After a long day of exploring the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia, experiencing interactive exhibits, laser light shows, soundscapes, and endless projected images, I unintentionally wandered into a section that felt, at first impression, like a cupboard. After re-orienting myself, I realised that I was still in the museum, but I had happened upon an area of the museum that hadn’t been “refurbished”.
Indeed, the exhibition that was in front of me would, in modern museum terms, be considered “out of date” or perhaps even boring to contemporary museum “markets”. However, having spent the most part of the day, “experiencing” all of the exhibits in the museum, it was a relief to have time to reflect on the meaning of an exhibit, and to be challenged to imagine something of my own doing, rather than have it thrust upon me. There were no buttons to press, no videos – most of the displays were static, and perhaps the most progressive displays were simple dioramas.
Wandering through the hallways, a general “beige” feel about the exhibits that smelt of dust and age, I found myself moved to tears when I came across an exhibit, mapping out, chronologically through letters and eye-witness accounts, of the Boer War. I was surprised, and saddened, to see the similarities between that particular war, and our contemporary wars.
I spent, perhaps, two hours, in this cupboard, and was on my own in this small area for the entire time. I had nowhere especially to go, and felt no need to go anywhere else, having had so much colour and movement during the previous three hours in the museum.
After returning home, I mentioned this experience to a friend, who had also recently visited the War Memorial. His response was similar – he said that the simplicity of the exhibits was a relief, and forced him to be more contemplative.
Perhaps, in our rush to be customer focused, to create interaction, and turn the museum into a consumption space, some elements of the museum experience have been lost. In particular, a museum, amongst other things, should be a place of learning, and reflection.
Of the many museums that I have visited over the past ten years, I have noticed that very little emphasis is placed on learning, or challenging visitors, and even less on reflection.
The way that modern museums are designed, particularly those that imitate retailing spaces, has resulted in a museum experience that is similar to any other retail experience. One person I spoke to, for example, suggested that many refurbished, and modern museums, feel like an airline business club.
Observing how people moved through, and used, the museum space, I got a similar sense, in that much of the modern museum experience seems to be driven by entertainment, and individual stimulation, based on a culture that encourages us to see every interaction as a commodity.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps museum directors need to reflect on modern museum design, think more about how their visitors use the museum, and ask themselves why they think people really visit.
Only then, will contemporary museums give visitors a “real” experience.