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Exhibit Spaces and Exhibit Catalogs

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on October 9, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by Cira Louise Brown

Over the past few months, I have been working to develop an exhibition catalog from an exhibit currently on display. The exhibition explores the topic of time from various cultural, scientific and mechanical standpoints, and uses artifacts from a variety of institutions and collections. I find the show to be very successful in its ambitions, and the content has even been integrated into a college class. Given that it’s a temporary exhibition, lasting less than a year, there was a need to preserve the content in the form of a catalog, in both eBook and iBook formats. I was tasks with laying out the book, using the existing style of exhibition.

As with so many design projects such as these, the task seemed straightforward enough. The exhibit content was done, photography of the objects was mostly completed, and the design standards had already been decided upon. Yet translating an exhibit into a book remains a tricky task.

So, in my brief foray into exhibition catalogs, here’s a little list of what I’ve learned.

1. There is a constant tension between the size of photographs and the readability of the book. The natural inclination is to make the images as big as possible. Yet if you have an artifact with 4 different views, what takes priority? Should “detail” images be larger than a view of the entire object? If there are numerous objects arranged together, should that continuity be preserved on a single page, at the risk of making each image smaller? These decisions are difficult, and often require the oversight of a curator. An iBook, for use on an iPad, however, can mitigate problems with sizing since it allows for zooming in and multiview galleries. While I personally find these features preferable, the tricky part with galleries is there is a lot of pressure on the first image, as someone may bypass the gallery altogether. Again, curator input is essential.

2. Books cannot replace a gallery experience. One of the unique aspects of a gallery visit is it allows visitors to approach objects at their own pace and discretion. Part of the fun of a museum visit is peering at an object through different angles and taking in the nuances of the object itself. Some of these details will be lost in a photograph, however sharp the image may be. If a single photograph is chosen to represent the object in the book, however, the 360 degree view is lost. This is particularly pertinent for scientific instruments, as they are complex pieces of equipment, designed for three-dimensional utility, not two-dimensional display. Scale, unfortunately, is lost in a book, even with the addition of rulers in the photograph. Upon viewing some of the instruments in person after working with their photographs, I was struck at how tiny and intricate they were for their size. These revelations risk being lost amid the grids on a page.

3. Galleries cannot replace the experience of a book. Despite being able to view the object from different perspectives in the gallery, sometimes even that is not enough: a sundial can either be open or closed, a record can be on Side A or Side B. Some display cases in a gallery are only accessible from one side, so the front side of a mask is the only view that can be seen. However, in a book, the front and back of the mask can be visible simultaneously, while in the gallery the back is always hidden. The book also provides more control over the order to present items, as opposed to visitors browsing organically — the dilemma of free-choice learning. A book allows for the explicit depiction of a chronology or evolution of an idea through successive pages, which, for topics in the history of science, is often an educational benefit.

4. Gallery text is not always compatible for books. Many gallery labels refer to objects nearby or make comparisons, which is often difficult to replicate in a book. If a paragraph refers to six artifacts, which should be shown on the first page? Or is the best strategy to break up the copy, and show each image with the corresponding text? I used the latter strategy for our book, though it made for a few somewhat strange pages. When consistency is maintained, we hopefully increase the chances that our readers will be a bit more forgiving. Additionally, label writing is distinct from the tone of a book. Short, truncated sentences that lend themselves well to small, well-placed labels can look incredibly awkward in a book; sometimes these create a nice “call-out”, adding the visual hierarchy of the book, but other times they may simply need to be rewritten. Not everything translates exactly – and that’s ok!

5. Copyeditors are incredible people. As with any design task, it’s vital to have an additional set of eyes — especially with copy as format-finicky as object attributions. Copyeditors allow the designer to focus on layout, while they make sure nothing gets lost in translation. They are essential!

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