The concept of an exhibition
Platform Exhibitions provides a method for organising exhibitions. In order to create a substantial framework for this purpose, it is first worth considering the concept of an exhibition. This section discusses the phenomenon itself. What is meant by the term “exhibition”? Various definitions have been collected to this end. In his thesis Exhibitions!1. Hjorth gives an overview. Looking over these definitions, it is noticeable that, in addition to reference to ‘objects’, two other components frequently occur in descriptions; the design/spatial and communicative components. In Lorenc, these two components come together explicitly. In Exhibition design he describes exhibitions as the discipline that is located in the area where the “built environment“2, (space) and communication meet.3
Often, especially in the world of trade-show stands and retail, exhibitions are described as 3D Communication4. Lord also describes exhibitions in the Manual of Museum Exhibitions as essentially a communicative medium5.
The communication component is often interpreted as narrative. In line with the expanded definition of exhibition design drawn up in the late 1980’s within the framework of the Frans Hals Prize6, Rietbroek describes exhibition design in the publication Exhibition Design as “the shaping of an idea, a concept of an exhibition: a story related to (art) objects in space”7.
Kossmann en de Jong also emphasise the narr[ative character of exhibitions. In their publication Engaging Spaces, they summarise the concept powerfully by speaking of narrative environments8. Implicitly, this refers to a direct relationship between form and content, such as that expressed by the curators of the Frans Hals Prize: “Not just chapter and verse, but particularly the ‘language’ of things must come together to express the concept of the exhibition. The relationship between form and content is central to this“9
Also notable is the interdisciplinary nature of the field that many authors emphasise. Lorenc sees the construction of exhibitions as;
“An integrative process, bringing together in varying degrees: architecture, interior design, environmental graphic design, print graphics, electronics and digital media, lighting, audio, mechanical interactives, other design disciplines“10.
In several of the definitions referred to by Hjorth in Exhibitions! references are made back to these disciplines. The curators of the Frans Hals Prize state:
“Exhibition design allows for all aspects of the designing discipline, interior design/architecture, and also the corresponding graphic design to convey a single concept, and represent the same vision, similar to the direction of a film or a play.“11
In line with the above definitions, the term “exhibition” is interpreted here as follows:
“An exhibition is a means of three-dimensional communication in which the relationship between form and content is central, which aims at large groups of the public and, using its own interdisciplinary, mainly visual and spatial language – exhibition language — has the purpose of transferring or conveying information, ideas and feelings relating to the evidence of man and his environment, with the conscious intention of bringing about changes in the knowledge, opinions, attitudes and/or behaviour of the visitor.”
The term exhibition is understood here to mean all forms of spatial presentation, both inside and outside12., where communication takes place. This includes presentations that are not directly experienced as an exhibition such as flag-ship stores, window displays and trade-show stands. In addition, it also includes the permanent arrangements which are often referred to in the daily practice of museum work as the fixed or permanent presentation.
It is interesting to find that in the world of commercial stand construction, an individual trade-show stand is not felt to be an exhibition, but the sum of all stands are. In this perception, therefore, an exhibition consists of a set of stands on a particular topic, for example, cars (RAI, Amsterdam), ships (the boat show HISWA in Amsterdam). Technically speaking, a trade-show stand is an exhibition (albeit very small).
With regard to the concept of ‘communication’, this is closely connected with Ferree’s definition. In his book Groot praktijkboek voor effectieve communicatie (Large Practical Guide to Effective Communication), he describes communication as; “The transfer of information and ideas with the conscious intention by the sender of achieving desired changes in the knowledge, opinions, attitudes and/or behaviour of the receiver“13.
This means the use of technical methods used in the exhibition to communicate with the exhibition’s chosen target group. In line with the interdisciplinary nature of exhibitions mentioned by many authors this language consists of a combination of various techniques borrowed from other disciplines. Exhibition language will be discussed further in[(Chapter 3.B.1)] .
Evidence of man and his environment is understood here to encompass everything that is a product of man (culture) and environment (nature) regardless of the form in which it manifests itself. In heritage theory ‘objects’ or ‘data carriers’ are spoken of in this context.
In line with this informative, testifying nature, a very broad concept of evidence of man and his environment is adopted here to include all expressions that transmit substantive information. Intangible expressions such as dance, rituals, music, photos, movies and sounds are included here. This broad definition also includes objects that do not fall directly within the context of formal exhibitions. Monuments are by the same token interpreted here as testimony of the man and his environment.
An exhibition is a means of communication with distinct characteristics and is therefore not suitable for every situation. In order to assess whether an exhibition is the correct form for a certain purpose, a number of strengths and weaknesses are put forward here.
The exhibition as a medium stands out in particular from other communication media because it is the only means of communication capable of showing original or authentic objects without involving an intermediary, such as printing techniques in the case of a book or using digital techniques in photos, movies or Internet applications.[14 From this vision comes digital or virtual exhibitions which, in the last decade with the emergence of e-culture, can be found increasingly on the websites of heritage institutions, although are not perceived as real exhibitions. They resemble a modern version of the catalogue, where the virtual visitor can visit what is, to a greater or lesser extent, a digitally reconstructed exhibition space. He/she can learn more about an object by clicking on it. For that matter, digital or virtual exhibitions thus form an interesting addition to the ways in which institutions can inform their visitors and in that sense are an important addition to exhibition programmes.]
Objects can be seen — in analogy to a movie or play — as the actors of the exhibition, the parts that really matter, those who make the show. By exhibiting authentic objects the visitor comes into contact with the original and is confronted with a piece of reality. Indeed, he or she comes into contact with the direct source, such as the real Night Watch or Mona Lisa or Churchill’s genuine cigar butt or the real skull of the first human or that of a dinosaur.14 This authenticity-aspect also applies to commercial exhibitions. Visitors can become acquainted with the genuine articles by touching, seeing things up close and if desirable, by tasting or sniffing.
