When the USS Constitution Museum decided to design a prototype exhibition for families, we turned to two key concepts:
- Significant research has been done in Science museums and Children’s museums that can be applied to history museum exhibitions.
- Emotional and intangible content may be a unique advantage history museums can capitalize on.
Science and children’s museums have spent tens of millions of dollars developing a significant research library focused on family visitors. These organizations have a tradition of sharing research with each other, and as a result a number of concepts have been tested in many environments. Significant bodies of knowledge are available for issues that we all struggle with such as:
- How much text is the right amount for an exhibition?
- What characteristics do universally popular exhibits share?
- How can we demonstrate that learning is happening in our exhibition?
For the USS Constitution Museum prototype exhibition we decided to use a number of concepts tested by science and children’s museums.
- All text would be limited to 50 word chunks (a significant departure from past exhibitions.)
- We would implement PISEC criteria for as many exhibit elements as possible.
- We would attempt to address as many learning styles as possible in the entire exhibition
- We would define success through family engagement, especially conversation.
Other research done in different types of institutions could possibly be implemented in history museum settings as well. Universal design, visitor generated exhibit content, and label color theory have all inspired significant research that may be useful.
Do history museums have something different to offer? We knew that our content was different from other kinds of museums. It has emotional weight. In exit interviews, on our comment board, and in conversation, visitors talk about their emotional connections to the exhibition. We believe that this is an advantage history museums share. Someday someone should study this – and share the results.