Reflections on Museums 5: Lessons for Information Architecture from Museum Building Layouts

This is the fourth of four posts from 2010 that explore issues in designing for learning in museums and that I am re-publishing on this new blog about museums.

After visiting about the tenth museum in as many days, I realized a couple of things: some museums really frustrated either my partner or me because we couldn’t easily move from one place to the next. That’s because we could do so easily in other museums.

That frustration inspired me, in turn, to reflect on the floor plans of different museums. Some were designed for true free choice learning—easily letting visitors go in and out of exhibits. Others were surprisingly directive, providing visitors with limited flexibility in choosing which exhibits to see or how to go through the exhibitions. And others provided varying degrees of flexibility between these two extremes.

Then I started to think about why some museums afforded more flexibility than others. In some instances, it may have been the controlling tendencies of the museum designers. In many instances, the museum building either promoted or hindered flexibility. The level of flexibility did not seem to solely result from whether the museum was housed in a purpose-built building (that is, a building specifically designed to be a museum or in a building that was originally designed for another purpose, but ended up as a museum).

The flexibility also seemed to result from the vision of the museum designers. Some knew how to keep visitors always moving; some led visitors to dead ends and had no idea of how to lead visitors out of those dead ends

And that, in turn, caused me to reflect not only on recurring themes in the layout of museums, but because the layout of a museum is, in many ways, a parallel issue to the structure of websites and e-learning programs, I also wondered what lessons could be transferred from museum layout to the architecture of websites and e-learning programs.

Here’s the recurring patterns I observed and what they mean to information and learning architects.

At one extreme is the total free-choice structure, in which visitors enter a central gallery and have easy access to all of the permanent exhibitions from the entry way. Although visitors might be able to move directly from one exhibition to the next, the exhibition layout usually directs visitors back to the center hallway so the visitor can choose any exhibition to visit next, rather than the one next door.

This is the pattern used in the Musee de la Civilization in Quebec City, the Musee Nationale des Beaux Arts du Quebec, Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Hagia Sofia, Musee d’Orsay, Pera Museum, Musical Instrument Museum in Berlin, Museu d’Historia de Catalunya, Museo de Historia de Valencia, Poble Espanyol, and the Canadian Museum of Nature (not yet reviewed).

In terms of general websites, this is the pattern followed by most company brochureware and the standard-issue short tutorial of a few hours or less. Both types of online materials greet visitors from a home page or main menu, from which visitors can choose a limited number of options. When they finish with their choice, they usually return to the home page or menu, and proceed to the next choice. Sequence numbers can imply an order, but do not require it.

At the other extreme is the required linear model, which requires that visitors go through an exhibition in a prescribed order—and only in that prescribed order. This was the structure followed by the Museum of the Inquisition in Lima (in fact, the tour guide was upset when I tried to go back and re-read things afterwards) and the main Palace of Versailles. In some instances, the decision to force visitors to follow the designated path results from a desire to control the flow of information, as in the case of the Museum of the Inquisition. Visitors might only choose to see the gruesome torture chamber, but designers needed for visitors to understand the context that drove officials to conduct the torture. Other museums choosing a linear pattern for similar reasons included Story of Berlin, Choco-Story and el Museo de Traje.

In some instances, the only logical traffic pattern is linear, as in la Catedral de La Familia Sagrada and La Pedrera. In other instances, the requirement that visitors follow a prescribed structure addresses other practical issues. For example, in the heavily trafficked Chateau de Versailles, moving crowds in a particular path could help control crowds.

In terms of designing websites and e-learning programs, the required linear model makes sense when visitors or learners need prerequisite information before they can perform some other task. As a result, visitors might not have access to the subsequent task unless they have learned about (websites)—or demonstrated competence with (learning programs) the prerequisite content. Such structures are often followed by blended learning programs, which often require learners to study the basic terminology and processes of a topic before they can use equipment or participate in role plays later. This ensures that they have basic knowledge.

In other instances, designers might choose a required linear model because they are concerned that too many visitors might overload a website and cause it to crash (although this is a rare concern).

Between the extremes of free-choice and linear layouts, exists various middle approaches, providing visitors with some flexibility in how they choose exhibitions. In some instances, the designers want to provide visitors with extensive flexibility, but the design of the museum building places limits on that goal. In the case of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, visitors are directed to a three-story atrium, which—from the visitor’s perspective—is the entryway to all exhibitions. In reality, a central hallway on the lower two levels separates exhibitions and actually provides far more flexibility for choosing, but is hidden from the view of most visitors.