The importance of authenticity is illustrated when the curator of the exhibition uses replicas without mentioning it. This often leads to visitor disappointment when they notice that the original is not shown. Obviously the visitors were expecting to see an authentic or original object. However, the question here is whether we really should consider objects shown in exhibitions as authentic or not. The objects are in fact musealised by heritage institutions, i.e. selected and removed from their original or intended context (primary context). The same is true for products on trade fair stands, although this is not called musealisation. Also, objects are often so frequently or intensively restored that little remains of the original. This has led people within the heritage world to opt for conservation rather than restoration. This means retaining the object in the state in which evidence of all use is still visible, instead of restoring it back to its original state. The tricky question arising from this is ‘what is the original state?’ Which of the various stages that an object goes through in its life is the original one? Several authors (Lowenthal, van Mensch, Pine and Gilmore) indicate that perception of authenticity is based on an aura that is created around the object by authorities such as a museum or a company. In the commercial world a strong brand or mark are spoken of instead. Authenticity is therefore a relative concept.
The museologist van Mensch in his article De gave en de vloek van het authentieke (The Gift and the Curse of the Authentic) placed authenticity in a threefold polarity, namely:
- the genesis, and correspondingly, the intention with which the object was created;
- the scientific and legal status, including the authorship;
- the material preservation and, connected to this, the aforementioned history of the object and the traces or marks it has left behind15.
Besides, perception of authenticity is culture-bound. For example, in Asian cultures people attach much less importance to the difference between an authentic object and a replica. In these cultures, the intrinsic value and originality transfers automatically to the replica if it is accurately reproduced.
In summary it can be stated, that given the ambiguous meaning of authenticity in relation to the visitors perception that they are seeing the real or authentic object at an exhibition, the exhibition maker has the important responsibility of indicating which interpretation has been given to the object in the context of that exhibition.
A second and often underestimated aspect distinguishing the medium of exhibition from other communication media is its three-dimensional character. This spatial aspect gives the exhibition maker several unique communication possibilities, in particular:
- the possibility of physically immersing the visitor in a personal world; a world where the fundamental message is communicated in a perceptive and meaningful way; and one where the visitor experiences this with heightened intensity through multiple senses. Van Mensch defines this in the context of exhibitions as: the compressed reality of space and time;
- the easy establishment of three-dimensional relationships between themes. The two-dimensional nature of most other media often makes the establishment of more than two relationships very difficult16;
- applying several information layers, for example, a children’s narrative thread.
Autonomy in sequence and tempo
Many forms of communication have a sequential character. That is, the thematic whole can only be followed according to the order laid down by the author/maker. In books, films, theatre etc., time, space and place are chosen for the audience and deliberately placed in a certain order. The public needs to follow this order to understand. There are also forms of communication such as websites, newspapers, games and exhibitions, which have a more erratic nature. Within the spatial structure given by exhibition makers, the visitor can decide which parts he wants to visit and in what order. This has the advantage of giving the visitor a great freedom of choice, but makes organising content in a cohesive way much more complex, especially if consistent coherent information needs to be conveyed.
In sequential media, the sequence of different units of time and time lapse play a role. The tempo at which the various components are offered is determined by the author/maker. Basically, if the visitor or viewer briefly withdraws from the performance, they miss part of the story and run the risk of not being able make connections henceforth. At exhibitions, visitors can not only choose to visit the exhibition in a self-determined order, but they can also choose to do it at their own pace. In fact, the visitor constructs their own coherence of the content offered in the exhibition.
A characteristic of exhibitions is the mix of different media carrying the cohesive message. While this is true to a lesser extent for theatre, there are no other mediums with such a flexible multimedia character. Combined with the spatiality of an exhibition mentioned above, endless form combinations can be made. This could include combinations of images, texts, audio-visual programmes, smells, sounds, lights, and simple to highly advanced hands-, body-and mind-on interactive displays. Theatre performances, oral history actors and other theatrical forms can also be part of an exhibition.
An exhibition rarely stands alone and is often part of a range of communication tools to get in touch with different audience segments. Thus a number of additional activities or products aimed at specific target groups are often developed in connection to the exhibition. Examples include educational programmes, catalogues, lectures, tours, and Internet applications with audio– and smartphone-generated information.
The medium of exhibitions lends itself less well to the transmission of direct thematic information. In practice, it appears that out of everything that there is to convey about a subject, in general only a relatively limited amount will actually be addressed in an exhibition. Of course, this should be the essence of the subject. In this thematic sense the medium has therefore a more journalistic nature. More profound information can often be easier addressed in, for example, a book or a documentary. In many exhibitions this information is offered through exhibition linked media such as a catalogue, a brochure or a documentary available on DVD. Also media like a guided tour, website or lecture can deepen the information provided in the exhibition. The diagram below shows the relationship between available information and transfer of knowledge through the medium of exhibitions.
This does not mean that an exhibition is superficial. The above refers rather to the fact that not all information available through (scientific) research can be fully included in the exhibition. In this sense, the medium of exhibition lends itself less well to cognitive goals, wherein communication is mainly focused on the transfer of thematic data and aspects of a subject. On the whole, the medium of exhibition lends itself better towards affective goals. By immersing the visitor in a pervasive three-dimensional world and letting them experience information almost physically through interactive media, where the route and tempo are self-determined by the visitor, exhibitions are the perfect medium to make people curious, raise awareness, to amaze, inspire or otherwise address the visitor emotionally.
