Museum Victoria

Tim Rolfe

Head MV Studios

Museum Victoria

Museum Victoria GPO Box 666 Melbourne Victoria 3001 Australia

Melbourne, Australia
2010 Museums Australia Award for Excellence, 2010 Victorian Tourism Award

"Wild" times at Melbourne Museum

Museum Victoria is the most visited museum organisation in Australia. With origins dating back to 1854, the institution cares for the State of Victoria''s natural history, Indigenous cultures and social history collections numbering more than 16.6 million items; and is custodian of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne - the only surviving Great Hall to once house a 19th-century international exhibition that remains in use for its original purpose.

Museum Victoria operates three museums:
•    Scienceworks - located in the grounds of the historic Spotswood Pumping Station - is a Science Centre that makes learning about science and technology a fun, interactive adventure and features the Melbourne Planetarium.
•    The Immigration Museum is situated in one of Melbourne's finest 19th century buildings, the Old Customs House. It explores the stories of real people from all over the world who have migrated to Victoria and engages visitors with contemporary issues relating to cultural diversity.
•    Melbourne Museum is an iconic, purpose-built museum in the Carlton Gardens opposite the Royal Exhibition Building. It presents an array of exhibitions in permanent galleries exploring Aboriginal culture, science and technology, the human mind and body, the history of Melbourne and features a central living Forest Gallery, dedicated Children's Gallery and an IMAX cinema. A touring hall is currently presenting the blockbuster exhibition: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.

The three museums are enjoying a period of enormous success, attracting over 2 million visitors per annum (Melbourne has a population of 4 million) and being acknowledged with major awards in 2010 including the Museums Australia Award for Excellence (Large Museums); Victorian Tourism Award for Best Major Tourist Attraction; Australian Interior Design Award for Installation Design; and a Gold MUSE Award from the American Association of Museums' Media and Technology Committee.

All of this success has not come easily. The institution's flagship museum, Melbourne Museum, opened to great fanfare in the year 2000. However, many of the original exhibitions in the permanent galleries did not engage visitors. The promise of the soaring architecture was not delivered upon and visitors turned away, disappointed. By 2002, numbers were dropping at an alarming rate and the organisation was in some financial difficulty.
With the commencement, in late 2002, of new Chief Executive Officer Dr J Patrick Greene, a range of measures were undertaken to address the shortcomings of Melbourne Museum and the organisation as a whole. One of the key ones was to set about creating new exhibitions in the permanent galleries to replace those ones that were not engaging visitors. In order to do this, the approach taken to exhibition development changed in several important ways.

In-sourcing Model

When the exhibitions were developed for the opening of Melbourne Museum, much of the work was outsourced simply because it was such a vast project. In particular, the design of the exhibitions in each of the permanent galleries was outsourced to private companies, as was the production of multimedia elements and the overall project management. This resulted in something of a gulf between the museum's own curators and those charged with making the new exhibitions. From 2003 onwards, we gradually built up the inhouse numbers and capabilities of creative staff. We did not turn our backs on using external expertise, we continued to enter into many partnerships and collaborations and still do, however, the way we went about it was quite different. Essentially, we took control of our own destiny and would, as an example, be far more likely to employ an individual designer to come in and work with our team, than to outsource the design of a whole exhibition. Even when we do use external design companies, our projects are managed by inhouse producers who ensure that the input of museum staff is respected and incorporated.

Audience Research

Museum Victoria has a small team charged with undertaking Audience Research and Visitor Evaluation. From 2003 we began to use this resource very actively and in many different ways in the creation of new exhibitions. We still regard it as a tool and not as an absolute, but we have found actually listening to our visitors extremely useful in determining priorities for exhibition renewal and approaches to take in exhibition design.

Process and Planning

With some 28 exhibition spaces in permanent galleries across 3 museums in 3 separate locations around the city of Melbourne, each with its own differing needs and priorities, the requirement for a systematic process for planning, developing and delivering exhibitions is acute. We developed the Museum Victoria Exhibition Framework - part plan, part strategy, part policy, part guideline - and adopted a classic project management methodology for the creation of new exhibitions and a vastly improved governance structure.


In many ways, though necessary, the three points above were the boring bits! What truly transformed the audience reaction to the new exhibitions developed since 2003 was the approach we have taken to exhibition design. Again, there are many factors at play here - and I stress that our exhibitions are built on a very strong foundation of research and collecting - but the two design features I will highlight are: they way we have used technology; and the way we have immersed visitors within the exhibitions.

Innovative interactive multimedia technology has been a hallmark of our exhibitions since 2003, and one for which we have been well acknowledged - for example, Museum Victoria has won 8 MUSE Awards from the Media Technology Committee of the American Association of Museums, 5 of them Gold.

The reason we have embraced the use of innovative technology is because of the level of sophistication of audiences today: they demand to be engaged in ways never previously considered. People, especially younger people, are being raised on iPads, Playstations, Nintendos, Wiis, Smartphones and so forth. And whilst we do not necessarily need to compete with those experiences, these technologies are a language they are fluent in... so to communicate with our visitors effectively, we must be able to ls"speak' a version of it in our exhibitions.

The way Museum Victoria has physically placed audiences within our exhibitions has also proven very successful. By and large we strive to minimise the usual museum practice of merely placing objects in showcases with labels: we attempt to immerse people within the exhibitions. This has been pursued for three main reasons:
•    to better illustrate the stories being told, and place the real objects in context, thereby promoting understanding and engagement;
•    to enhance an experience and better engage people by getting visitors physically closer in proximity to and intimacy with the objects and stories; and, in certain cases,
•    to create a greater sense of self-awareness for the visitor.

Perhaps Museum Victoria's best example of immersive exhibition design with innovative multimedia is Wild: amazing animals in a changing world. This exhibition has won a slew of awards including Special Achievement in Innovative Design at the American Association of Museums' 23rd Annual Excellence in Exhibition awards. It is not hard to see why. Visitors enter and are surrounded by a ls"canyon' of over 750 animals, most on open display. At first glance there appears to be little the way of interpretation, but an ingenious device - the ls"Panoramic Navigator' - solves the issue delightfully. Point it at a creature and touch the screen to bring up factual information and conservation status. A high quality photograph or video of the animal in its natural habitat can be viewed and a 360deg; movie of the object can be rotated by the visitor and even downloaded to a BlueToothtrade; compatible phone.

Wild: amazing animals in a changing world combines clever technology with physical immersion amongst museum collections to provide a rich, engaging experience for audiences that they could not possibly get at home.



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