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Evolving Library Exhibitions as Multi-Sensory, Inclusive Experiences: an Opinion Piece (part one).

As a Junior Sophister English studies student at Trinity, I had the opportunity to take the ‘Exploring Heritage Collections’ module. Stemming from this module, I completed an internship within Trinity’s Old Library with the Research Collections team, where I was tasked with researching the impact and reach of library exhibitions through site visits and desk-based research and with sharing my response. The exhibitions I focus on below include The Old Library and Book of Kells exhibition, the Museum of Literature Ireland (MOLI), The Irish Emigration Museum (EPIC), 14 Henrietta Street Museum, the National Library of Ireland exhibitions of Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, and Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats. Although not Library exhibitions, both 14 Henrietta Street and EPIC provided interesting examples of museums that rely on primary source material from archives and libraries, without displaying any originals aside from archival footage and photography.

Exhibitions serve as an informative highlight for collections, as a social resource, and can be inspirational, moving, and entertaining spaces to visit. However, exhibitions face modern short attention spans and the fatigue of visitors. Anne-Marie Diffley, from Book of Kells Visitor Services acknowledges, ‘it’s tiring to be a visitor’ and estimates visitor attentions spans to be ‘30 minutes. In my estimate, the most impactful exhibitions are flexible in combining primary archival materials with multi-sensory experiences. Immersive digital technology allows visitors to rest, while archival materials are still available for engagement. Storytelling techniques are integral to library exhibitions, where engagement is ‘led by the material’. Factors including in-person interactions, tactile elements, audio guides and projections form the modern library exhibition experience.  


Audio guides

The audio guides available in Trinity Old Library, EPIC and NLI exhibits, serves as both a language translator, and an effective and ambient guide to the exhibition highlights, such as Yeat’s oil lamp in the Heaney exhibition, the significance of which may otherwise be overlooked. The audio guide sets the pace for moving through the exhibition; however, it competes with other audio-visual elements. The use of devices required for engaging with audio guides may be age and ability exclusive. The audio tour of Heaney for example, is consistently well received on TripAdvisor, while the EPIC audio tour serves mainly as a language translator and does not, in my opinion, contribute otherwise to the exhibition experience. 

In-person interactions

In-person interactions are highly valued by visitors, as indicated by TripAdvisor reviews, and by staff members of Trinity Library’s Visitor Services. In-person guided tours of exhibitions attract visitors seeking behind-the –scenes insights, as the guide can provide anecdotal storytelling, which brings the exhibition to life. 14 Henrietta St uses archival footage to present the story of the museum. The tour guide contextualises these ‘short films’ before and after their presentation, encouraging the full attention of the visitors. Guides can demystify the significance of items for visitors, such as in 14 Henrietta St, where the guide explained the features of a piece of 18th century furniture for the tour group. In-person guides facilitate questions from visitors, for personalised engagement. Some libraries offer online tours, which broadens the scope of the exhibition’s inclusivity to a wider and international audience. The experience of a human tour guide as opposed to digital guides, is instinctually engaging as a visitor. Through the inherent adaptability of tour guides, I believe they can help break down barriers of alienation, and bridge gaps of knowledge and accessibility while creating memorable experiences.

Projections

Projection of images and videos is a flexible tool frequently used in library exhibitions. Projections used range from speaking actors, archival footage and recreations of artistic processes. In Heaney, the poet’s manuscript corrections are humorously recreated onscreen as he writes. To hear the poems read aloud, also a feature at the Yeats exhibit, is particularly moving. Audio-visual displays allow for rest and have a cinematic effect. The most effective use of projection is in combination with physical archival materials. At Heaney, the combined impact of projected footage, accompanying sound and the presence of Heaney’s desk nearby is memorable. An audio-visual installation at MOLI on the writer Brendan Behan is described on the label as ‘an almost psychedelic blend of archive footage, music, photography and Behan’s own words, going in search of a more nuanced understanding of the Dublin writer’. Notably however, projected material can become repetitive and tiring when over-used. Neither does the projection of actors effectively replace in-person guides, in my experience.

Primary materials

When I visited the Trinity Long Room, the illuminated display cases with primary archival materials were a welcome sight to me. This traditional presentation of materials remains popular with visitors, who can read and observe the displays alongside other visitors. Examining display cases alongside other visitors feels like a valuable experience, situating the archival materials alongside a cross-section of the modern population. Simple written text is also an effective way to express accountability in relation to exhibits. An example of this at EPIC, where one exhibit acknowledges the sometimes-harmful actions of Christian missionary emigrants from Ireland. This point is conveyed with respect in simple writing, while more playful aspects of the exhibit such as sport and literature warrant multi-sensory experiences. Estelle Gittins, a manuscripts curator in Trinity, notes that ‘communication must be clear’ as visitors may be unfamiliar with the material. Reading dense text is tiring for visitors, which risks later materials being skipped over in favour of seating and audio-visual presentations if available. Eye level writing catches the visitor’s attention, and merges well with standing and moving crowds. Other forms of primary materials, such as photographs are used to great impact such as in Heaney, where a striking photo collage wall frames Heaney’s work in reference to politics in Northern Ireland.