When using a mix of media, exhibitions lend themselves well as an introduction to a subject. The exhibition provides emotional involvement in the topic, whilst thematic information is conveyed only on a broad level. Publications and websites can be offered afterwards thereby making more in-depth information available that can be processed privately and in peace and quiet. Barry Lord also points out that exhibitions are more affective than cognitive in nature and that it is precisely by this affective character that they encourage further understanding of a topic through other media. In his opinion, exhibitions also aim:
“… to transform some aspect of the visitors interest, attitudes or values affectively, due to the visitor’s discovery of some level of meaning in the objects on display — a discovery that is stimulated and sustained by the visitor’s confidence in the perceived authenticity or those objects.“17
Exhibitions are set up to show objects. Such an arrangement presupposes a static character and many exhibitions, particularly traditional exhibitions, are organised in this way. The visitor passes through a space in which objects hang on the wall and/or are placed in display cases, either according to a certain structure or not. A short text explains the object. Commercial environments such as exhibition stands and shop windows also often have a static character such as this. Museums have acquired a ‘boring’ image because of these static exhibits. Incidentally, this configuration can be ideal if the only goal of the exhibition is the display of objects. Often this involves emphasising the aesthetic quality of the objects in these cases.
Displaying objects in this classical way has limitations in terms of content and the technical side of exhibitions. For example in an exhibition on clogs it is much easier to show what types of clogs there are and what tools exist to make them, rather than showing how clogs are actually made with the tools displayed. Generally speaking, the medium of exhibition tends towards a static whole through the objects. Dynamism must be added, in the case of the example through adding the making process from the clogs; in other words by adding the context of the objects. In comparison, films have the reverse problem. They can show movement and processes better than static items like paintings. Historical documentaries show this problem when using paintings. In order to create a cinematic effect they have to zoom in and out of the paintings, often accompanied by appropriate sounds. In this sense exhibitions and films can be seen as being complementary to one another. With the arrival of affordable film image carriers — particularly with the arrival of video recorders in the 1980s — the dynamic nature of exhibitions has increased. Due to the relatively recent projection possibilities afforded by high quality projectors, exhibitions today have sometimes become complete shows with floor-to-ceiling projections of moving images and light.
In some cases, exhibitions can quite literally be dynamic. An example of this is the Bokken rijders (Goat Riders) attraction in Efteling Amusement Park (Villa Volta) where a room moves with the visitors inside it. Another example is World 3 at the Railway Museum in Utrecht where the visitors van take a seat in carts and are led along, under and around two immured locomotives. However, these types of high-tech exhibitions are still exceptions and occur mainly in environments like science centres and theme parks. Partly due to the high costs and the relatively short shelf life of such attractions, these techniques are not as commonly used in heritage– and commercial environments as stands. From the point of view of thematic and/or technical considerations, it is questionable whether it is useful applying such techniques. Also sometimes it can be asked whether they are primarily used to show what is technically possible or out of the desire to innovate for innovation, without further thought.
Depending on the objectives one has in mind, it makes sense to make judicious use of old and new media side-by-side. There are no taboos about the use of any technique and, therefore, every new technique is welcomed as potentially useful. If a technique which was developed for use in amusement parks is also effective within a heritage context, it makes sense to use it. If a technique serves the target audience and objectives the best, then that is seen as the most optimal approach. To conclude, every technique of exhibition is possible as long as the target group and targets are the main drivers in the choice and not the technique itself.
In Autonomy in sequence and tempo[(paragraph: Autonomie in sequence and tempo)] it was indicated that exhibitions have the advantage that the visitor himself can determine which parts he will take on and in what order within the physical structure defined by the exhibition makers. Depending on the purpose of the exhibition and the chosen structure, it can sometimes be useful to apply a particular route in an exhibition. In particular, if a consistent and cohesive story is to be conveyed, problems will be caused if visitors are allowed too much freedom of movement.
Often exhibition makers try to enforce adherence to a certain order through spatial means. As simple and obvious as this is in media, like in a book or a film, it is more complicated in an exhibition. A route is generally enforced by spatial means. This can be done with the help of panels which are placed in a certain direction or with arrows, wide entrances versus narrow exits, the hanging or placing of objects in a certain order, corridor-like layouts, and so on. Often these measures prove to have limited effectiveness. In general it can be stated that it is not impossible to impose a compulsory route in an exhibition, but that it is often only partially achievable due to the visitor’s natural desire to find their own path.
Based on these experiences it is advisable not to route an exhibition. It is more important to give the exhibition a clear structure; for example, by dividing it into clearly identifiable areas which also form a thematic unit; e.g. a main theme. Within this space visitors can then wander between recognisable technical exhibition units (presentations), each of which again forms a thematic unit and shows /tells a part of the story that is discussed within the space as a whole. Applying a compulsory route based on the spatial structure is relatively easy and has the advantage that the visitor can set the route for himself/herself. In Spotting Plans[In Chapter 3 B 3] we shall return to the content and spatial structures of exhibitions as well as to the making of an exhibition routing in more detail.
Range and accessibility
Compared with media such as books and films that you can also use at home, exhibitions are less accessible. Not only are there location ties but also ties to opening hours and to sometimes substantial admission prices. Also, many exhibits are only open for a limited period of time, usually no longer than a few months.
For the disabled, visiting exhibitions often causes additional problems. Not all institutions or exhibition rooms are accessible for the disabled due to the fact that many cultural institutions are housed in historic buildings, often with narrow staircases. There are also ergonomic problems with, in particular, giving wheelchair users good visibility at the exhibition. This will be discussed in more detail in Ergonomics[(5 B 4)] .
