The purpose of this guide is to help you look critically at the components that make up an exhibit and evaluate their effectiveness as separate elements and as a cohesive whole that consistently communicates an exhibit’s theme.
1. What is the overall, “big picture” theme of the exhibit? (The title of the exhibit and the introduction panel can help you here.)
2. Can you identify the central question or thesis that drives the narrative of the exhibit? What is it?
3. Does there seem to be a narrow focus or broad? (Think in terms of time—100 years versus a decade? Or subject covered—Lewis and Clark’s entire journey versus L&C in Washington?) Does the type of focus match the message?
4. Is the exhibit intended to provoke, inform, or both? Give examples to support your answer.
5. Have the curators presented information in a way that you feel a personal connection to it? Or, to say it another way, do you “see yourself” in the exhibit?
6. Is there a readily identifiable point of view in the exhibit? Is it subtle or explicit? How would you describe the point of view—scholar/expert, someone just like me, a person from the depicted culture, etc.?
7. Are you asked through the exhibit to adopt a point of view, perspective, or empathize with a particular frame of reference? If yes, explain whose perspective and how the curators engaged you.
8. Are you “transported” into another world, becoming immersed in the train of thought of the curators—inside the story, so to speak?
9. How many points of view do you see represented? Whose are they?
10. Which points of view have been left out?
11. Have the curators created a metaphor or analogy to provide an overall interpretive “hook” for visitors to become engaged?
11. Who do you think the curator intended their audience to be? What makes you think so?
RESEARCH AND SOURCES
12. What types of research resources have been used? (scholarly sources, archival information on objects, historical transcripts and primary documents, newspaper accounts, oral histories, etc.)
13. Do you consider the sources that were used to be reliable? Why or why not?
14. After seeing this history exhibit, do you think it is possible to walk away with the “true” story? Did the exhibit change your mind about a subject? What questions are you left with?
15. Think about the institution that created the exhibit. Most likely, they have a self-perception that they are unbiased. Can you detect bias in any of the text or materials choices? Cite specific examples.
16. If you do detect a bias, is it a compelling one?
17. What are the power relationships apparent in the exhibit’s development?
18. Do you think this exhibit was designed by a single curator or by a committee? What makes you think so?
OBJECTS AND IMAGES
19. What tools (text, interactives, sound, etc.) do the curators use to present the main theme?
20. How are artifacts used?
21. What other objects have been included? What are the sources of the 3D components of the exhibit?
22. What types of images have been included and where are they placed within the exhibit?
23. How do the objects and images impact your interpretation of the text?
24. Is there an overall graphic design applied to the labels? Sketch the “formula” below.
25. How effective is this design in communicating/reinforcing the exhibit’s theme? What elements in particular work well?
26. Are photographs included in the exhibit? What part of the story do they tell? How do they impact you as opposed to other graphics in the exhibit?
27. Has information on labels been prioritized? Typically, museums present information on labels in four levels;. See if each type is present.
Title Labels: introduce the title and theme of the exhibit.
Introductory Labels: introduce the big ideas behind the exhibit and orient visitors to organization of the space.
Group Labels: introduce sub-themes and explain groupings of objects.
Object Caption Labels: individual interpretive labels for an object or phenomena.
28. How is the text organized throughout the exhibit? Have the designers grouped it in a particular way?
29. What level of vocabulary is used?
30. How long are the sentences? The paragraphs? How many paragraphs tend to be included per panel?
31. How many chunks of textual and graphic information are included on each panel? Does it make you feel comfortable reading it, or does it repel you? Why?
32. Is the text easy to read—it’s design and font, size, contrast against the background, etc.