Touch screens

Interactive touch screens bring a wealth of material, often in the form of digital facsimiles, into a small space. In Heaney, EPIC and MOLI screens contain diary entries, a ‘Curator’s Choice’, and drafts. This gives agency to the visitors in engaging with the material that most intrigues them. It is difficult to ascertain whether the screens provide the opportunity for meaningful engagement, or whether they are quickly browsed by visitors before moving on. When visitors are presented with an excess of screen-based information, the novelty of modern exhibition technology wears off quickly and becomes repetitive. The strength of the touch screens appears to be versatility for rotations of exhibitions, and for providing interactive access to large volumes of material. Potentially, touch screen interactivity creates more meaningful engagement when employed in moderation, such as once or twice per exhibition.   

Buildings and landscape

‘They come to see the Book of Kells and they leave with the Long Room’, is the refrain attributed to visitors of Trinity Old Library. Indeed, the space used for exhibitions is crucial to the visitor’s experience.

The way visitors move through space as well as the attraction of the architecture itself is significant.

Although there is merit to the guided experience, visitors like to have agency over their engagement, such as in the Heaney exhibition where visitors can be observed moving through displays counter to the intended route to reach the audio-visual displays. The use of folding screens as a display surface for postcards was notably versatile in this manner at Heaney. A consistent link with the landscape itself where relevant was a favorable feature, such as at MOLI and Heaney. In the exhibit ‘A Riverrun of Language’, MOLI really well situates literature in Dublin’s landscape. The screens, replicating a river, display relevant quotes. A diorama of Dublin with quotes marked at various locations also familiarises the visitor with the literature and the city. As the museum gardens are visible throughout the whole museum, there is a consistent connection with nature – which is refreshing.

Space

The use of space is a strong indication of the focus and target audience of the exhibition. For example, at EPIC, a feature is the projection of the word ‘prejudice’ on the wall as part of a display. The item, although relevant to the exhibition content, is strikingly isolated from the content when viewed alone or as a photo opportunity. The effectiveness of using buzzwords and trendy displays in this manner is incongruent with the sincerity of the content. Alternatively, at 14 Henrietta St, ‘the building is the artefact you have come to see’. The conserved building itself features the original 250-year-old floorboards, and in one room the lid of a cigarette tin remains attached to the wall where it was placed to reflect candlelight in the decades before electricity was available. These features are worthy of being captured in photographs, where their significance largely speak for themselves and outshine decorative buzzwords in their humanistic significance. Inclusivity in exhibition spaces strives to reach a broader audience. This includes ample seating measures, the JAM card programme, social guides to exhibitions available online for the NLI exhibitions and seeking feedback and responses from the visitors.

Gamification

Interactivity is a key feature of recent library exhibitions. Interactive and tactile exhibition features relate to the discourse around gamification in heritage spaces, a direction which can be educational but also can stray from meaningful engagement with the material and become superficial. At MOLI, a strong example of this is the themed, motion activated quoting podiums with takeaway postcards which bring a range of quotes to life with audio, foregrounding the literature. At Heaney, elements of the exhibit such as the peat sods which invite handling, floor screens, localised audio speakers and interactive headphones, and chalkboards strike a balance between playful engagement, in a manner which is respectful of Heaney’s work. The poet’s writing process is well-expressed with primary sources, anecdotes and finished materials which is both inspiring and informative to follow as a visitor, alongside the enjoyable agency of interactivity. Commercial competition may be driving heritage exhibitions to incorporate more cinematic and gamified elements within exhibits, although it is important to consistently prioritise independent and group intelligent responses to and engagement with cultural heritage.

Takeaways

It is part of the visitor experience to feel that you have gained something, whether it be a token to remember your visit, a piece of information, or a sense of inspiration from the exhibition. Leaflets, photo opportunities, anecdotes and feedback all form part of the exchange of information involved in exhibitions. Children’s discovery guides as at the Old Library and Yeats exhibitions are a sign of diversifying exhibitions which move to include younger audiences and family visits. An art installation at entrance to Heaney of paper birds by the artist Maser, in relation to a poem, broaden the relevance of the poems by interpretation. This is an inspiring example for visitors of what responding to the materials on display can result in. At EPIC, a criminal mugshot selfie wall, and a mock-up of an Irish pub appears incongruous with the museum’s endeavor to combat Irish stereotypes, and do not provide a depth of information or insight beyond the superficial. From my estimation, it is important to find the balance between interactivity and encouraging a sincere consideration of the archival material.

Conclusion

In my opinion, successful in-person library exhibitions show consideration for the human experience of engaging with the material on display. With library exhibitions in general moving toward multi-sensory experiences for visitors, there is an inherent opportunity for inclusivity of a broader range of visitors than traditionally would have frequented library exhibitions. I found the Heaney exhibit to be the best example of balancing primary materials with audio-visual elements and multi-sensory engagement for a diverse audience. From my estimation, an over-reliance on technology to replace the guided experience contributes to visitor fatigue, even as it strives to engage visitors. With appropriate respect given to the exhibition material, the exhibition space can foster a sense of community and shared interest in the material, bridging gaps between socio-economic classes through physical and financial accessibility, and diversifying of exhibition functions. Personally, being able to spend a moment encountering a poem performed accompanied by music or imagery, with the poet’s manuscripts to see nearby, is an example of the powerful and memorable high point of a library exhibition.

Molly Robinson