The Correct Medium
Based on this analysis of strengths and weaknesses, it is apparent that the exhibition medium is not suitable for all communication purposes. It is important to consider whether the communication objectives and/or the subject are suitable enough when deciding whether to set-up an exhibition. As shown in this chapter, exhibitions lend themselves particularly well to the achievement of affective goals and to displaying authentic objects. They also lend themselves to subjects where use can be made of the spatial power of the medium by physically engaging visitors in an intentionally created world. An abstract subject, such as the ideas of the philosopher Spinoza, is less suitable and would be better conveyed by means of a book. However, his life as a lens-grinder in the Netherlands is easier to manipulate into an exhibition due to the heritage that remains there. The display of activities also lends itself more to a cinematic approach. This does not mean that abstract or activity-oriented subjects could not be transferred to an exhibition, just that the exhibition medium is less suitable.
Regarding commercial exhibitions, it should be noted in this context, that public relations departments often almost automatically opt for participation without considering whether a trade show stand is the right medium with respect to the marketing objectives of the institution. There is a broad range of media available to the business community for reaching their target groups. Every communication plan should consider which media are the most suitable for achieving the marketing objectives of that specific plan. Here, too, use is often made of a media mix — a selection of complementary media; for example, a radio and/or television spot in conjunction with a billboard campaign and/or direct marketing.
Types of Exhibitions
Exhibitions can be found in several formats. As indicated above, the term exhibition is interpreted here broadly to mean all forms of spatial presentation where communication takes place. This interpretation includes presentations that are not immediately perceived as an exhibition, such as flag-ship stores, window displays and trade-show stands. Included here is an overview of the breadth of the field.
This overview defines the breadth of the field ranging from the marketplaces in ancient Rome to todays flag-ship stores such as those from Apple and T-mobile. From this perspective, exhibitions also include trade fair stands such as ones from the car brand Jaguar, theme parks such as Disneyland, world exhibitions like in Hannover in 2000 (Dutch Pavilion), science centres such as La Villette in Paris, visitor centres, such as the environmental education centre De Hoep in Castricum, historical visitor centres as at the National Monument on the Grebbeberg and finally museums, such as the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen. Incidentally, this overview is not complete – decorated shop windows, zoos and galleries could also be added to the field.
Commercial and Cultural Exhibitions
In exhibitions, a common distinction is made between commercial and cultural exhibitions. Commercial exhibitions are all exhibitions that are connected to the business community and/or have commercial objectives. This is mainly flag-ship stores and trade-show stands18, amusement parks etc; the type of exhibitions that appear in the figure on the left. Cultural exhibitions are focused on idealistic objectives, in particular on education and the preservation of culture and are shown on the right in this diagram.19
Incidentally, there are also types in between the two, such as corporate museums. These are indeed associated with a company, but have no direct commercial objectives, and focus instead on more idealistic goals, often aiming to create and maintain a corporate culture and company pride. This kind of museums are regularly used for the marketing of the company.
Although technically-speaking these are all exhibitions, there is a large difference between the world of commercial and cultural exhibitions and they even have a tendency to mutually exclusive. Designers and exhibition construction companies do carry out assignment for both types, however, even here there is specialisation, with design agencies that specialise in either commercial or cultural exhibitions.
In the article Characteristics of Exhibitions20, Van Mensch establishes the beginnings of a theoretical framework from a museological point of view for an analytical approach to museum exhibitions. He bases his analysis on a distinction between three aspects of the physical identity of exhibitions namely: structure, style and technique. By these terms the following is meant:
This refers to the way the content of the exhibition is organised/the approach that is used in museological exhibitions and the role the objects play as data carriers. Van Mensch proposes making a distinction between four types of structure:
- Subjective structure: These are exhibitions that are put together by the collector himself. Van Mensch refers in this context notably to the very first museums – the kunstkamers and cabinets of curiosities — which were based on a hermetical and metaphorical world. Here each object represented a larger, more universal meaning. A collection as a whole formed a coded entity of occult knowledge. It was only the collector who could decipher this world of coded knowledge.
- Systematic structure: This type of structure features exhibitions with a linear structure along scientific, often taxonomic, typological or chronological lines. The objects are prepared within this structure, isolated from their social context. Often these type of exhibits have a deterministic character or are orientated around the idea of progress, where there is little room for doubt or conflicting views. This rigid science-oriented structure was used by many museums as a basis for their exhibits from the beginning of the 19th century until the 1950s.
- Narrative structure: This structure has grown throughout the course of the 20th century and, in particular, during the 1970’s along with the increasing educational role of museum. The story behind the objects, rather than the objects themselves is central to those responsible for the exhibition. According to van Mensch, exhibitions with this type of structure are based on a storyline, which ensures that exhibits of this type have a highly linear character.
- Ecological structure: As van Mensch explains, with this type of structure, simultaneity instead of linearity is central in story lines. Several presentations are offered simultaneously. The visitor can observe these according to his own desires and self-determined order. A routing is absent. The visitor wanders through the exhibition.
For style van Mensch means the general atmosphere in which the communication process takes place. He distinguishes three exhibition styles: aesthetic, evocative and didactical.
According to van Mensch, technique refers to the practical techniques of information transfer. Following Roger Miles, he suggests the following techniques:
- Static: Exhibits that do not change;
- Dynamic: Exhibits which change in order to illustrate different states, such as films or exhibits that may be switched on by a visitor;
- Interactive: Exhibits that involve the visitor in some sort of dialogue.
From Permanent to travelling
Another format commonly used to characterise exhibitions is based on the duration and form of an exhibition. Here are the main types:
- permanent exhibitions;
- semi-permanent exhibitions;
- temporary or exhibitions;
- travelling exhibitions.
