Presenting hidden layers in an exhibition

Is The Hague and the Atlantic Wall successful? Yes! Did it work out as we expected or hoped? Not completely! In a small series of blogposts we will look at different aspects. In this first post we will look at the overall role of meSch in the exhibition and the way in which we introduce it to the potential users.

The meSch enhanced exhibition ‘The Hague and the Atlantikwall’ is running for over two months now. Just before the opening of this temporary exhibition I wrote a couple of blogposts about our expectations with regards to the meSch technology that is integrated in it. Currently the meSch project is carrying out a formal evaluation, including log analysis, questionnaires, shadowing, video analysis and interviews. Within a few months we will be able to write about the results. Unhampered by any formal methodology in this blogpost however I will go into some of our own impressions.

meSch as an add on to the exhibition?
At the start of the exhibition there is an exhibit with some objects that are related with World War II but not directly with the Atlantic Wall: bags with surrogate tea, a pack of surrogate sugar, a German-Dutch dictionary, a Delft blue beer mug etc.. Next to these authentic objects there are smart replicas of the same objects that people can take with them during their visit to the exhibition to access another storyline.

In the conceptual phase of the exhibition we considered these smart replicas as ‘something additional’. Visitors could use a replica or not. This is how we designed the exhibition. The story about ‘The Hague and the Atlantic Wall’ is told in a more or less traditional way with objects, texts, photographs, graphics and videoclips, thus making the key information also accessible without using meSch technology. The smart replicas give access to another layer of objects: sound clips based on historical sources and supported by historical images. It could be nice to access this layer as well, was the message that we sent.

In practice however it turned out that the replicas are must-haves. meSch technology is so prominently present in the exhibition that visitors have the feeling that without using the replicas they would miss an important part of it. In the initial exhibition design the exhibit in which the replicas are presented was relatively hidden, but this was already changed a few days after the opening of the exhibition. We modified the layout of the exhibit and marked it clearly as the actual start of the exhibition. What we are telling visitors now in fact is that without meSch they will only experience a part of the exhibition.

In the Atlantic Wall exhibition in Museon

A visitor is listening to meSch contents in the Atlantic Wall exhibition.

An exploratory approach to additional perspectives
Each smart replica represents a specific perspective. Roughly these perspectives correspond with ‘civilian’, ‘civil servant’ and ‘German’, but not fully. This has to do with the availability of historical sources on which the meSch information is based.

The floor plan of the exhibition corresponds with the layout of the city of The Hague. In the exhibition a number of relevant locations in the city are represented. One of these spots are the Scheveningen Woods, a large, urban park, that was destroyed during World War II to make room for the Atlantic Wall and protected with landmines. A visitor who selects the civilian perspective will get audio fragments about secretly entering the Scheveningen Woods to collect some of the remaining wood and the danger of the landmines. With the civil servant perspective you will listen to the contents of a letter written by the head of the city’s park service, who tells that he has been fired because he refused to collaborate to the destruction of the city. Both storylines fit to their perspectives quite well. With the German perspective this is slightly different, since we were not able to find relevant original materials. As a solution we took newspaper articles dating from after May 1945 telling about German prisoners of war who were forced to clear the landmines: stories about Germans but not told from the German perspective.

In our original idea this would not have been worth mentioning. We envisaged the exhibit at which the smart replicas are presented as a place where visitors could explore the different perspectives. We only gave a slight clue of the type of story that someone one could expect when choosing a specific replica and some intriguing quotes from the sound clips. We were not sure whether it would work this way or not; in any case we would like to find out – it is this kind of know how that can be very useful for future exhibitions. Using this approach, it was no problem that sometimes we had to be quite arbitrary when allocating certain contents to a specific perspective.

What we learned about visitor’s expectations
However, already at the start of the exhibition it turned out this exploratory approach was not the best one. Visitors did not want to discover the perspectives, they wanted to know. The consequence was confusion. Instead of making visitors curious we somehow appeared to discourage them. Already after a couple of days we attached explicit labels to the exhibit telling visitors which smart replica stands for which perspective, and now it works smoothly. And until now there were no complaints about contents that do not fully match the perspectives.

To conclude the first blogpost in this series, we may say that the lesson learned is that it is wise to be as explicit as possible. Tell the audience what can be done and what exactly they can expect when they make a certain choice. This sounds so obvious, doesn’t it?