Visitors Rule!

Muse February 2006

It’s already 9:40 on a sunny November morning in Calgary and I’m waiting on the main floor of the Glenbow Museum for Michale Lang, vice president of program and exhibit development, for a 9:30 appointment. It’s telling that she’s inextricably tied up at a planning meeting: a planning meeting to keep Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta on schedule. Which is just what I came here to talk about—together with another busy redevelopment overseer, Tim Willis, Assistant Director of Project Renewal at Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum.

Between them, Lang and Willis are facing two of the largest museum redevelopments Alberta has seen in decades—over 400 thousand square feet of exhibit space with capital budgets exceeding $200 million. The Glenbow’s $12 million (which includes a $3 million endowment for its operation) Mavericks is an entire floor devoted to the history of southern Alberta, to launch in February 2007. As large as it is, it’s dwarfed by the Royal Alberta Museum’s grand $180 million redevelopment: a grounds-up inside and outside reinvention of the building that is to feature eight new gallery experiences. The two projects are in different phases—the RAM’s completion is up to five years away—but both are driven primarily by the visitor experience. It’s an opportune time to compare their respective approaches to visitor focus.

Radical Surgery: the scope of the projects

Fresh from her meeting, in her busy-looking fifth floor office, Lang and I dial Tim Willis. I ask Lang about the radical development that’s happening two floors below.

“We’re really changing the shape of that floor,” she says. “We’ve blasted a 220-foot central corridor from one end to the other that we’re calling a Parade Procession. It’s a redevelopment of 24,000 square feet to tell the story of Alberta’s history based on a book by Aritha van Herk, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.”

The Royal Alberta Museum, which just received its ‘Royal’ designation from Her Majesty the Queen this summer during the province’s centennial celebrations, has a mandate for Alberta history too but there’s much more. Willis describes it.

“Ours is really a holistic revamping of the entire organization,” he says. “We’re looking at a renewal of the entire museum, both physically and organizationally. The project is a redevelopment of 380,000 square feet of space that is essentially a reworking of the existing building from the inside out. And an expansion. And the creation of new exhibitions and other programs. We’re largely going to be driven by the architectural changes and how they can be managed. It’s quite a challenge—we have an existing building, we have a site that is occupied by another entity [Government House] so there are a number of dimensions with which the architectural team is wrestling and that will drive the critical path.”

Willis says despite the revamping, the building will retain its character. “The original design made in 1965 that we’re wrestling with is that the building turns its back on the world—it has its back to the main avenue that goes parallel to the building and it’s also hidden from the river valley. So it’s a very quiet building that we have to perk up.”

Listening to the visitor

But, he says, importantly there’s more to it than the building and the exhibits. “As well as the architectural planning stream, the project has a visitor experience planning stream.”

Which Lang and Willis agreed was of paramount consideration in their deliberations about what would go into their new spaces.

“Our management team made the decision to base the Mavericks exhibition on van Herk’s book,” she says. “But we decided very early on that we wanted the focus to be on visitor experience. I know we all say we do that, but how we do it is a little more complex. For Mavericks, we did a triangulation: broad surveys, intercept surveys of people leaving the museum and focus groups. That gave us a sense of what people liked about what was currently in the museum and the kinds of things they’d like to see more of.”

The result was to choose characters, most from the book, to tell stories. To emphasize that most Albertans are ‘new’ Canadians or their descendants, along with First Nations the individuals chosen represent Alberta men and women from diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. Indeed, one specially themed area is labeled “Newcomers”.

Collections to support the stories were important but aren’t the story. “Often museum exhibitions are driven by artifacts and collections and the stories that are told by them, with the interpretation coming later in the picture,” says Lang. “What we’re doing is selecting a story or a series of stories first and saying, now what do we have that will support those stories? So we had to develop a creative approach. The story was driving the whole process.” The Mavericks exhibit manual says the story exhibits are physically designed to evoke emotion and thought. Lang explains the focus was to create drama by identifying maverick moments, the strongest stories, for each character. “It was quite a complicated process,” she says.

