Providing Context to the Visitor Experience

In medias res – it’s that writing technique (first utilized by the Roman poet Horace) where the author inserts the reader into the midst of the action. Suddenly we are on the front lines, in the middle of battle. Where are we? What’s going on? The author deliberately withholds this information, instead letting the reader gradually deduce the context over time.

It’s an age-old literary technique, used by Roman poets and James Bond novels. Is it effective in museum exhibits? Does it provide a good visitor experience?

Recently, I visited an amazing exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in DC: Anglo-Saxon Hoard: Gold from England’s Dark Ages. I entered the exhibit, and marveled at the first thing I saw: three display cases of Saxon gold – brooches, necklaces, a sword pommel from a Saxon warrior.

Sword hilt fitting

These were remarkable artifacts. Yet I gradually began to crave more than just the text about each object on the information panels. I wanted context – what was the meaning behind these artifacts? Were they connected in any way? Where were they found?

I felt like I was reading a great book that had begun in medias res. And what I really wanted was some context, to provide meaning for me as I explored the exhibit.

Twenty minutes into my visit, I wandered into a small theater where I watched an excellent and dramatic 15-minute film… and everything suddenly made sense. The film told the remarkable story of this exhibit: the artifacts were all part of The Staffordshire Hoard – the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever discovered. It had been found by this dude with a metal detector in a farmer’s field in England.

Wow. That is awesome.

Suddenly, the exhibit made sense. I had the context I had desired. And that context transformed the remarkable but disparate artifacts in the exhibit into a single cohesive narrative. The individual pieces turned into that thing we are all searching for: a remarkable story. I saw the exhibit with new eyes, and renewed awe.

Is it feasible to provide contextual information to visitors at the beginning of their museum visit? Do you prefer to have the visitor enter the exhibit without context (in medias res) – or with context? What tools can help provide this context – orientation films (as in this exhibit), museum smartphone apps or audio tours, or printed interpretive guides? I would love to hear any thoughts or experiences you have with this.

3 thoughts on “Providing Context to the Visitor Experience

  1. Great article Rob! I think it would be hard for museums to exhibit SOLELY using the “in media res” approach. For many, what makes museum objects and historical artifacts interesting is their context and relation to pivotal events or people. As a part of the historic house museum/site field, context drives our interpretation. Sites, buildings and objects come to life through the stories of the people who inhabited or used them. Having said that, I think it would be interesting and easily do-able to use an “in media res” approach for a hands on activity for students. Historical research itself is often a game of detective work.
    Overall, I think the vehicle for interpreting a museum exhibit’s context is dependent on the exhibit and the profile of the visitor. As museums continue to see visitors who want to choose their way of experiencing and learning, options are key. Whether the options include a live guided tour, an audio/smartphone tour, or simply descriptive panels, visitors want options for learning. Museums could definitely explore the “in media res” approach as an option for exhibit learning and I am sure there are those that do. I would be interested to hear from a museum who has used this approach in an exhibit or program.

    1. Hey Ali! I totally agree with you. Personally, I greatly prefer to have context provided at the outset of the exhibit experience. If I am going to take a tour of, let’s say, Lexington Green, I would like to have the tour guide provide some context BEFORE we jump into the individual points of interest. So I’m actually advocating getting away from the “in medias res” approach, because otherwise the objects in an exhibit feel disconnected. Context provides a cohesive narrative that gives the objects meaning.

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