March 25, 2019 • History Factory
Exhibits conjure a certain image—one of transparent boxes filled with artifacts or walls full of paintings. They are passive experiences that require people to read blocks of text or listen to docents. This isn’t surprising. Most of our early memories of exhibits were forged with experiences like these.
But exhibits have come a long way from the collections of “curiosities” that they once were—the very definition has changed. Curators, historians, designers and activists from different institutions and companies are pushing to create participatory experiences that shake up our preconceived notions about exhibits, broaden audiences, and redefine how we communicate messages and meanings. Here’s a look at three examples that we think change the game.
In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood—Heidelberg Street on Detroit’s East Side—to find it in a shambles. He believed the revitalization of his neighborhood was possible through art. The vacant lots, houses, sidewalks and surrounding vegetation were canvases for his vision, eventually becoming a giant installation spanning several blocks. The Heidelberg Project, or “HP,” sparked controversy at first but is now a Detroit institution. The HP’s staff members arrange partnerships with other artists, provide tours, host lectures and sponsor youth programs.
Many of the installations are participatory, prompting visitors to create something that will forever be a part of the HP. Others, like an entire house covered in children’s stuffed animals, trigger an array of emotional responses at a glance: surprise, happiness and even sadness.
HP is also unique because of its longevity. Long before institutions became known for large-scale social-media-friendly exhibits, HP’s unconventional approach to art and activism enabled it to redefine exhibit spaces and audiences, as well as create long-lasting partnerships with its surrounding community. In addition, HP staff know when to adapt: They introduced the award-winning HP mobile app in 2018.
The topic of virtual reality and how to use it meaningfully has been a part of the dialogue surrounding user experience for several years. The ability to create immersive experiences of historical events presents a unique opportunity to engage people on a deep emotional level. In 2016, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened The Rosa Parks Experience, a VR experience created by Möbius Virtual Foundry that recreates the moment Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
The VR experience offers visitors answers to questions they may have always had. What was it like on the bus that day? Did the bus driver shout? If so, what did he say? Did other passengers come to Parks’ defense? Was she pushed or shoved? VR captures the sights, sounds and, most importantly, the feelings from that historic day.
Visitors describe the experience as “intense” and “eye-opening.” The creative team at Möbius push back on perceptions that VR is just entertainment and assert that it allows “people in the present a connection to people and experiences from the past by using VR to create virtual worlds that add layers of detail and emotions.”
In 2015, the lifestyle media site Refinery29 launched 29Rooms as part of its 10th anniversary celebration. Originally intended as an experience to bring the brand “to life in the real world,” the 29 rooms illustrated Refinery29’s values of inclusivity, individuality, self-expression and imagination in 3D space. Twenty-nine individual “creative collaborators” designed each room, creating a maze-like space for visitors to explore. The installation’s success prompted its reincarnation as an annual traveling exhibit with a new theme chosen every year.
The theme for 2018, “Expand Your Reality,” aimed to “unlock imagination, provoke thought, and dare people to dream bigger.” Sound broad? It’s supposed to. Brands, artists and celebrities created rooms with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) audio, an indoor desert oasis, and group meditation.
The experience draws in people partly because of its Instagram-able appeal. But all the rooms have a larger purpose. Reebok’s room allowed visitors to sit in a giant elastic band in front of a wall with the words “Women Supporting Women”—a nod to the brand’s new sports bra and its history of activism for female athletes. The New York City Office of Media and Entertainment’s “Values Stand” prompted guests to discover how they could become more involved citizens and had a voter registration station. While many rooms used technology, others didn’t and participants were prompted to go smartphone-free.
Refinery29 proved that brands and businesses can achieve high-traffic experiences that elevate their own brands (and the brands of their partners) while still engaging visitors in important and challenging content. By connecting their brand values to culturally relevant content and letting creators and visitors take the lead, companies engage audiences in a personal way that keeps them invested in the brand.
Display cases and artifact labels still have a place and purpose in exhibits. But organizations looking to create powerful brand experiences can take some cues from these examples. By engaging communities, using new technologies and thinking outside the box (literally), it is possible to connect and start meaningful conversations with people inside and outside of your organization.
Thinking of creating an exhibit? We would love to give you some ideas.
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