Here’s an instructive tale for all you aspiring public historians out there who are thinking about a career in the museum biz.
This past weekend I went to a very prominent museum in a large U.S. city to see a “headliner” temporary exhibition. The museum in question boasts a huge facility, a stratospheric budget, and a staff the size of a small army. For the purposes of this little screed it shall remain nameless.
The museum entrance area—absolutely cavernous in size—lacked any directional signage, map handouts, or a docent to point visitors to their destinations. There were plenty of signs advertising the special exhibit, but none telling you how to get to it. We finally spotted a janitor, who directed us downstairs. Judging by the number of bewildered-looking tourists in the lobby, I don’t think we were the only ones who were confused.
Once we got to the line for entry into the exhibit, we noticed a few people clutching small audio devices with headsets. When an attendant walked past the line, somebody ahead of us asked him about the headsets, and he said, “Oh, those are the audio tours. Did you want one?” After shouting out something to the effect that audio tours were available, he disappeared and then came back with an armful of the devices, collecting the rental fees and making change out of his pocket while yelling directions to the crowd about how to use them. As we headed inside, there were still people in the crowd who were asking around about whether there was some kind of audio tour, whether it was free, whether you could see the exhibit without it, etc.
When we finally entered the exhibition, we found that the whole thing was arranged in a linear fashion. You had a wall of objects and text assembled in a straight line, sort of like a police line-up. (“Do you recognize the artifact who stole your purse, ma’am?”) This linear arrangement forced everybody in the gallery to queue up in order to see the material and then when you got to the end of that line of artifacts, you turned the corner to find…yet another wall of artifacts arranged in a straight line, and so on.
It was impossible to explore the exhibit at your own pace, focus on areas that you found particularly interesting, or step across the gallery to another display while the crowd died down elsewhere. There was no choice but to stand in line and shuffle along with the crowd, waiting for the person ahead of you to move on before you could proceed. One of the tricks of exhibit design is to arrange the material so that you minimize bottlenecks, but here the entire exhibit consisted of nothing but bottlenecks, laid out in a way that forced you to queue up single-file and wait for the person ahead of you to finish reading the text in their spot before you could move on.
The only exception to the police line-up approach was a huge, circular exhibit case in the last gallery, sort of like a gigantic coffee table with artifacts and text arranged around the perimeter. That turned out to be even worse, because here the line of visitors had no beginning and no end—just a continuous circle of people in single file, moving from one object to the next. In order to see any of the material in that case you had to hover on the outskirts of this ring of visitors and wait for an opening in the line to develop, cut in, and then join the agonizingly slow shuffle around the perimeter of the exhibit case in a great Circle of Life.
It was a real shame, because in terms of the quality of the material on exhibit, it was one of the best assemblages of artifacts I’ve ever seen in one place. They had great stuff, but no idea how to arrange it in an exhibition; a wonderful facility, but no thought as to what visitors needed in order to orient themselves when they arrived.