A recent visit to the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA has me musing about consistency in museum displays. I spent a while in the exhibit called “Knights!” which displays some of the highlights of the collection from the Higgins Armory Museum, which the WAM absorbed in 2013. I want to make clear that this is not a review; if it were a review I would have much more positive things to say, but right now I’m thinking about a particular aspect. Why was the style of interpretation inconsistent, and why did that bother me?
One of the first things I noticed in the museum was the cute little cartoon dog on the cover of the map. The entrance lets out into an atrium containing classical mosaics, and I was drawn to a small kiosk with an image of the dog again. In a speech bubble, he explained why you can’t touch most museum objects. It was very well-done. The dog introduced itself in panel low to the ground outside of the Knights! exhibit. Its name is Helmutt. This is where I started to be confused -- is the dog just for the Knights! exhibit? It didn’t seem that way downstairs, but in fact, this was the only exhibit I found him in.
Inside, Helmutt appeared on the walls low to the ground, and as a sort of host in the touchscreen kiosks. There were one or two of these per room, each of them providing additional detail about the armor and weaponry on display. Some kiosks were laid out so you turned digital pages, or selected an item from a list to learn more, and the same information could have easily been presented on a panel without a screen. Others had neat features such as being able to view all of the objects sorted into a scrollable timeline or a zoomable world map.
The odd thing was, the tone and level of the writing varied in ways I found unpredictable. Parts were in simple, conversational language and seemed designed for the older elementary crowd. Parts got much more technical and sociological in ways I enjoyed. Where to find the writing varied too -- I couldn’t tell whether there was a reason why one room would have wall text and the next room would have all of the text in a touch screen. In some areas, it seemed that Helmutt was a signal that what you were about to read was designed for kids, and in others, it wasn’t. Sometimes Helmutt introduced a home screen but rest of the kiosk text described each object in a conventional label that sounded like any other at an art museum, including technical terms for parts of armor I didn’t know and pretty dry language.
What I can’t figure out is why I have a problem with the interpretation being inconsistent. Is it actually my reaction as a visitor, or is something in my museum-professional brain just sounding the alarm because it’s Not How Things Are Done? I was rarely confused about where to get the information I was looking for, and when I was confused, it didn’t last long because the rooms were small. I was sometimes confused about which materials were intended for me, especially between the kid and adult messaging. I tend to be pretty comfortable reading all of the “kid stuff” in museums, if there are no kids trying to see around me to look at them at the same time. On the other hand, I know that some people feel embarrassed to be caught in the “kid’s section,” and while it was fairly empty when I was there, sometimes an exhibit has kids in it and the adults need to yield. Then again, why can’t a cartoon dog lead an adult around a museum?
When I first started working in museums, I was afraid I wouldn’t see museums the same way and wouldn’t be able to enjoy them as a visitor. Soon I realized I was having the same reactions to museum exhibits I always had, but now I knew what was causing those reactions. Later on, I noticed that I don’t just see museums through my own eyes anymore, but through the eyes of hypothetical other visitors -- I notice whether the text would be too small for my grandma, for example. But sometimes, I run into questions like this. It can be hard to tease out which of my reactions are rooted in museum habit, in “this is the way we’ve always done things” and which are the result of my own needs as a visitor or a critical eye I’ve developed over time.
Update on March 19: I'm submitting this review to Museum Hack's writing contest. Museum Hack is a company that has built its brand on shaking up museums.