Signs up ahead

above

Setting a tone

A recent visit to a museum struck me as usually negative.

While some may be looking at exhibits or panels, I have been keen to look at what messages that museums put out to their public. Although these signs or messages may be important, I think it is important to consider how the public perceives them. Do these signs limit a museum’s potential?

First, let me say that there is a certain caution required to this museum site because the main exhibit area in 50 meters above the ground and the public has to walk along a rope bridge. It is a wonderful site with magical scenes, fragrant flowers and friendly butterflies. It is the kind of place that excites the imagination. Welcome to the museum

The precarious environment of being above the ground adds to the allure of the adventure one is about to undertake. But what is the first impression that the visitor gets upon entering? A HUGE sign listing all of the things that one cannot do. There are the normal ones like no smoking and no food and drink. But I was struck but some of the others. For example, kite flying is prohibited. I always wonder at times like this, “What prompted that warning?”

The extremes

I began wondering, what signs would I like to put in my museum? Some of the ridiculous ones included:

  • No jabbing sharp objects in your eyes
  • No licking or eating the flowers
  • No holding your breath until you pass out

Or could the signs swing in the other direction?

  • Love and cherish your time here today
  • Smile at least 30 times
  • Write down one thing that makes you happy

jabbing

smileWhether one is telling you what you cannot do or can do it all boils down to a simple concept; museums try to shape visitor behavior. But in reality all museums can do is open their doors and in the end hope that the public uses the space to their best desire and not in a destructive way.

pipeflowers

Consider the pipe cleaner

A pipe cleaner a type of brush intended for removing residue from smoking pipes. They are flexible and can be twisted in all kings of shapes. But today, pipe cleaners are the one of the staple arts and crafts tools in schools around the world. The original intent was one thing but now it is also something completely different.

Did the pipe cleaner makers of the world throw up their arms in protest when their product started being used for art projects? My guess is that they were happy that their product now had a new purpose. They may also have noticed that their main clients were also dying off young and they needed to be replaced.

Museums should think the same way. I would encourage museums to think about how their signs can be more like the pipe cleaner. How can the messages encourage visitors to maximize their visit and use the space to the fullest and most rewarding effect? Some things to keep in mind:

1. Are the signs consistent with the museum’s policies?

2. Are they a reactive or preventive to visitor behavior?

3. Do they advance knowledge about one’s site?

4. Do they encourage visitor use of your site?

It would be my hope that signs can be an important part of the message that a museum gives off and thus the museum’s take away message.

I cannot remember the name of one flower I saw that day but I will always remember kite flying is prohibited.

Do you think that was the museum’s intended take away message?

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