Most museums, especially the more traditional ones, have a permanent exhibition. This is where in art (historical) museums the core collection is shown. More story-oriented museums, usually historical, natural history, ethnological and technical museums, display their core story here; for example, the history of the city in a city museum or of a region in a regional museum.
Until the end of the 20th century these permanent exhibitions were really permanent. These exhibitions lasted decades or even centuries, as with the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, with only minor changes or additions. Since the 1990s, the duration of these exhibits has started to decrease as increasingly museums renew themselves in order to continue to fascinate their visitors.
Another reason for the increasingly shorter duration of permanent exhibitions is the rapid development of techniques. Applications age very quickly, not just in the audio-visual and digital field, but also in the field of design and in the use of public-oriented communication techniques. Because of this, exhibitions become outdated more quickly. Despite waves of austerity in recent decades, there is more and more finance available for the re-design or re-building of museums. Nowadays the life span of a permanent exhibition has reduced to 10 or 15 years. The trend is towards even shorter periods.
In the light of these developments, there has been increasing interest in renewability and, in conjunction with this, sustainability. Sustainability focuses on environmental sustainability, whilst renewability involves developing techniques to quickly and cheaply adapt content and/or the technical presentation of parts of exhibitions in order to improve their function from an audience and a technical point of view or to adapt them to new thematic information.
Semi Permanent exhibitions
Influenced by an increasingly public-oriented approach at the end of 20th century, a number of museums are currently moving to eliminate their permanent presentation and replace it with a number of semi-permanent exhibitions. These are exhibits that last for about 3 years and are then replaced. By changing one of the semi-permanent exhibits every year, a museum can keep renewing itself and encourage visitors to come to the museum. Such policies are also implemented due to thematic considerations. In a permanent exhibition, the museum’s theme can only be addressed once and often simply, whereby, due to space restraints, only an outline of the theme can be dealt with. By working with semi-permanent exhibitions in the form of sub-themes, the subject of the museum gets to be handled in depth but can also adapt to new insights into content or technology. A good example of a museum applying such an approach is the Maritime Museum Rotterdam. This museum covers the history, current affairs and future of maritime Netherlands and contains a special arrangement for the international port of Rotterdam21. Examples of sub-themes are shipbuilding, the port of Rotterdam and shipping company22.
This type of exhibition extends to almost all heritage institutions. Museums, archives, visitor and science centres try to address topical issues and to attract repeat visitors through temporary exhibitions. The duration varies from a few days for exhibitions connected with an event, anniversary or commemoration, to about 6 months. Temporary exhibitions that last longer than a year are rare. According to van Mensch, the organisation of temporary exhibitions emerged during the course of the 19th century in relation to the strong growth of museum collections during that period. He speaks in this context of the rise of the bi-partite museum model — a model that abides in most museums today — where a selection of the collection is displayed in a permanent exhibition and the majority of the collection is stored in depots. Following on from this development, museums started organising temporary exhibitions from the museum’s stored collection.23.
It is striking that nowadays temporary exhibitions do not always have a direct relationship with the collection of the institution, as parts of the collection are highlighted that would not normally be included in the permanent exhibition. Often themes are suggested from the exhibitions policy or due to marketing considerations that, whilst supporting the mission of the museum, are in areas where the institution has no collection. The increasing influence of marketing on exhibitions policy also has the effect of progressively focusing this aforementioned policy on drawing large numbers of visitors. As a result of the privatisation of many heritage institutions, this has become a necessity. Funding bodies increasingly pay out to institutions on the basis of visitor numbers. This development has led to an increase in the number of so-called blockbuster exhibitions24. These are exhibitions that have been set up on a large scale, using intensive promotional campaigns, often combined with extensive merchandising, aimed at drawing large numbers of visitors. In order to achieve these objectives, popular themes are generally used, sometimes returning to the same themes time and time again. Examples are Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh exhibitions. The name Picasso also crops up in this context regularly. The travelling Tutankhamun and Da Vinci exhibitions are also good examples of this type of money-making exhibitions, as well as spectacular exhibitions on topics such as Bodies and the Terracotta Army from Xi’an China. Incidentally, there are cultural institutions that do not have their own collection and therefore only present temporary exhibitions. Examples of this are art institutes or centres and also smaller galleries.
We can distinguish between different types of travelling exhibitions:
A system exhibition is an exhibition which is easily built and disassembled by one or a few people in a small amount of time, and is easily transported often in several boxes in a small bus. These are mainly smaller exhibitions travelling between institutions that do not have the capacity to make exhibitions themselves, such as smaller libraries and environmental educational visitors centres. Community organisations with charitable goals, such as the environmental movement or refugee organisations, also often develop these exhibitions usually with the help of external experts, to get their message across to a wider audience. Generally, this involves exhibitions which consist primarily of graphics and show little or no three-dimensional objects. Objects with a museological value are hardly ever incorporated into theses types of simple exhibitions, due to climatological considerations.
This type of exhibition is a relatively recent phenomenon. These are exhibitions that are created in a cooperation between several cultural institutions, usually museums, and which then travel between these institutions. Unlike system exhibitions, these are generally larger exhibitions assembled and dismantled by a team of specialists, where the exhibition equipment is often transported as a whole in large transport containers. Objects travel all over the world thanks to modern techniques. The previously mentioned Tutankhamun exhibition is an example of this. For example, Swedish Travelling Exhibitions (Riksutställningar) developed a number of exhibitions that were transported in trains and ships.
