Think of all the lines we wait in in the modern world: the line at the airport, the stoplight, the DMV, the coffee shop, the movie theater, most store checkouts… The list is endless. We’re told where to go, what direction to move and when it’s our turn. There are many structures like this, a progression that provides very little room, if any, for diversions. It often leaves us with very little power of choice. This can also occur in many storytelling mediums such as radio, podcasts, music, theater, books and film which all have a set direction or course. There’s a very specific chronology to the strategy of these mediums critical to their narratives and audience’s comprehension. Fast-forwarding and rewinding a podcast is confusing. You can’t raise your hand at the theater and request that the actors on stage jump ahead because you’re bored (although that would be awesome).
Museum exhibitions, on the other hand, are not limited to this script. While they tend to have an overarching narrative, and yes, some have a critical evolution that must be experienced in chronological order (think the U.S. National Holocaust Museum, where if you were a newbie to WWII and left unguided, the Holocaust would make no sense), many exhibitions are not restricted to this linear structure. Exhibitions are stories told through physical environments. As a visitor, you are invited to engage with the space at whatever pace you so choose. You can move clockwise through a gallery, counter-clockwise, or bop from one wall, to the center pedestal, and back out. You choose what you read, listen to, gaze upon. The experience and level of depth in which you engage is up to you. In essence, you possess autonomy, freedom of choice.
Most storytelling mediums offer very little audience autonomy. But you hold the reigns in an exhibition. You, the visitor, can sit and marvel at a sculpture for hours, pull out a sketch pad and practice your drawing, skip ahead of that young family with the stroller and crying baby. Through their own autonomy, exhibition goers become explorers, their curiosity the guide. This makes exhibitions special. As exhibition developers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to tell stories through narrative environments that empower visitors to be explorers, to question and seek out answers, to self-reflect and find connections, and to take control of their experience rather than mindlessly wait in line.