Complicated, too, is the process facing the Royal Alberta Museum. “It started with a look at our mandate and development of a sense of vision about the kind of museum we wanted to be,” says Willis. “To do that we did a fair amount of research, travel and touring other museums. We had an internal analysis to tell ourselves what was working and what wasn’t. We too engaged in a large audience survey, focus groups and one-on-one interviews, questionnaires. We surveyed our visitors, our volunteers, our neighbourhood and emerged out in concentric circles ending up with a fairly large survey of Albertans who see things from further afield. At the end of the day we had to make some hard decisions about the kinds of galleries that would support that mandate and are supported by our own territorial strengths or not. And our own collections strength, or not.”

Building for the visitor

Visitor experience is driving the museums’ respective exhibition design philosophies too. Lang says they also traveled to several museums and learned a lot from one in particular, the new Texas State History Museum in Austin. “Texas and Alberta share common historical themes such as ranching and oil,” she says. “Their key message was clear throughout the exhibition. We feel that this is very important to the visitor experience.” The Texas museum, too, developed the interpretive strategy first then sought artifacts to support it.

Important in the Glenbow’s physical design concept is the Parade Procession route, designed to impress the Alberta experience upon the visitor. “This monumental hall will run across the entire length of the third floor and be filled with a procession of vehicles, artifacts, design elements and graphics that introduce the Mavericks characters and themes of the exhibit,” reads the exhibit manual. “The surrounding environment will make reference to the diverse Alberta landscape through contoured forms in the hardwood floor, sweeping from the Cypress Hills of the eastern border to the Rocky Mountains on the western horizon.”

“It essentially provides an orientation access for the visitor,” explains Lang. “Plus we can have an orientation piece [for each story] that really helps visitors orient themselves.” Because the exhibit is not chronological it has many crossovers between times and they have to let the visitors know that. “So there’ll be an audiovisual orientation piece of about three minutes narrated by Aritha van Herk that will orient the visitor to that story,” says Lang.

Lang says Mavericks will employ a fair amount of audio-visual, especially audio, “because we really want these people to speak with their own voices.” She says they’ll use creative audiovisual techniques, along with actors for the characters’ voices through their writings, letters and journals. The individual stories will be the vehicle for the larger story.

“For example, we have the journal of Fred Bagley, a 15 year-old Mountie who came out during the March West,” explains Lang. “My favourite story of him is that he is the Mountie who stole his own horse, Buck. The year he retired, Buck died. These are wonderful stories that perpetuate the myth of the Mountie in some ways.” But the important thing, she adds, is that Bagley’s journal really tells the overall story of the day-to-day struggle of what it was like to cross the Prairies and so on. These stories are really fascinating—it’s not unique perhaps but I think it will strengthen the way we tell the [greater] story.”

An important facet of the Mavericks floor will be school programming. “We’re integrating spaces large enough for groups to gather right in the galleries,” says Lang. They hope to accommodate up to seven groups, which of course raises serious sound issues. To address this, sound consultants were used, otherwise “it can quickly become a cacophony,” she says.

Inspirations from visitor success stories

The Royal Alberta Museum hasn’t reached these more nitty-gritty design stages yet. But Willis agrees the visitor-centred points are important to prepare for. In their design and planning stages, he says they’ve been heavily influenced by visitor-oriented successes of some other world-class museums. “One of these is the Minnesota Science Center—their notion of visitor-centredness,” he says. “I’ve read about it, I’ve heard people speak about it and I’m only beginning to understand what it can mean. It’s not just to do with physical design, it’s to do with intellectual accessibility and it’s to do with involving visitors in planning and prototyping exhibitions.”

Involving visitors means that as well as extensive use of focus groups to decide on exhibition design, they intend to build prototypes of displays and physically test them “on the floor” with visitors. “This is something that Minnesota do very well,” Willis says, “building and re-building rough prototypes and letting visitors try them out.”