Transportable exhibitions can come about in several ways:
- Joint design and creation of the exhibition: A good example of this is the exhibition The Mysterious Bog people. This exhibition was organised at the beginning of the 21st century on the initiative of the Drenthe Museum in Assen in a collaboration between the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Niedersächsischen Landesmuseum and the Glenbow Museum in Canada. For the assembly of the exhibition a separate website was set-up. After having travelled between the participating institutions, the exhibition is now shown on a rental basis in several other settings. Opportunities for this sort of collaboration are increasing more and more, often between institutions with similar collections, such as natural history and ethnographic museums.
- Exhibitions produced by one institution which are then forwarded/leased to other institutions: Although this occurs on an occasional basis too, there are various institutions that do this on a regular basis and even have a separate department for this. Examples include the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A Touring Exhibitions), The Natural History Museum in London, the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Cincinnati Museum, USA. An important institute in this respect is Swedish Travelling Exhibitions (Riksutställningar). It was founded in 1965 to make art from the large and national museums, largely concentrated in Stockholm, accessible to a wider audience through travelling exhibitions. In the past 40 years, the institute has developed into one of the largest producers of travelling exhibitions in the world. During this period, more than 1200 large and small exhibitions were produced of which a portion has travelled not only throughout Sweden, but also through Europe. The building and sharing of knowledge in the exhibition field has become one of the focal points in this, which is also reflected in the new mission of Riksutställningar.
“Our new mission aim to develop the exhibition media throughout the country so that visitors can meet exhibitions of high quality. Hereafter the work will be done both with, by and also for those who work professionally within the exhibition field — in short, in collaboration and based on actual needs.”
Cooperation between institutions can also occur on a more modest level where only the collection or the concept of the exhibition is transported, rather than the exhibition as a whole. In fact the cooperation here is mainly in terms of theme rather than in terms of the design and construction of the exhibition.
Object and information-oriented exhibitions
As stated above, the material evidence of man and his environment or in other words, authentic material and immaterial objects, play a central role in exhibitions. Objects are selected (collected) in a museum context because they are valuable. In basic terms, an object is of value by the context that is connected to the object. In heritage theory this is called significance. An object is not simply either valuable or worthless, but can be valuable from several perspectives. For example, an object can be valuable because it is the only surviving specimen or because of its symbolic value due to the role it played during a historically significant event. A method for the determination of these different values is the Significance Assessment Model (SAM) developed by CAN.
An exhibition maker places the objects in an exhibition in an understandable context in which one or more layers of meaning become clear. Exhibitions where the meaning can be read in a direct way from the object, as an aesthetic value, are called object-oriented exhibitions. Here objects constitute the central element and are interpreted25. Exhibitions where it is chosen to present other layers of meaning such as the historical or symbolic, place context as the central element. Here the objects are literally the data carriers, or by way of analogy with the stage: actors in the story. However, the two types are not mutually exclusive. Rather, there is a sliding scale with rarely occurring extremes at both ends. See also the diagram ‘Object– and information-orientated exhibitions’.
On the far left there is no transfer of information, only objects on display. The objects are displayed without any explanation or arrangement. In fact, this is a display rather than an exhibition. The closest to this form are window displays, although even here with object arrangement and/or short texts with product description and price there is usually an elementary level of information transfer. In the cultural field, one finds object-oriented exhibitions mainly in art museums and in some more traditional historical and science museums. In fact, the exhibition maker focuses, often implicitly, on an aesthetic and/or mainly scientific approach to the exhibited material, without paying attention to conveying background information on the subject which would benefit an uninitiated audience. This information is often provided elsewhere, for example in a catalogue or on a web site.
On the extreme right of the diagram the transfer of information is the central element. There are hardly any objects on display or, if there are, they are subordinate to the story. The information content is often conveyed extravagantly, with interactive presentations that are experience– and/or gaming-oriented, supplemented with multimedia and audio-visual programs. Well-known intermediate forms are:
- objects arranged around a theme (for example, a sign saying Picasso at the entrance to the exhibition room, followed by a number of his paintings without further explanations).
- display of objects only, with small signs at the side giving object information.
- exhibitions of institutions which work from both their collection as well a story, such as historical, natural history, ethnological and technical museums. To convey the story the exhibition maker uses not only objects but also all kinds of technical aids available for exhibition design such as: 2 — and 3-dimensional design, lighting, context-and experience-oriented presentations, smells, sounds, texts and audio-visual, multimedia and interactive media. About 40% of the centre line in the above diagram could be called information-oriented exhibitions.
Trade-show stands can be placed in this diagram, to the right of the middle. With the express intention of promoting products — services are also seen as products here — these products are displayed as objects. Often here the direct sales of the products or services are less important. Usually stands form part of the communication strategy of a company, which only indirectly want to contribute to increasing sales with the participation in a trade show. Besides establishing contacts with potential new customers and the reinforcement of ties with existing ones, often image-building and branding are the main aims of the stand. The staff on the stand play an essential role in this communication process.
The scale in the illustration above contains no value judgements, that is to say that a strong object-oriented exhibition would be a worse exhibition than an information-oriented one. The main point here is that a deliberate choice is being made, depending on the aims and target groups the exhibition has to achieve.
The introduction to project management[(introduction PM)] indicates that organising an exhibition is an interdisciplinary activity. The diagram Disciplines in exhibitions shows which disciplines play a role and what their meaning and position is in the organisational process.
The Core disciplines
The initiative to organise an exhibition can arise from many motives. Sometimes it can arise from a new collection or sometimes from an idea. Ideally the themes will flow from the museum’s general policy. Regardless of whether a theme is sought to fit a collection or a collection to fit a theme, research needs to be carried out with respect to the content of the theme/collection. The information obtained from the research can be conveyed in various ways. For example, the objects can be placed on a shelf or in a display case and the curator can walk past them accompanied by the visitors whilst telling the story; that is to say, the classic guided tour. Apart from other drawbacks, this often takes far too much time and certainly for large numbers of visitors is soon impossible. The curator may then put up texts near the displayed objects to replace his own narrative. However, this method also has a number of drawbacks, for example:
- A great effort is required of the visitor to read this information, which is sometimes in considerable quantities, in a standing position,. Many visitors can indeed be put off by this and will only read text here and there. Under such circumstances, information transfer is only partial.
