How much interpretation is too much?

Some recent museum blog posts (e.g. Mediation or interference?, Tilting at Windmills, Part Two) have discussed the appropriate amount of interpretation or mediation in museum exhibitions. I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since interning at the Smithsonian Institutional Studies Office more than fifteen years ago. At the time, the office had just completed a study of the visitor experience in the exhibition Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. This exhibition was more heavily interpreted than the typical Sackler exhibition, and the researchers discovered that while some visitors liked this very much, finding it informative and wanting to know about the historical and religious contexts of the objects, other visitors felt it interfered with their experience of the objects as art. [See Appendix A.]

Ed Rodley commented in a recent post that it’s not an issue we have to deal with as often in science museums, and to a large extent, that’s true. But I’m reminded of a conversation I seem to have repeatedly with a former college classmate whom I keep running into at reunions.

Model PlaneHe’s now an engineering professor who occasionally works with a local science museum on content for exhibitions. He shared with me a story that I reacted to quite differently than he expected. The museum has a hands-on exhibit about flight, where visitors can build and test something. (I didn’t get the details.) It turned out that the background information panel about aerodynamics was “scaring people away,” so the director had it taken down, my fellow alum told me in horror. Now the exhibit gets used.

I think he’s expecting that I, with an engineering degree from a very theoretical program, will share his dismay at this director’s decision. What I’m secretly thinking is, “Wow. It’s great that a director of a small science museum, probably without the resources of a research and evaluation department, and apparently being pressured by contacts at a university he collaborates with, is sticking to what the research says about what provides a better experience for his visitors.”

It would be better if the museum could have a label written that doesn’t scare his visitors away but still communicates an appropriate amount of science content. But if the museum really doesn’t have the resources for that, I’d rather have the visitors walk out of there thinking, “Flying things are cool. I wonder how they work,” than “Aero-whatever is hard and scary.”

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