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Telling it like it is like it was or how you want it to be

By Rob Hall from Environmetrics and Derek Hooper from Acumen Design

On most weekends, thousands of Australians leave their homes in search of a story. Many of them choose to look for it in museums, galleries or other kinds of exhibitions. Others go to historic sites, parks, gardens and zoos or up the towers and vantage points that are features of many Australian cities and towns.

Wherever they go, one of the things they want to find is the meaning of the place and the experiences it presents. What am I seeing? How old, valuable or important is it? How does it work? Why was it built? Where do I go next? These are the kinds of questions that are at the heart of the stories people want to hear. Whether or not they get an answer depends on what expectations they bring with them and, most importantly, how well the place they visit manages to explain itself.

One important goal for museum curators, exhibition designers and architects is to assist people access the experiences a venue can provide so that they enjoy their visit and feel they have gained something from it.

This is the challenging task of providing "interpretation"—a word that obviously suggests explaining or telling but is really more than that. Interpretation is about provoking, inviting or seducing people into interacting with a place to find their own meanings as well as hear those of their hosts.

Discussions about interpretation often focus on the merits of computer interactive devices versus printed labels, or hands-on interaction versus passive displays and ignore the wider context in which an exhibition sits. Yet this wider context is also important in making a visit satisfying for visitors. After all, the most visited attraction in a typical museum or gallery is the toilet and failing to find one can take the shine off even the most dazzling multi-media display.

Directional signage can have a critical impact on the way visitors experience an attraction. Working with a major Australian museum in the period soon after it opened, we found that a substantial number of people who approached the building could not find the entry door and simply went away. People who did gain entry then found that an important part of the museum display was in an outside area accessed from inside the museum through closed glass doors. Above the doors were the mandatory green "Exit" signs. While interviewing visitors we found that some were reluctant to go into the outdoor area because the exit signs suggested to them that they would be leaving the museum and would thus have wasted their entry fee.

Major museums, galleries and heritage sites in Australia now use well developed methods for exploring the ways in which people will interact with exhibitions. Beginning with "front-end evaluation" to assess the level of interest in, and understanding of, planned exhibitions and moving through to "remedial evaluation" which identifies weakness in a final installation, designers and curators can track the success of their work.

This approach is not confined to cultural organisations. Similar methods can be used with almost any kind of venue to establish how easy it is for visitors to use a place, understand what is happening there and enjoy themselves. Sydney International Airport, for example, is carrying out an ongoing research program designed to discover and understand what users think and feel from their arrival at the airport to when they leave. At the heart of this evaluation is the process of taking a visitor-eye perspective rather than seeing things only through management eyes.

An emphasis on the visitor perspective is critical to the success of planning the signage and other interpretive elements for any public place. Aspects of the visitor perspective can be captured in many ways. Interviewing visitors, conducting focus groups and accompanying visitors through an attraction while they describe what they are seeing, hearing and feeling are examples of frequently used methods that provide a window into what the visitor is experiencing.

Many public facilities that play a part in the leisure industry have explicit rules for designing directional and other interpretive signage. However, these rules are frequently designed from the organisation's own perspective rather than from a consideration of how well the signage works for end-users. In a place such as Parliament House in Canberra, the need to preserve the architectural heritage of the building is a central issue and shapes the kinds of signage that are acceptable. This can lead to a conflict between the need for signs to be easily visible to the first-time visitor yet unobtrusive at the same time.

Interpretation, in the broadest sense, requires careful planning that begins with an "organisation out" view. This first step involves being clear about the goals for the venue, taking into account the theme for the site; the corporate or institutional image of the organisation responsible for the place and management issues related to the care and preservation of it. The planning then needs to take account of the "user in" view and thus make sure that both the organisational goals and those of the visitor are being met.

An essential part of good interpretation is to establish a theme for the experience visitors will have. A clearly identified theme provides the framework and discipline necessary to ensure that the goals and objectives for the site are met. It also makes it easier to decide what should be regularly monitored to make sure that the site is working well for visitors.

Leading edge multi-media technology is exciting and the sense of "Gee Whiz!" often leads inexperienced designers to focus too quickly on how they will attract and engage visitors rather than on why they want to engage them. This quick jump to technology also runs the risk of ignoring how visitors behave in a venue. Our observations of people using touch-screen interactive devices, for example, show that relatively few people actually see a complete program sequence. This is particularly true when a venue is crowded and visitors shuffle past interactive display screens with only time enough to make a few desultory stabs at the on-screen buttons before being swept away by the press of other would-be users.

It is obvious, too, that visitors are not all alike, and while some visitors will find that hi-tech devices enhance their understanding of what is happening, others will not. People who find touch screen automatic teller machines a challenge in daily life are not likely to feel comfortable with computer interactives simply because they are in a cultural institution or leisure attraction.

Well-planned interpretation can markedly enhance visitors' pleasure and lead to repeat visits and favourable word of mouth publicity. The key to successful interpretation is to be clear about the end goals for the planned visitor experiences. Then, to use a blend of technical knowledge and end-user participation to identify the best means for letting your stories be told.

Rob Hall and Dennis Hooper 1999

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