Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute and Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute and Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

Today’s visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Hillwood Estates got me thinking more about the power and influence of exhibit spaces. Our speakers at the Smithsonian Zoo had interesting insight into exhibit design challenges and the negatives of outdated exhibits. While the staff at the Hillwood Estates spoke about making the decisions to open up rooms and/or add to spaces to provide a new or different perspective. (I assumed they never changed.) They change or add objects to various spaces to provide docents with a new storyline and to offer a different perspective for roaming visitors, e.g. opening a room with hairdresser equipment, adding children’s clothing, etc.

Exhibit spaces on their own can tell a story either with animals, objects, or both. In museums, as pointed out by the Zoo, there will not always be a staff person providing extra information or having a one-on-one conversation with visitors. How do we have the visitors find the stories (especially when a cute red panda moves about its enclosure)? Exhibit designers have the challenge of telling the story with this in mind. The architecture and placement of objects can tell stories or help with the main ideas.

For example, the Hillwood Estate Museum contained Marjorie Merriweather Post’s portraits and framed photographs in more than half of the rooms, some of them covering a whole wall. I later learned that she had the intention to turn her estate into a museum. Just as people curate Instagram photos from their everyday life, I felt Post did a similar thing with her portraits. I had the sense that she wanted others to know that she had a full life: friends with important people, and from an important family. She was able to convey that through paintings and photos. I did not read that from a tombstone label or heard it from the audioguide narrator but was able to add to the narrative based on my observations. I do not know if general museum audiences are hyperaware of exhibit spaces but I think they create stories from their surroundings – whether they know it or not.

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