Museum Visitor Experience and Learning Styles

The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I’m connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner.  These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation. 

I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience.  It’s been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn’t hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.

My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn’t previously visited heritage site with.  The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.

 For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen.  He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best.  Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn’t seem to engage him – regardless of what was in the display case.

Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth.  Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities.  But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station.  In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement.  Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.

Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience.  The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences.  It’s impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.

Canadian History at the ROM

First Peoples Gallery.

As previously mentioned I recently spent a day at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).  One of the aspects that I struggled with during my visit was the sections of the museum devoted to Canada.  The first floor of the ROM contains the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada and the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.

Both spaces address Canada’s history, material culture, and roots but they do so from very different vantage points.  The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada focuses on Canadian heritage from European settlement to present with emphasis on the role of British and French culture within Canada.  The First Peoples gallery space focuses on the cultures and traditions of Indigenous people in Canada both historically and in present life.  This gallery does contain some examples of the impact of colonialism on Indigenous life but it isn’t a prominent feature of the space.

The disconnected narratives of these two spaces bothered me.  The galleries overlapped in terms of time period but they didn’t tell a cohesive narrative about Canada as a whole. Rather the European side of things was presented and the Indigenous perspective was separated out into it’s own space.  The lives of both groups have been interconnected since contact and both are integral to understanding the history of Canada.

In addition to the lack of cohesion in the narrative I didn’t see any mention of Métis culture or identity.  My cynical side thinks that perhaps Métis culture was left out because it didn’t fit neatly in either the European or First Peoples narrative.  The other half of me hopes that I just missed a display that highlights Métis heritage.

The ROM did involve six Indigenous advisers in design decisions for the First Peoples Gallery. I’d be curious to know how actively involved the advisers were in exhibit design, label creation, and object selection.   The Gallery combines historic and modern artifacts with artwork from Indigenous people. However the flow between material culture objects that are labelled in a Western style and Indigenous artwork isn’t clear.  They are mixed together throughout the exhibit and without reading labels closely it is at times difficult to tell what era items are from.

Despite all of my reservations about the layout and premise behind the separate Canadian galleries there were a number of great items on display and the quality of the individual displays was well done.

Exploring History at the Royal Ontario Museum

ROM.  Photo Credit: It_Paris

I grew up in a rural community that is within commuting distance to Toronto.  Despite this proximity and my love for museums I never visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) while living there.  Last week while visiting family in the area I took the opportunity to explore the ROM for the first time. 

Overall my visit was a good but tiring day.  The ROM is huge and by the end of the day I found myself experiencing museum fatigue.  Some of the highlights of my visit were the Samuel European Galleries and the Gallery of Chinese Architecture.

European Gallery.  Credit: Tom Flemming

The Samuel European Galleries walk visitors through changes in decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.  The majority of the displays in this gallery are setup as rooms or vignettes featuring furniture, instruments, textile and other material culture objects.  Many of these rooms were paired with audio elements which allow visitors to listen to period appropriate music while looking at the displays.  For example the Baroque room had an audio element that played classical music from the Baroque period. 

The European Gallery also included the Arms and Armour and the Around 1914: Design in a New Age displays. The Around 1914 exhibit included an interesting mix of material from designers such as Christopher Dresser, Frank Lloyd Wright, Max Laeuger, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.  It was an interesting capstone to the European Galleries focus on material culture and design.

Chinese Tomb. Credit: FHKE

The Gallery of Chinese Architecture contains numerous architectural artifacts including roof tiles, flooring tiles,
building features, and tomb related artifacts. The Architecture gallery space is relatively small and in comparison to the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China which focuses on the broader history and culture of China.  However, the large buildings and tombs in the Architecture section were eye catching and a nice variation to the more frequent displays of pottery, tools, and statues.

In addition to the European Gallery and the Chinese Architecture Gallery I enjoyed the hands on elements integrated into the Gallery of Biodiversity and the Earth’s Treasures exhibit that focused on the history of mining, precious minerals, and gems.  I had no idea either of these galleries existed and was presently surprised by their quality and uniqueness.