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Visualizing Information in Museums Exhibits

September 12, 2011

C.H. Nash Museum ceramic vessel exhibit redesign - before in background, after in foreground

When thinking about exhibit design, books by Edward Tufte and the webpage of David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful are a couple of welcome resources.  Similarly, nearly 15 years ago I first came across Beverly Serrell’s Exhibition Labels, a book I go back to regularly and assign as a required reading in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Tufte and Serrell profoundly impact how I view presenting information in public venues.

While a graduate student at the University of Illinois, my advisor R. Barry Lewis introduced me to Tufte in the Anthropological Research Design graduate seminar.  An intriguing assignment in the class was to find the best and worst interpretive graphic in a professional journal.  The search produced scores of examples with text that could only be read under 400% magnification, along with jumbles of circles, lines, arrows and their gradient fills that were unintelligible.  For the assignment, students found some great graphics too.  But that assignment some 20 years ago is still relevant when considering the professional PowerPoint presentations of today, often more akin to a dizzying kaleidoscope art form than information presentation.  “Power Corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” so saith Edward Tufte.

About fifteen years ago I completed text labels for an exhibit.  Then Serrell’s Exhibit Labels book, hot off the press, arrived in the mail and I read it immediately.  I then trashed my newly created exhibit labels and started over from scratch.  I now had a guide to a systematic and meaningful way of creating the labels – determining the Big Idea and telling the story.  Although I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, these lessons lead me to strive for clean, clear, and aesthetically pleasing information presentations.

With all of this in mind, three years ago, a Graduate Assistant led the attack on the ceramic vessel exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – the before and after shown above – by all measures a pretty dramatic improvement.  Besides the aesthetics, the redesign addressed vessel form, effigy symbolism, function, and contextualized the vessels within the site.  The redesign also explained the ever cryptic type names archaeologists assign to vessels.  In the past three years, the redesign received a good bit of visitor and staff feedback.  Based on that feedback, this fall one of the projects for the Museum Practices seminar will be to redesign the Chucalissa Pottery exhibit again.  The ten graduate students will use Serrell and other resources on exhibit labels and design to come up with their individual proposals they will then collaboratively morph into a single final design.

The opportunity for students to engage in such projects is one aspect of our applied studies program that is quite valuable.  Beyond searching for the best and worst interpretative graphic in a professional journal, the students will be able to not just find, but create and resolve.  Such an educational approach provides hands-on experience for future museum directors, registrars, educators, marketers – all fields – to offer more robust and mission driven practices and creations.

How do you create or recreate clear and meaningful exhibits?

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