- If there is a large amount of text, this may compete with the exhibited material. The objects may unintentionally be reduced to the position of illustrations in a book.
In order to get the story and the objects to interrelate with each other, other methods of communication must be looked at. The disciplines of communication26 and design[see basic concepts in 3 B 3] come to the assistance of the exhibition maker here. These two disciplines should not be separated from each in this context. These skills are applied and integrated within the process of making exhibitions. In other words, the design should aim to present the objects/story in such a way that the information is conveyed as much as possible by visual means. This could be called communicative design. Of course, the disciplines of communication and design also have their own significance within the exhibition process. Communication, for example, plays a part in identifying and estimating the target group, the setting of the objectives and translating the exhibition’s thematic information in an in a technical way to the target group. Design plays an individual role in the fields of ergonomics, typography and chromatics etc.
The academic, communicative and design disciplines that are shown on the top right square in the diagram Disciplines form the core disciplines in the exhibition process. They determine the theme and ensure that it is adapted to fit the target group. In other words, the exhibition is made up by the communicative design of the content.
Besides the core disciplines a number of other disciplines play an important role in the creation of an exhibition. You might say they form a conditional framework within which the core disciplines have to operate. These are:
This discipline plays an important, if not crucial role, especially in heritage exhibitions. After all, the preservation of heritage takes precedence over the presentation of the exhibition. One could speak of “Preservation REQUIREMENTS versus presentation WISHES”. The discipline of conservation is concerned with both the spatial aspects of preserving objects (preventive conservation) and by maintaining the objects themselves (active conservation).
These are professions such as exhibition construction, the making of audio-visual and multimedia programmes, computer programming, photography, etc. These disciplines are in the most literal sense a pre-requisite. After all, all kinds of designs are conceivable, but if they are not technically feasible then they cannot be implemented. It should be noted that as far as technology is concerned at the moment almost anything can be made, albeit often at very high cost. Budgetary considerations therefore play an important role in what is feasible and viable.
These are important for various types of audience research:
- Marketing research: This research may precede the start of an exhibition project. This kind of research helps to determine what kind of exhibitions there is a need for in the market and /or whether trade show participation is a suitable medium.
- Front-end research: This kind of research can start after the project has been launched and once the target group has been established. Front-end research aims to collate more information on the target group and their wishes regarding the theme/content so that it can be matched optimally with the target group.
- Formative research: This is research that can be used during the development of an exhibition. It aims to test parts of the exhibition in the form of prototypes with the target group before it is actually put into production.
- Summative research: This type of research is performed during the opening of the exhibition. It has the goal, among other objectives, of investigating whether the exhibition actually meets its goals, whether the content comes over adequately and whether the target groups are reached.
- Public relations: This discipline is responsible for the promotion of the exhibition.
Finally, there is the discipline of steering in the form of Project Management. This discipline ensures that the activities of the other disciplines are coordinated and that the final product is achieved within the prescribed parameters of money, time and quality. This discipline also manages and monitors the organisation of information within the project. See chapter[Introduction project management (HFD PG] for further information on project management.
All these disciplines correspond with functions. Within a museum context, the following distribution can often be found:
- thematic research: the curator (sometimes a guest curator)
- communication: an employee from the presentation department and/or education
- design: a designer (usually hired externally)
- conservation: sometimes a separate collections manager, otherwise the curator
- technical issues: technical staff
- public relations: in larger institutions a separate employee or someone from marketing or communication department, otherwise an educational employee
- audience research: often external, sometimes an employee of the presentation department and/or education and/or marketing
- project management: sometimes a separate project leader or coordinator, often a curator or an educator
It is clear from the above that organising an exhibition involves teamwork. It is not always necessary to include a representative of every discipline in the project team. Generally a team will consist of a curator, an employee from the presentation and/or education department and a designer, possibly supplemented by a separate project leader. The other disciplines are consulted where necessary throughout the project.
How such a team is put together depends on things like:
- The capabilities of the staff in the institution: In small museums there is often one person who carries out all of the tasks, generally supported by volunteers. In a medium-size museum there will often be a curator on the staff, with a small technical team and sometimes an education officer. They distribute the tasks amongst themselves. Only large museums have specialised staff for each discipline.
- The organisation and culture within the museum: In many museums it is traditionally the curator’s duty to take charge of the entire organisation process.
- Budgetary resources: Here it concerns the financial possibilities of hiring an expert in any of the disciplines mentioned e.g. a designer.
In the commercial world, exhibitions are generally organised by a specialised company on behalf of the communications department of an organisation. This may be a design agency or an exhibition construction company with a design department. Here too, teamwork is important. In addition to the client who typically provides the content, the team is made up of a designer, mostly internal if it concerns an exhibition contractor, and a project leader, usually from the construction company. They also manage the technical staff from the construction firm. With regards to the content of commercial exhibitions, it should be noted that trade-fair stands are in general more superficial and not of a scientific nature. Larger stand construction companies often also use an account manager who is deployed in, besides strengthening the project, taking care of the customer relationship. The communicative discipline is usually incorporated into the work of the designer. If audience research is required, this is generally carried out by an external. Public relations are in this light, a speciality of those involved in the development of the stand on behalf of the client. The discipline of conservation usually plays no part in the stand construction.
