Ever wondered why we leave visitor books outside of exhibitions and what happens to them? We read them, and your feedback about our exhibitions helps us to develop better experiences! Here is some of what we have learned from the feedback from the Antiquities Revealed exhibition at Queensland Museum.
Museums routinely provide exhibitions, and these are developed by teams of people from quite diverse areas within the museum including curators and collection managers, exhibition designers, graphic designers, object conservators, preparators and supported by media and Lifelong learning. Over several months, from development to exhibition opening, we all work together to provide what we hope is a great experience for people who come to view the exhibitions.
Exhibition visitor comment books
Sometimes we place visitor comment books outside an exhibition space, for people to make comments if they choose. These comments are often incredibly helpful. Through the various comments left, we learn about how people experienced the exhibition: its design and layout, the written content, the objects. We also learn about the lingering questions people had about content or aspects of history. Sometimes people even provide suggestions as to how we can improve for next time, what was missing, needed expanding, or was confusing.
Overall reviews of Antiquities Revealed
It seems that the majority of visitors really enjoyed the Antiquities Revealed exhibition. Many commented that the display itself was a beautiful, superbly designed space, with good flow, and where the objects were well-lit and laid out: “This is a very cool exhibit”, “marvellous”, “great curation,” “a banger of an exhibit”, “very good, loved it”, “interesting to see and look at” “free and awesome!” “world class and for free!” “length nicely judged too”. One commented that display “inspires wonder in the most brilliant way”, and that “the antiquities were revealed to me, which exceeded my expectations!”. However, some didn’t agree: “it could be better but it is a good day out with the fam. Antiquities are boring. I was snoring.”
In developing exhibitions, we seek to show a variety of interesting objects, and work with designers to consider which should be placed together, thinking about height, colour, form, texture and minimising visual overload. Many visitors delighted in the “fantastic objects” particularly of glass and pottery, which were placed on display as they are collection strengths. People appreciated seeing things that were normally not on display, and also seeing them without travelling overseas. Specific objects touched hearts – “the little frogs were so cool bro”. One commented that whole objects “were as poignant as the fragments”. This is great to hear as fragmented or broken items are not often forgone in lieu of more complete pieces, even though they may have important stories to tell. Several commented that it was “amazing how these [objects] are over 2000 years old and in such good condition”, and “it was really cool to see things from Pompeii” and they “particularly enjoyed the Egyptian pieces”. We are pleased to hear “I have visited many museums in Australia and never saw such a wonderful collection of earthenware pots. Looking at a Greek pot is a true pleasure”.
One challenge of exhibitions is label writing. There are a limited range of labels, and you usually only have between 30 and 10 words to play with. This means you have to get to the point very quickly, and present the most compelling or interesting story. Short word lengths are often a challenge. It’s great to hear that the exhibition was considered to be “fun, fascinating, well written” with “educational and informative text”. “Very good exhibit, layout and short descriptions written above sets (cases) was a nice quick way of imparting knowledge”, it gives enough knowledge and context, to the daily lives of the ancient world, to a lay audience without over explaining everything” leading one to comment, “the past is surprising and interesting”! “The labels were really well written and with very interesting information”, “loved reading the stories behind them”, “the Antiquities Revealed exhibit was informative, enjoyable and beautiful. The exhibit was fun and informational”. “I love this museum and I can learn a lot about the past here”. We have to agree that “The past is surprisingly interesting!” and “makes us want to learn more”.
Reflections and Revelations
One of the aims of the exhibition was to reflect that these objects are more than curiosities from the past: they are tangible links to the lives of the people that created them, traded them, gifted them and used them. They all had value, purpose and meaning in peoples’ lives. Despite the passage of time, we share many connections with ancient people and their belongings.
Several made connections between the ancient items on display and items and activities in their own lives. “A whole lot of tiny things were made in ancient times without our technology”, it was “intriguing to see the way past generations used materials to create intricate designs”, “It really puts life and possessions into a new light”, its “really great how we can see the history of the world and compare to what we use today”. Visitors wrote that “it was mind boggling to think of life in these ancient times”, and “that people have been creatively expressing themselves for so long”, with insights into “the lives of people.”…“it’s so intriguing to see the way past generations used materials to create intricate designs”. Some also engaged with the deeper aspects – that we “should protect cultural heritage”, and “show respect for people and objects from the past”. “I am amazed by the history, cultures, skills, that people had similar ways of life to us today, that we can share in global history”, For some, there was a more direct connection “It is about my ancestry!”
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to discuss every aspect of each object in a display. The visitor book had several questions and we can answer some of these here.
Question: How did things come to be here at Queensland Museum?
Answer: Antiquities objects have been accepted by the museum since the 1870’s. The collection has developed over time as a result of donations, purchases, museum exchanges and excavations. This means that the items in the collection have variable histories and legislative contexts. Some were legally acquired under the laws of the time; others were illegally obtained. Today we do not condone illegal collecting practices. Queensland Museum has a due diligence process which ensures that each object is deeply researched regarding its history and legal context to be transparent about object collection histories. We strive to make the items in the antiquities collection discoverable online, so we can have conversations with source communities and countries regarding the return of objects if requested. It is a closed collection today, which means that we don’t currently accept donations of antiquities.
Question: Why has the stuff not broken?
Answer: Indeed, several items do show signs of wear and tear, with repairs, breaks, and erosions. These form part of the story of the object. The completeness of an item is also usually related to the original acquisition contexts – via dealers, exchanges, excavations and their original contexts in burials and tombs. Collectors often preferred more ‘complete’ pieces over broken pieces, and this is what ends up being donated to museums. Finally, it would have been great to be able to “describe the processes of manufacture of each item”, however label word limits often prevented this, although we were able to describe some aspects in the display. Another wanted to learn more about the cultural heritage contexts. The museum has acquired pieces over a long-time frame, as a result of purchases, museum swaps, donations and excavations. This means that the items in the collection have variable histories and legislative contexts. Some have been legally acquired under the laws of the time, while others were illegally obtained. Today we do not condone illegal collecting practices and cannot unwind what occurred in the past. Today, Queensland Museum has a due diligence process which ensures that each object is deeply researched regarding its history and legal context to be transparent about object collection histories. We strive to make this collection discoverable online, and via exhibitions, so we can have conversations with source communities and countries regarding the return of objects. It is a closed collection today, which means that we don’t currently accept donations of antiquities.
Suggestions for the future
A familiar comment from audiences is that exhibitions be more interactive with activities for children and contain more seating. These are always excellent suggestions, and some are easier to adopt (such as seating) while others are more difficult due to a lack of funds for development, technologies, exhibition development timelines, staff availability to develop and implement such programs. Exhibitions are usually put together in short timeframes with limited budgets, and Antiquities Revealed was no different. However, we do strive to implement these important aspects in the exhibitions we develop at Queensland Museum.
If you are interested in learning more about Antiquities, how a display gets put together and conservation science, then come to a special World Science Festival Brisbane presentation on 13 March 2022. Buy tickets now.
Check out the Antiquities in Cultures and Histories Collections Online.