Museums in danger of forgetting mission
AS A former project officer for the Intellectual Access Trust (Intact), which was set up in the mid-90s to improve the accessibility of museum displays, I have been following with interest the correspondence arising from Tiffany Jenkins’ article on National Museum of Scotland, and other refurbished museums.
Intact was created to raise awareness of museum visitors with learning disabilities, but it soon became obvious that many more people, such as those who were not confident readers, would benefit from our research.
This showed that improving how information was presented in written form through clear print in an adequate size with good contrast along with shorter paragraphs, attention-grabbing devices such as personal stories and explanations, where needed, of technical terms, helped a huge percentage of visitors.
Added to this was an examination of alternative methods of conveying information where appropriate, such as audio, extensive use of pictures, maps and diagrams, and objects for handling.
Working alongside museum professionals, I realised the significance of museums as a place of education and the importance of keeping the information accurate, although written in plain language. A useful tool in this was a “hierarchy of text”, rather in the way newspapers convey information with a headline, a short paragraph giving the main point, then more details for those who chose to read on.
While no-one would want to return to the type of museum described in a London Museum Service paper of 1991 as “dingy places with different kinds of bits”, neither do we want to turn museums into “all-singing and dancing” visitor attractions, where numbers through the door and satisfaction with the cafe and shop seem to be the main considerations.
With its Wall of Wonders, which gives minimal information about the objects displayed (for example what exactly is the difference between the autogyro and a helicopter?) and the geology section which has a portrait of James Hutton, the father of modern geology, with no explanation of who he was, his importance or what he discovered, I fear that our National Museum has gone too far down the path to being a mere visitor attraction.
There are some excellent displays. The animal gallery, and the special exhibitions, like the current one on Catherine the Great and the previous one on Egyptian Mummies, are still world class. But the educational remit which should be a core aim of a museum, has been largely lost in favour of a short-term “wow” factor. The research done by Intact showed that this need not happen and a museum can still teach through provoking interest, revealing significance and relating it to what people already know.
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