presentation offers an overview of our current practice of visitor research, sets out our thinking about what it means to conduct visitor research on and within a multiplatform museum, and our future plans for doing so.

The impact of the BCE system as a latent marketing tool. José Robertson, Book Canberra Excursions and Garry Watson, NCETP

The Book Canberra Excursions (BCE) system enables tour operators, schools and social groups to easily book into National Attractions prior to visiting Canberra and the surrounding region. This presentation will outline the BCE system’s uses and capabilities.

Visitors, Big Issues. Where does GLAM fit? Dr Lynda Kelly, LyndaKellyNetworks / Chair, EVRNN @lyndakelly61

As GLAM institutions continue dialogues around big, complex and challenging issues impacting our sector and our world, what do visitors think the role GLAM should play in these conversations? How are we acknowledging and including visitors’ voices within our institutional practices? This paper will present research gathered over the past four years across a wide range of audiences that unpacked these questions and big issues.

Lessons learned from pilot testing a Revised DoVE (Dimensions of Visitor Experience) checklist. Dr Jan Packer, University of Queensland

Between 2020 and 2022, we revised the DoVE checklist based on user feedback and rigorous pilot testing at six institutions in USA and Australia. This presentation will discuss the instrument’s reliability, validity and susceptibility to response bias and outline DoVE version 2.

Download the full program below:

The 2023 VRF is supported by the University of Canberra, and University of Queensland, as well as the Evaluation and Visitor Research National Network of AMaGA. The venue and tours have been generously provided Geoscience Australia and catering by Canberra Business School.

Hope to see you there! You can also follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #VRF23.

Future of Arts, Culture & Technology Symposium, DAY TWO

Attending day two of this symposium, so more quick notes from a session that got me thinking: A Changing World: computational creativity featuring:

The metaverse was mentioned a lot. As I don’t understand that term, I got ChatGPT to explain:

What is the metaverse?

[I’m still not sure I get it but this session helped!]

Keri Elmsly, ACMI (session facilitator):

  • Artists’shape and challenge what we perceive as creativity
  • The contexts we create for this work need to be inviting and open
  • Challenge = Pace. Consider what needs deep thought and what needs quick response

A great set of how to’s:

Tips on working with digital artists

Day one notes here and Twitter convo #acmisymposium. Have to skive off early to get my flight, so hope the rest of the symposium goes well. Thanks to all the organisers and presenters for a wonderful and thought-provoking two days.

Future of Arts, Culture & Technology Symposium, ACMI, 14-15 February 2023

Attending this symposium this week with my #DSIR2023 hat on, plus my own keen interest and long-experience in digital, particularly in #GLAM.

Here’s my quick notes from this morning’s session.

Current technological capabilities in arts & culture: the Australian state of play @Indigo_H_J

  • What mindsets, capabilities and skills are needed to go forward?
  • Technology capabilities are unevenly distributed, especially in the regions
  • Futures are unevenly distributed, so limit diversity of expression and sustainability of arts and culture
  • Urgent to support, to critically adopt, adapt and mitigate risks and opportunities that technologies present

What is the present?

  • Digital inclusion is capacity to access, afford and have digital ability to use online tech effectively (Thomas, et al 2020 – Australian Digital Inclusion Index)
  • Need to consider skills and literacies
  • Digital inclusion is more than providing technology platforms and tools
  • 28% of Australian adult population is digitally excluded (same ref), 11% very excluded
  • Digital inequality = social inequality
  • 14% need to pay >10% of income to purchase quality and reliable connectivity
  • Tech capability is unevenly distributed across audiences
  • Tech capability is unevenly distributed across organisations
  • Uneven access to devices
  • Costs of staff, capacity and resourcing
  • Do funding bodies expect continuation of digital delivery??
  • Tech capabilities and skills are unevenly distributed across the sector and within organisations (digital skills are often siloed)
  • What is role for organisational leaders?? If they don’t recognise importance of these skills then how can they ensure digital happens?

CEO Mentoring program findings @sebchan

  • We have a moment now to make a step change with the National Cultural Policy and new tech developments, including chat AI (which costs more to the tech companies however)
  • Digital is more than being online – it is a mindset, digitally informed practices, help make more informed long-term technology changes, need to work with tech providers and collaborate with and develop artists and creative practitioners (ACMI, 2022)
  • Networking was an important outcome for the program
  • Need for digital capability development at the leadership level (many say they are behind even tho they have digitally-equipped staff)
  • Many of the organisations didn’t have a digital strategy, and with that a budget line or incorporation into broader organisational strategy
  • Built greater confidence
  • Recognised the need to build coalitions and share tech infrastructure

@JaneFinnis, Culture 24

Communities of practice + Agents of change + digital literacy

What do we mean by digital? It is ‘kit’ (technologies, platforms, tools) + digital behaviours, motivations and culture

One by One Project UK

Digitally literate leadership – why now?

  • Audiences expect it all to work
  • Changing political landscapes are played out online
  • Embedded in other drivers – environmental, accessibility, financial
  • Creative practice is changing
  • Tech changes the mission
  • Think beyond limitations of last century
  • Digital transformation helps organisations to thrive

Guide to Digital Transformation, Europeana

Three priorities to support digital transformation

  1. Share a common language and approach to all aspects of digital transformation
  2. Adopt a mindset and culture that is open to learning and collaboration, value people-centred practices
  3. Ensure that digital is purposeful and values-driven – why are we doing this?? Needs to be driven by your organisational mission


  • Embrace experimental working – iteration, experiments don’t end, a continuous process with constant revision
  • Evolution, not revolution – work intelligently with what you already have

And, we now have a Twitter hashtag! Follow #acmisymposium for updates (how I have missed conference Twitter…)

More adventures with AI – some further readings

Attended an Australia Council webinar today, Artificial Intelligence in Creative Industries and Practice, where we heard from a range of practitioners who shared “… insights on the legal implications of AI-generated art, machine and human relationships and how AI is transforming artistic expressions in new and unexpected ways”. This inspired me to share readings I’ve been collecting on this topic since writing about it earlier this year.

How ChatGPT and other new AI tools are being used by lawyers, architects and coders: an article by ABC science journalist (and host of today’s panel) James Purtill, with some amazing examples of the use of AI across a range of industries and programs.

Two articles from the American Evaluation Association, AEA 365 tip-of-the-day, which takes a different tack about how ChatGPT relates to evaluation and measurement, particularly within humanitarian projects:

And, in the education space the ever-reliable McCrindle have written an article, How ChatGPT will impact the future of education, considering three questions raised by :

  1. What is the role of the teacher?
  2. What is the role of technology?
  3. What is the role of assessment?

The author, Mike Abecina, observed that:

ChatGPT is on the brink of shaking up almost every aspect of the teaching and learning lifecycle and will be on the lips of the majority of educators and principals from day one.

There is quite a lot of discussion about AI/ChatGPT use in education with some institutions already banning its use in the classroom. There are some good Twitter conversations around this topic, and I suggest following Jamie Barton and downloading his PowerPoint notes.

Upshot of the seminar? I liked artist Xanthe Dobbie’s final observations:

Think of AI as just another tool in your toolkit. Approach it as something exciting and a different way to view or enhance your projects.


It’s not a big deal, chill out guys…

A sentiment I can totally relate to! For those that missed it or want a second look, the recording will be uploaded to Australia Councils’ website sometime next week.