Monday, December 5, 2011

Layering & Unlayering Exhibit Experiences

California Academy of Sciences

What do you think when you hear something like the following?
•           “We do that by layering in our exhibits.”
•            “We create unique, artistic, content-rich, layered exhibit environments.”
•            “The core exhibition offers a layered experience through which visitors explore through evocative objects, telling moments, and state-of-the-art interactive media.”

I inevitably wonder what the speaker or writer means by layered. When I probe, I generally hear several explanations, even in a single museum. Layering helps serve different audiences (which ones?); engages adult interest (how?); supports multiple intelligences (why?); or uses diverse interpretive methods (because?). Layering also assumes many forms: messages, artifacts, activity formats, levels of difficulty in an activity, and information in text panels.

I am not the only one who wonders what layered means. Beverly Serrell explores this in her book, Exhibit Labels: An interpretive approach
“It’s a standard cliché these days: The exhibits are conceived as a series of layers, making information about the objects accessible to visitors of different backgrounds and interests.” (p. 65)

Serrell observes that the idea of levels or layers of information is attractive to museum practitioners; it seems to make exhibit concepts accessible to a broader range of audiences. Exhibit planners use the words to describe the organization of information in an exhibition; label writers are interested in levels of information. The terms are used without clear definition and are almost interchangeably which creates confusion.

Layering is a promising approach to planning exhibits and experiences. Creating exhibit experiences that are engaging to museum audiences is a complex process. It involves multiple players in various roles with different perspectives over an extended time frame and using significant museum resources. Exhibits are expressions of a museum’s potential benefit. 

To be productive (rather than adding to confusion), let me suggest that layering must be:  
Tethered to big ideas, ones grounded in high-level museum audience, learning, or experience goals.
Clarified, explicitly stating what needs to be accomplished.
Shared broadly across the museum among developers, designers, label writers, educators, and contractors, and supported with concrete examples.

Several examples of layering I know of follow different approaches. But all are intentional in accomplishing particular museum work that many museums share.

Layering Across All Scales
A museum planning colleague, Jim Roe, developed an approach to layered experiences when he was working at The Bell Museum of Natural History (Minneapolis) while planning for a new building was underway. Jim’s approach brings together varied experiences functioning at successive scales, in diverse formats, across different timeframes, with differing potential impact. He views layers as foreground, middle-ground, and background experiences with several types within each plane. This is a comprehensive approach capable of highlighting how building on and aligning layers help distinguish a museum and its community benefits.
Spoon Bridge and Cherry at the Walker Art Center
      Foreground Experiences
       • Billboard-worthy special features such as        blockbuster, time-limited exhibits and features: Gauguin & Polynesia at the Seattle Art Museum
        • Trademark icons: Architectural or sculptural elements as memorable icons: Spoon Bridge and Cherry at Walker Art Center
        • Unique subjects: What you don’t see elsewhere, like sharks
Middle-ground experiences
        • Core exhibits: Regularly available exhibit-based activities: The Experiment Gallery at Science Museum of Minnesota
• Temporary exhibits: Topical exhibits that augment a museum’s offerings with engaging learning activities and solid content
• Programs and events: Museum classes for school groups, weekend family programs, special performances, featured artists, inventors, and more
Background experiences
• Learning strategies: Learning strategies made ubiquitous and explicit throughout programs and exhibits: direct experience with objects, multiple perspectives on a subject, spaces designed to facilitate adult-child interactions. Play as a ubiquitous strategy at Providence Children’s Museum
• Underlying values: Values-based choices, such as green and sustainable, used and made visible throughout Madison Children’s Museum
• Mission-driven content connections: Featured content such art-making activities embedded in galleries at the Denver Art Museum.

Layering Play and Content
At the recent ASTC conference in Baltimore Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits at Providence Children’s Museum referenced its approach to layering exhibits. Since opening in 1977 the Museum has created experiences that layer play and learning. How it has done this has changed, especially over the past 10 years. Initially exhibit planning took its cue from children who came to the museum as good players; designing exhibits channeled playful energy towards learning content, sometimes fairly detailed content. For these exhibits, consideration of content goals came first; the form of playful experiences came in later. 

Over the last decade, staff noticed that children's time and even capacity to play were decreasing. These observations prompted staff to frame a question to guide exhibit planning. What if we started with play? Play at PCM is experience freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated and involves active engagement. 

Play Power Dome (Photo:  Providence Children's Museum)
Play Power was the first exhibit to use this question. It invites children and their caregivers to explore, invent, build, imagine, create, and experiment through open-ended play experiences. It also encourages adults to notice and appreciate the importance of children's self-directed play. The base layer in Play Power is avenues of play and experience. The content layer is also play, delivered through quotes, books, and tools designed to help adults notice what happens in children's play at the Museum. Another exhibit, Underland, also started with play, promoting gross motor exploration, dramatic play, and sensory experiences. Connecting children's play thematically to native wildlife and objects found underground is the content layer. As children play, they incidentally encounter content. Crawling through burrows and cooking in an underground kitchen, children meet native animals and insects, navigate roots and bulbs.

