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Exhibition review

Fertile Fields of Interpretation

Review of Thirst, an exhibition about water at the Australian Museum, 1998.

In recent decades, the windows have been thrown wide-open and new territories are being opened up in the Land of Interpretation. Unusual forms are emerging from the application of different farming methods and new seed types to these fresh fields. Crops of innovative interpretative strategies are thriving on the application of compost in the form of theories drawn from disciplines such as education, philosophy, sociology and literary criticism.

One of the most radical shifts in the interpretation has been the emergence of the Science Centre. By and large, these Centres abandoned the object and set out to communicate scientific facts and principles via interactive, process-based exhibits. They have been resoundingly successful in attracting visitors — a clear indication that they have something worthwhile to offer.

Traditional museums recognised a good thing when they saw it and began to apply the same principles to many of their exhibitions.

Whereas traditional exhibitions communicated mostly via word and object, the Science Centres invited the physical participation of visitors. There are plenty of buttons to press, levers to pull, flaps to lift and things to walk through. It seems that the shift was from one-channel communication (mind) to two-channel communication (mind + body).

Recent experiments with interpretation could lead us to ask whether a new wave might not move us towards three-channel communication. The third channel being the language of emotion.

In April/May this year, the Australian Museum broke new ground with its exhibition Thirst: reflections on water in Australia when it gave the head of its Theatre Unit, Yaron Lifschitz, an exhibition space to play with. Lifschitz drew on the idiom of theatre and art to provide visitors with an interpretation of a scientific subject that is delightfully surprising within a museum setting.

As production designer Genevieve Blanchett said, 'I didn't want to make a typical exhibition with objects for viewing. I was more interested in emotional responses, a meditation on the subject.'

To achieve this, she took a large rectangular space, painted it black and furnished it sparsely with three large sculptural elements, historical objects and large-print text panels. Most importantly, the space is defined and enriched by a complex sound piece by Raffaele Marcellino which incorporates music and sounds to create a symphony on water in a loose sonata form.

Thirst is more an art installation than an exhibition 'about' something. To a large extent, the exhibition IS the thing.

Now this approach has raised controversy in the recent past, most notably in the example of the Museum of Sydney, where the whole museum is something of an art object. It has been a subject of controversy in museum circles ever since.

But, while the differing views of theorists provide excitement, little can be resolved about the pros and cons of this approach without taking account of the way visitors respond to it.

Fortunately, the Australian Museum has a program of audience evaluation and knows how its audience responded to this adventurous new exhibition.

Overall, the exhibition was very successful at engaging visitors. It accomplished the difficult task of attracting and holding interest without using the flashy short grabs that seem to be universally accepted as the only way to capture the attention of people who grew up on television. As visitors said —

'It's soothing, focused, interesting, artistic. More exciting than usual exhibitions.'

'It's a wonderful mood piece. It's emotional, a real change of pace. Don't expect it to be flashy and to be dazzled. You have to search in yourself, it's not all just presented to you.'

So, the form was popular, but how successful was it in communicating the theme? Well, here is the crux of the matter. For it appears that, in this case, the interpretative strategy was powerful in encouraging visitors to think differently about the topic. Visitors commented repeatedly on the range and power of the ideas presented in the exhibition.

'It's not in your face, it's subtle, but it really hits home. It looks in different ways, personal ways, at the big picture.'

'It's not your normal museum experience. It makes you think, it's not just presenting information.'

Visitors were enthusiastic about the museum presenting more exhibitions like Thirst in the future, but, to a person, they were clear that this interpretative approach should complement the usual style of exhibition at the Australian Museum rather than replace it.

It appears that in the fertile new fields of interpretation there is a valid and necessary place for approaches that make powerful use of the creative arts and the language of the emotions.

The way forward for interpretation that speaks more strongly to the whole person lies in the use of fine-grained visitor evaluation that can measure the effectiveness of these new experiments.

Gillian Savage, a Director at Environmetrics, conducted audience evaluation of Thirst on behalf of the Australian Museum.

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