During a recent trip down to London for the Relevance Conference held at Historic Royal Palaces, our Research Assistant Hannah Sycamore had the chance to explore the Treasures Cadogan Gallery at the Natural History Museum. Here is her review of their display and digital provision.

I visited the Natural History Museum on a Tuesday lunchtime in October. The whole museum was teeming with tourists, school children and families. I headed in under the 25.2 metre long skeleton of Hope the whale and meandered up the main staircase to the Treasures Gallery which is situated just at the top of the stairs. The Treasures Gallery brings together 22 disparate objects from the museum collection. All these objects tell an extraordinary story about our planet, or the people who have explored it. There is an audio guide to the gallery available to download here. The objects on display are varied, everything from a Neolithic hand axe to Victorian glass models, to specimens to contemporary artworks.

The Treasures Gallery display

The gallery is small space and is carefully laid out. Objects are presented on a black background in glass display cases on small plinths and spot-lit; giving the clear message to the visitor that these objects are valuable and to be treasured. The digital media is cleverly integrated alongside the objects, and four of the objects have hands on “touch objects” (or replicas) next to them.

The touch-screen digital panel caters to all visitors through layered interpretation. Each object has around 8-10 tabs, and the visitor can click on a tab or swipe to move the screen to the next page. The first page is akin to a standard museum label, around 30 words long providing essential information. Following this, the pages explore more detailed stories, themes or historical information connected to the object. The final two tabs direct visitors to information online via their mobile and to other objects around the museum which may interest them.

This layered approach to interpretation, allowing visitors to choose the level of information which suits their interest, reminded me of the approach taken at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. However, rather than using digital to layer the information, in the World Cultures section, here the curators used the physical space of the museum. They carefully tracked their visitor flow, and noticed that families tended to stay on the ground floor and rarely made it to the first or second floor. They adapted their interpretation accordingly to suit their visitor’s needs. As you work your way up the floors, the interpretation is aimed more at adults and individuals with specialist interest, whereas on the ground floor the interpretation is more hands-on and aimed at encouraging family interactions. The advantage to digital media, as shown in the Treasures Gallery, is that you can seamlessly integrate layered interpretation into one gallery space; simultaneously catering to a range of visitor needs and interests.

Equally, at the Treasures Gallery, they have combined hands-on learning with their layered interpretation by placing four replicas or “touch objects” places next to the digital panel and, importantly, near to the original object. Observing how visitor interacted with these objects was especially interesting, as it paralleled findings from our Through a Glass Darkly project on how visitor use their sense of touch to further their understanding of an object. Whilst I was looking at the Barbary Lion Skull, I was joined by George, aged around 7, with his grandparents. Initially he was a little hesitant touching the replica, not sure if he was allowed. But after a minute of pointing at its teeth and comparing to his own, he touches the skull- paying close attention to its teeth and eye-hole sockets- and moved between the original (running around me) and back to the replica. I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, and it was fascinating to watch how many people interacted with the replicas, adults and children. Especially rewarding to touch was the replica Nautilus Shell, and feel the scrimshaw carved decoration and detail. It gave a layer of understanding and appreciation of the skill involved in carving which might have been missed by simply looking at the object.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the careful thought given to the interpretation in the Treasures Gallery. The use of digital in this manner allowed visitors to tailor their experience of an object, choosing how much detail they wanted and allowing them to take control of their own learning within a museum setting. Equally, placing the replicas next to the originals echoes the findings from our research; allowing visitors to use their sense of touch to further their understanding of an object. One area worthy of further research might be to what effect the “authenticity” of replica material has on visitors’ learning and understanding of an object. All the “touch objects” in the Treasures Gallery were plastic. I wonder, should our replica pots in Through a Glass Darkly be made from clay or could they be 3D printed? Would this have impacted on our research? Does the replica need to feel “authentic” to further understanding and enable visitors to draw parallels between replica and original? Such questions perhaps warrant their own research.

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