The museum has set its next exhibit layering challenge. It will frame a broad topic; start with play; and address topics like spatial thinking, water, and immigration. A new layer is also emerging: making children’s excitement about learning and the learning-to-learn skills that happen through play visible to both caregiver and children themselves.

Even as it evolves, PCM’s approach to layering is intentional, anchored in big ideas embedded in the mission, informed by observations of children, based on a shared definition of play, and related to specific audience groups and a knowledge of them. Layers push the Museum to accomplish more.

Experiences at an Exhibition
The approach to layering I have found that resonates with museums at various stages of development and working on assorted projects is actually unlayering–peeling away and separating layers that interact and combine to form an exhibition. Considering how complex an exhibition, or even a single interactive experience is, unlayering is a way to focus on the features, elements, and dimensions at play in exhibition and experience planning.

Suitable for a gallery or an exhibition, unlayering is less about content and more about the structure of experience. Through unlayering, a group explores variables that contribute to a full, vivid visitor and learning experience with impact. Until a big idea or theme is selected, unlayering is a somewhat generic exercise; but even as an introductory process, unlayering strengthens vocabulary for describing experiences across a team, a department, or a museum. In revisiting the layers with a theme or narrative for a specific project, a team can discuss and agree upon the qualities of each layer and expectations of what it might accomplish, what it could be for this exhibition. With practice and familiarity, a team becomes more nimble and inventive with these elements. 

The unlayering pyramid
I think of unlayering using a pyramid. Layers near the base are long-term like the mission and large scale like the architecture; other decisions need to take these layers into account. Moving up the pyramid, layers are smaller in scale. Think specific activities and ephemeral in the ways social interactions are. Base layers for different projects are typically more similar, while upper layers are less so. The substance of layers represents the possibilities for constructing and layering experiences starting with the walls, selecting essential experiences, shaping activities, writing labels, and encouraging social interactions.

Layers do not need to be static nor limited to those included here. In fact, depending on a particular exhibition, some layers might be irrelevant, re-ordered, or renamed. For an art or history exhibition, objects or artwork would be closer to the base since many other choices defer to the choice of those objects or artifacts. Layers always interact with one another; changing one will suggest new possibilities or reveal limitations. Unlayering is a working tool to be used and tinkered with. For instance, in exploring social interactions, a team can imagine conversations that might take place: who are the exchanges between? what are they about? what nonverbal cues accompany them? Through a kind of conceptual prototyping, probing those questions will spark thinking and point to possibilities for adjusting other layers and identifying ways to encourage social interactions. 

Layering Your Way
Approaches to layering need not be extensive or encompass the entire museum. Being clear is important; starting with a specific practice can be useful. I recently noticed a layering example on the Exhibit Files blog. In Reflections on art in children’s and science museums, Justine Roberts Executive Director at the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire’s explained, “We are intentionally layering together what our visitors do and what professionals in our community do.” This layering is showcasing the creative work of visitors in the museum and connecting it with the work done by community artists.    
At The Magic House in St Louis, exhibit planners have devised several very extensive programs to layer into exhibits. According to Beth Fitzgerald, CEO, the Museum has started out with a broad topic, like civics or forensic science. They develop an extensive program in which children and tweens use 21st century-learning skills to discover how forensic experts do their job and; in the case of Science Detectives, it's to solve a mystery. An interactive, stand-alone exhibition that also is able to support this program series is designed. School and community groups use the exhibits in the morning while family groups use them in the afternoons. A clear interest in serving the upper end of the Museum’s age range and aligning with local curriculum and standards are major factors in this approach to layering.

•       If you and your team refer to layered experiences or exhibits and you do not have strongly aligned ways of defining it, this is an area of productive conversation for you. Get together to talk about what layering can do that needs to be accomplished. Walk through exhibits in your museum (or in a few other museums). Point to what layering looks like; describe how it is working–or not. Listen and ask question of others in your group. Take notes and synthesize. Do this until you arrive at a shared sense of what layered means.

•       Are you working on a big project now? Think about your use of layering. Ask yourself, what are we trying to accomplish with this? What do we mean by layers? Is it clear? Shared? Related to the museum's big ideas? to project’s goals? to the audience’s interests? 

This is going to be a good conversation.


  1. Hi, Jeanne, this sounds like a great exhibition. I hope you will also post this review on Exhibit Files. You probably know that they are eager to expand the kinds of exhibitions reviewed from just science to all fields. Thanks, Gretchen

  2. Thanks, Gretchen. I plan to post the Storyland review on Exhibit Files. Jeanne