Artifacts at the Heart of It All

Most who love and/or work in museums are drawn to these cultural centers for the artifacts, for what’s displayed, what can be seen and what we can learn from these priceless objects.

However, for some museums, science centers, etc. it may be challenging to combine hands-off objects with hands-on experiences. A session during the MAAM Creating Exhibitions conference focused on “Bringing Back the Artifact.” Presenters from the Franklin Institute Science Museum discussed their experiences collaborating and developing the Franklin’s  latest core exhibition, Amazing Machine. I’ve provided some suggestions and tips discussed that may benefit those looking to “enrich hands-on experiences with hands-off collections.”

Regarding Artifacts

  • Don’t give up on the artifact! As reflected in visitor surveys from the Amazing Machine exhibit, artifacts are just as popular as hands-on interactives.
  • Incorporate cultural stories to help personalize artifacts and connect visitors.
  • Do not lend out artifacts. Sometimes various contractors may request artifacts to observe, photograph, illustrate or use in some capacity. If the museum is collaborating with contractors who are not in close proximity to the museum, consider alternatives to sending these partners artifacts or museum objects.

Regarding Collaboration

  • Get curators, educators and other staff  involved with the Exhibit Design team early on in the process. This will spark ideas and help keep communication open.
  • Utilize a database system for artifact tracking and record keeping that incorporates fields pertinent to all involved staff. This will allow more active communication and accurate details.
  • Teamwork and strong integration is key!

Regarding Exhibit Design

  • Integrate artifacts to support and influence 3D and 2D design. This can greatly impact graphics used, color palettes, and layout. Color scheme can also reflect certain attitudes towards artifacts. Using certain tones will support a feeling of respect towards artifacts.
  • A cost saving tip, if applicable, incorporate historic images into exhibits. These graphics may be easier to obtain without copyright restrictions.
  • Use temporary graphics for instructions. Test directives with visitors before committing to specific language. Such tactics can avoid costly mistakes.
  • Test interactive prototypes THROUGHOUT the process! Especially if the museum is collaborating with interactive consultants, be sure to continually test (even if you’re told everything is alright and not to worry).

I’m hoping to check out the Amazing Machine exhibit and see these great tips in action when I visit Philadelphia for the AAM Annual Meeting in a few weeks!


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