He’s impressed with what he calls one of Minnesota’s “really daring” moves. “They built into their budget a commitment to change,” he says. “If exhibitions have been there five years they come out, even if they have proved quite positive and well-received. I’m fascinated by that because one of the bigger challenges for us is our mandate to tell the human and natural history of the province. And the interpretation of different people’s histories and different communities is endless. For us to be representative in one single sweep is impossible.” He says it’s still too early to disclose what the firm change rules will be, but “we are looking seriously at changeability, whether it be exhibitions or building presentations that can change over time.”

The change concept will prove useful when it comes to another of RAM’s commitments: new Canadians. It’s already part of planning. “Stories of arrival, adaptation, acceptance and rejection will be an important focus of the new history gallery,” says Willis, who adds that although planning for it is still in its infancy, “it is imbedded in the central theme of this gallery.”

Another inspiration comes from the Darwin Centre of London’s Natural History Museum, an idea Willis considers a central part of the visitor experience. “They penetrate a public atrium into the collections and research wing,” he says. “So essentially every visitor gets as part of the experience a behind-the-scenes look at what the museum does.” The Royal Alberta Museum will be working along with its architects from the very start to incorporate this concept. “It’s more than just a window into a lab as many museums do,” says Willis. “It’s a significant transparency and physical penetration of that area. I think it’s quite an innovative feature for us and maybe for museums in Canada.”

Willis also mentions Te Papa Tongawera, New Zealand’s national museum. “They have a strong mandate for a dual cultural facility,” says Willis, “for Maori and modern culture. We’re very interested in how that thematic focus has penetrated their programming. It has a lot of relevance for us because it’s both human history and natural history covering a broad spectrum trying to capture the identity of a particular location.”

He says another inspiration for a visitor-centred experience is the Getty Museum.

“I was just there two weekends ago,” interjects Lang as she opens her office door to let a gathering of staff and volunteers know she’ll be a little late for her 10:00 meeting with them.

Willis says he is impressed by the Getty’s visitor experience. “I don’t know if you felt that Michale, but I guess I was expecting a rather grandiose kind of imposing experience and it wasn’t that. They’ve managed to marry the architecture with the visitor experience to make it very comfortable from a visitor’s point of view—lots of places to sit, relax, have coffee.”

“And lots of people welcoming you as you walk in,” says Lang.

“Yes, they’ve obviously paid a lot of attention to that,” agrees Willis. “And it’s also very accessible and welcoming to children. The galleries are not immense—they’re all broken into smaller spaces. Those are some of the things that are influencing the architecture that’s supporting our visitor experience.”

Our discussion could go on, but Lang’s is a busy world so I ask in closing what she and Willis have learned that they could offer the broader museum community.

Lang glances at her office wall. In a red circle with a line through it, a sign reads, ‘But we’ve always done it that way’. “From my perspective it’s really looking at a different way of working,” she says. “To look at not just a different sort of basis for an exhibition, but this shift from the object-driven to the story-driven. That’s one of the fundamental things. The idea of using a book as the basis was challenged at many different times. And the real primacy of interpretation and story, I think those are big shifts for us. So I would say to other museum people: don’t be afraid to do it. Because we really need to listen to our visitors.”

“I wholeheartedly support what Michale is saying,” says Willis. “I’m thinking similar things. It’s really interesting that you’re using a book for inspiration because sometimes we can overwhelm visitors with the complexity of a story and not pay enough attention to telling it well.”

“And telling it precisely, right?” says Lang.

“Yes, that’s the big challenge,” says Willis, who offers his experience for others. “Often the larger museums have positions built into their exhibition teams called exhibit planners or interpretive planners. We’ve never done that. Most of our exhibits have been developed by a designer and a curator at the core, but now we’re actually hiring a head of interpretive planning. They’ll be a new and equal partner at the planning’s the interpretive planner who represents the visitor and is responsible for turning information into the content that will be communicated. They will be key in deciding on the media to be used within an exhibition, and establishing the ‘voice’ of the exhibition.”

A final challenge no visitor-centred museum redeveloper can avoid is that critical time factor. The staff and volunteers outside Lang’s office have been patient. It’s now 10:15 and they wait, manuals in hand, for their 10:00 meeting with Lang, who’s been inextricably tied up.

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