- (Hjorth, J., EXHIBITIONS ! The nature of exhibitions. What are they and could they be better? The Swedish travelling exhibitions experience; thesis for the Licentiate Degree. p. 30ff.) ↩
- Since exhibitions take place outdoors (e.g. sculpture parks) as well as indoors, the concept of the built environment is meant in a broad sense. This is all about spatiality, understood as both indoor and outdoor spaces that have a clear demarcation. Incidentally, these demarcations or boundaries are not always visible. For example, open-air museums or historical parks are by their nature and appearance recognisable as a coherent whole for the visitor, but are not measurable. The same goes for large buildings such at the Louvre.) ↩
- Lorenc, J., et al., What is Exhibition Design, pp 6–9) ↩
- See, for example, the contribution of Erik Hoebergen to the chapter on stand construction in Tentoonstellingsvormgeving (Exhibition Design) in which he describes the design bureau Totems Communication as specialising in “… analysis, concept, design and management of 3D communication projects” (Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhibition Design (Eindhoven 2002), p. 144. See also the contribution of Louk de Sévaux in the same publication which emphasises this aspect of spatial communication Retail: Ruimtelijke communicatie (Retail: Spatial Communication). (Ibid, 155)) ↩
- Lord, B., Dexter Lord, G. (ed.) The Manual of Museum Exhibitions (Walnut Creek 2002). pp. 18–19 ↩
- The Frans Hals Prize for exhibition design was awarded several times in the late 1980s by the Frans Hals Museum to designers of innovative exhibitions) ↩
- Janssen, D., et al. (eds.) Exhibition Design (Eindhoven 2002), p.5. ↩
- Kossmann H, Jong de, M, Engaging Spaces, Exhibition Design Explored, (Amsterdam 2010) p.7. ↩
- Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhibition Design (Eindhoven 2002), p. 5. ↩
- Lorenc, J., et al, What is exhibition design, pp.6–9 ↩
- Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhibition Design (Eindhoven 2002), p.5. ↩
- See note 2 on the built environment ↩
- H. Ferree ed, Groot Praktijkboek voor effectieve communicatie, (Deventer / Antwerp n.d.) p.13–15 ↩
- Lord also points out that the inherent value of museum exhibitions is largely motivated by the fact that things to see here are regarded as authentic by the visitor. He places it in the context of the secularisation of society, where, by showing authentic objects, museums and monuments offer a new kind of scientific reliability and provide logical meaning. He speaks in this context of a transformative experience (Lord, B., Dexter Lord, G. (ed.) The Manual of Museum Exhibitions (Walnut Creek 2002). P.16). ↩
- See also Mensch van, P, Yearbook Dutch Open Air 1999 (Nijmegen / Arnhem 1999) ↩
- Incidentally, various technological developments such as the rise of holograms and 3-D film techniques are making it easier to explain more than two relationships within an image for other media. ↩
- Lord, B., Dexter Lord, G. (ed.) The Manual of Museum Exhibitions (Walnut Creek 2002). pag.17–18 ↩
- Although trade-show stands are used here in a commercial sense, this is certainly not always the case. Janssen points out that charitable foundations, organisations and public authorities present themselves at trade shows through a stand, such as at NOT, the Dutch annual education fair. (Janssen, D., et al (eds.) Exhibition Design, page 136. ↩
- Lord also distinguishes between museum exhibitions and trade fair stands in the Manual of Museum Exhibitions. He points to the similarities that both objects and audio-visual images as well as interactive experiences show, but notes an important difference that museums do not try to promote a product or service. To museums, education /entertainment is a more central objective with the aim of creating new understanding (transformative experience) (Lord, B., Dexter Lord, G. (ed.) The Manual of Museum Exhibitions (Walnut Creek 2002). p. 15–19). ↩
- Museum Aktuell 2003 (92): 3980–3985) ↩
- Annual Report 2009 Maritime Museum Rotterdam ↩
- Annual Report 2009 Maritime Museum Rotterdam ↩
- Van Mensch, P, Characteristics of Exhibitions In: Museum Aktuell 2003 (92): 3980–3985, page 6, 7 ↩
- Blockbuster is a term from the film world used to indicate a film with big stars in the lead roles that is expected to yield a considerable amount at the box-office. The word blockbuster dates from the period of the Hollywood Studio System (1917–1947) that was characterised by a cartel of the eight major studios or ‘Majors’ (Loews-MGM, Paramount Publix, Fox Film Corporation, Warner Bros., RKO Pictures, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures and United Artists). The eight studios were vertically integrated, either in possession of not just the production and distribution facilities, but also of their own cinema chains. In this period, films were made and leased under a system of zoning and block booking. Due to the vertical integration, cinemas had exclusive rights to film screenings (zoning) within geographically divided territories. The term blockbookings meant that cinemas could only buy films in mandatory blocks of successful and less successful films which had to be consecutively screened. The blockbuster is a film which through its success stood out against the rest of the films in the block (the block ‘breaker’) and therefore kept running for a longer period. This limit determining the financial success of a film was gradually increased, as more and more films were able to reach that limit. They used to keep it at $100 million but since 2000 a blockbuster worthy of the name had to earn more than $400 million. Besides exact amounts blockbusters are also spoken about when the profits of a film greatly surpass its costs. (Wikipedia 23-3-2011) ↩
- With regards to interpretation, this means not only an oral or a written (exhibition text) explanation, but also the use of exhibition language (see 3 B 1) ↩
- The term communication is used in various meanings. Often it is the promotion of a product that is taken care of by the communications department of an institution. In this context, communication is broadly understood in the sense expressed in the definition of Ferree. In this view, education is a form of communication that is specifically focused on learning-orientated communication processes. ↩