important and pressing question is how does the sensory approach affect the complexity in museum exhibition design? With the trend of technology integration in museum exhibitions comes several changes. First is ‘the deconstruction (or destruction) of the traditional exhibition cases and designs’ due to the cyberdimensions for museum-to-visitor communication (Alexander & Alexander, 2008, p. 246). The prevalence of audio-visual and touch-screen computer interactives best exemplifies this change. Second, the trend also implies a change in museums’ interpretation as museum audiences take priority over museum collections (Hooper-Greenhill, 2004; Alexander & Alexander, 2008). Third is the re-conceptualization of authenticity – the ‘real thing’ becoming the simulated experience with the aid of technology, and not ‘the historically legitimated objects’ (Hein, 2000, p. 66). According to Hein (2000), the eventual outcomes of technology-led exhibitions are: exhibit-evoked feelings holding more weight than arrays of regimented collections in constructing reality and the collected objects themselves losing their factual integrity. In becoming means to corroborate the curator-constructed interpretation, the objects’ own provenance/meaning becomes secondary to their effect on the presented subject and the intended experience of the exhibition. There is risk associated with the current exhibition trend. Museums risk losing their authority by turning away from their collections. Hein (2000) notes that even though it is ‘not its collected objects but its affirmative power to reify [that] enables a museum to control and articulate the experiences that visitors undergo’ (p. 66). If one considers Hein’s claim that the didactic authority museums enjoy today is a direct result of their traditional epistemic homogeneity and the former prevailing attitude on the singularity of truth, modern museums then have somewhat relinquished such authority by becoming more democratic in their exhibition’s interpretation and message and allowing more freedom for the audience’s interpretation. Whether or not the current trend of using design elements and technologies to create sensory/visceral experience furthers or limits the pluralistic view of modern museums, one important question remains: how and to what extent does the current exhibition trend affect the museums’ authority? The interdisciplinary aspects of exhibition design Notwithstanding an increase in literature on museums and museology, ‘a significant progress in understanding the remarkable properties, mechanisms, and effects of museological practice remains elusive’ (Preziosi, 1998, p. 510). This paucity of understanding attests to the complexity of exhibition design – a collaborative and interdisciplinary development process. Another indication of its complexity is the fact that research and theories about museum exhibition design principles rarely go beyond the basic physical affordances. However, there is an increasing effort to establish better guidelines and recommendations for museum exhibition’s interpretation, planning, and development to promote learning and communication effectiveness. Nonetheless, each exhibition’s one-off nature makes it difficult to assess and compare between museum exhibitions. The complex and multi-faceted nature of exhibition design also affects the number and role of professionals involved. In adopting a more pluralistic view – focusing on the diversity of ideas, cultures, and values, ‘museum professionals are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to diversify the pool of curators, exhibit developers, and designers who have control of exhibition content and style of presentation’ (McLean, 2004, p. 193-4). Beyond exhibition designers, once viewed as tradesmen, becoming a key player in the development process, this change also redefines the role of exhibition creators in general: They [exhibit creators, not just designers] are essentially ‘expert generalists,’ able to synchronize the variety of disciplines that inform the exhibit-development process – to recognize the importance of the dynamics at play in the three-dimensional environment, and to be sensitive to the expectations and interests of a diverse audience. They are first and foremost communicators, dedicated to sustaining the relationships and enriching the conversations between exhibition and visitor. (McLean, 2004, p. 205) What is noteworthy here is the double redistribution of authority in the interpretive process of museum exhibition: 1) within the exhibition creators’ circle where various disciplinary experts share the authoritative role; 2) beyond the exhibition creator’s circle where there is more inclusion of audiences and their input.
McLean (2004) points out that ‘Defining ‘entertainment’ with the mind-set of a scholar or ‘education’ with the mind-set of a theme-park operator’ is a challenge and can be a disservice to the audiences (p. 209). It is clear that despite the need and mutual appreciation of the interdisciplinary collaboration, there is an issue of balance of the interpretive input, particularly among the interdisciplinary team members. Although these changes in museum practice can be regarded as the museums’ earnest response to the complexity and sophistication of the exhibition design as well as their target audiences, they also imply an added level of complexity in museum exhibitions. Examples of existing museum exhibitions and their techniques of representing The following section discusses two existing exhibitions to demonstrate how design is deployed in the two main types of museum exhibition, Napoleon and the First Empire at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts being object-oriented and the Canadian War Museum’s (CWM) permanent exhibition as a narrative-oriented example. These two museum exhibitions use different design components and techniques to convey their messages. The exhibition on Napoleon consists of two rooms: one square and a long tunnel-like rectangle that together form an L-shape. The main colour scheme - deep royal blue walls with a tint of dark grey – complements the collections, which include gilded frames and objects, silverware, and warm red wood furniture. It is evident that the exhibit space and arrangement have been designed with the intention for the artefacts to be the central element. This is further achieved with each artefact illuminated by several spotlights, while leaving the overall ambiance minimally lit. While the artefacts are being highlighted against the dark walls, what remain obscure and almost illegible are the artefact labels entailing work title, brief description/explanation and its source. The highlight of the exhibit comes in the last section, a square red room has been created as homage to Napoleon with two benches on the side. The intent here is likely to encourage viewers to reflect on and admire the presented subject – providing room for contemplation which was what museums were originally conceived to accomplish (Ernst, 2000). The exhibition on Napoleon, in many ways, typifies Baxandall‘s concept of the intellectual space between the artefact and the label where the input from the three agents interact. The deliberate space and therefore the interactions are largely shaped and formed by several basic design elements: space layout and artefact arrangement, colour scheme, lighting, and graphic content. This is quite a contrast, should one compare it to the CWM’s permanent exhibition. Narratives, as interpretive ideas, often drive exhibitions of social history; artefacts as corroborative evidence contribute differently to the overall meaning (Lavine, 1991; Hein, 2000). The CWM’s permanent exhibition not only consumes more space in its entirety, but the intended message also seems more complex as the experience and communicative means have been masterly engineered. Without artefacts being the central focus, the exhibition communicates through more advanced representative media, such as audio-visual elements, computer/physical interactives, bold graphic panels, simulated battle scene via projection, and even immersive wartime trench experience. In many ways, the design techniques employed by the CWM are more forceful in engaging the audiences’ attention. However, the question remains if the interpretation of culture, in this case of war history, is accurately conveyed. The differences between the two examples demonstrate levels of complexity in designing museum exhibitions and their experience. The design components/techniques used for the representation have evolved from the printed plans and catalogues to digital graphics and computer interactives. The intellectual space in today’s exhibitions is without a doubt more contrived and no longer clearcut as just between the object and its label; it now concerns sensory and experiential aspects in the form of advanced multimedia and networked technologies. The implications for future museum exhibition design