Value-Conscious Exhibit Design

Author: Teresa Branch-Smith

Museology has made great strides in recent years to normalize what was once an institution specific practice of collecting and displaying objects. How objects are collected and displayed is the result of museum policy and represents the values of the institution. Furthermore, as museums continue to position themselves as epistemic authorities, the values presented by these institutions permeates public uptake of science. Therefore, having a value-conscious framework within a museum is crucial to the perception of objects. First, I will present the common argument for how science is value-laden. Then, I will go over some historical context to show how designers have discussed values in science communication before ultimately highlighting some issues with constructivist learning in particular. This will allow me to describe a best practices model for exhibit design. In exhibit design, whether with artifacts or not, being aware of the values presented in the exhibit as well as the ways in which meaning is made is important. This is especially true in constructivist exhibits where the visitor is encouraged to make meaning of the information semi-autonomously and can therefore chose how to interpret the information. While institutions are not entirely responsible for every modicum of information visitors uptake, they ought to at least present the material in such a way that they are aware of what values can be absorbed. Since museums and science centres are complex learning environments more attention should be paid to exhibit design from a normative perspective which is what my proposed Value-Conscious Exhibit Design offers. This presentation will use examples from the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, USA), the Museum für Naturkunde (Berlin, GER) and the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, CAN) as examples of values permeating exhibits and what can be done to improve them.