We met to discuss how we might link the past with the present in museum displays, a question which touches on several Happy Museum themes – ‘connect’, ‘mutual relationships’, ‘active citizens’, ‘curate the past, present and future’.

Joining in the discussion were staff from Chiltern Open Air Museum, Godalming Museum, the Imperial War Museum North and Manchester Museum.

We considered how we might link information about the past with possibilities for action and engagement in the present and identified a practical problem – the present is more dynamic and unpredictable than the past. You might reasonably expect to sum up a historic theme on a text panel and for it to remain accurate and relevant for several years. This is unlikely to be the case when trying to sum up what is happening in a particular field today. How do you give equal authority and weight to contemporary views and happenings while still finding a dynamic way to display them?

We thought that this was part of a wider question – how to allow space and means for visitors to consider and share their response to an exhibit. Whether that is a film about children’s lives affected by war, a thought provoking piece of art or a sense of immersion in another time or place.

Some ideas …

• Bring in people – with a programme of events. You can’t get more authoritative, flexible and dynamic than the chance to meet an expert in a particular field. But this will only be accessible to those planning ahead, getting the information in advance and feeling confident about booking and attending a museum event. And will of course reach a limited number of your visitors
• Trust your visitors – if you raise thought-provoking questions, visitors will react in their own way and their own time
• Link to outside information – find out how the relevant contemporary information is communicated. It may well be on the internet. Many of your visitors will be carrying a phone or tablet which can access this and you can offer tablets for hire / to borrow
• Encourage and facilitate debate – start conversations, whether this is online, on a blackboard, on tie-on labels, on post-its, through an opportunity to vote for or against a particular question, by training/ your gallery staff/volunteers…
• Communicate through action as well as words – an allotment in the museum courtyard, a cut flower garden,
• There is a place for labels – We had all enjoyed the Story Museum’s labeling, and the Eden Project was cited as another good example

But do visitors want to be called to action, or have their emotions engaged? Perhaps they appreciate the more detached, authoritative approach of traditional text panels and labels? In a mutual relationship between museum and visitor, should we trust our visitors to engage and act as they see fit, without the museum trying to direct the process?

Here you’ll find more information on Godalming Museum’s project.