In contrast, although all exhibitions in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul are accessed through a central hallway, which opens onto a central courtyard, traffic patterns require that visitors enter the central hallway at one side, thus giving preference to a particular order of visiting exhibitions, rather than providing as much free choice as the core layout might provide. Similarly, the Deutsches Historiches Museum has a central courtyard and could easily provide access to any point in the exhibition, but chooses to close off some of the free choice through the placement of walls, and close off the rest of the choice by having guards direct visitors to a pre-selected starting point. In contrast, the Musee de Quai Branly uses signage and traffic design to force visitors in a particular path, though it actually has a central atrium of sorts through which visitors could choose any of the four permanent exhibitions to visit.

Some museums are designed within the spirit of free choice, but the limitations of their structures also limit their abilities to provide actual choice to their visitors. For example, because of expansions over the years, el Prado cannot provide access to all of its exhibitions off of a central hallway because expansions to the facility prevented that, adding space wherever it was physically available. (Even the new addition only addresses some of the problem..) The museum staff tries to make the most of this limitation by purposely placing some of the more popular exhibitions at the ends of the museum—like the Goya galleries—to give visitors a chance to experience the work of artists who might not be as well known to them (much like grocery stores place milk at the back of the store so shoppers have to walk through all of the other products that might not place so highly on their shopping lists). The tiny Textile Museum of Canada faces similar challenges in space as the Prado; they do not afford perfect access to exhibitions though the staff tries to provide visitors as much choice as space provides.

The situation is a bit more awkward at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Although the bulk of the collection follows a free choice model, the galleries housing the twentieth century decorative arts collections are on the upper floors at the far end of one wing of the building. Access is only available through a separate set of elevators at the edge of one exhibition on the fifth floor of the exhibition. The exhibition space is amazing, but its nearly invisible entry point creates challenges. Designers successfully use signage to mitigate some of the problem.

The situation is more acute at the Musee des Arts et Metiers, because the nature of the exhibitions easily lend themselves to a free choice model, but the design of the historic building in which the collections are housed—a former priory—demands a linear design.

In some cases, the layout was merely confusing, as was the case with MUVIM and the Applied Arts Museum in Berlin. In the case of MUVIM, exhibitions did not even to be physically accessible to one another and, in the case of the one we visited, the main lobby itself. IN the case of the Applied Arts Museum in Berlin, the atrium provides the illusion of free choice but provides no guidance into the extent of the collection on display in any of the levels.

Some museums provide free choice access to exhibitions, but once inside the exhibition, traffic patterns were decidedly linear. This was the case in the Topkapi Palace as well as the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme and the Museo Nacional in Lima.

The realities that drive the floor plans also drive the structures of websites. Most books advising information architects, information designers, and instructional designers suggest a preference for the free-choice pattern while acknowledging the occasional utility of the linear pattern.

What most ignore, however, are the middle approaches taken by information architects, information designers, and instructional designers. In most instances, the similar reasons driving museum designers to take middle approaches drive information architects, information designers, and instructional designers. In some cases, they want to provide free choice access to all parts of a website or course, but because of a required splash page or similar opening sequence, cannot. In some instances, these required opening sequences are part of the requirements of the project; in other instances, they’re the brain children of the designers. Many real estate sites follow this structure, as do tutorials that require learners to take a “how to take this tutorial” sequence before presenting the main menu.

In some cases, especially websites and tutorials that are revisions to existing materials, new material is merely an extension of the existing material. Sometimes cost, sometimes schedule, and sometimes attachment to the existing structure prevent information architects, information designers, and instructional designers from doing anything more than tacking the new material onto the end of the old. In some cases, designers can follow the lead of the Prado—and use the lure of the new material to maintain interest as visitors go through the old material.

In other instances, information architects, information designers, and instructional designers can only tack the material onto the end of an existing page, and hope that other pointers and signs and links on the website help visitors find that new material. This usually happens when new policies and procedures are added but not accessible from a home page or similar starting point. This also happens when online lessons are updated with new units. It’s also a problem with some museum websites, where visitor information is not easily accessible from the home page—and none of the options available suggest where visitors might even find it. In many instances, the extent of visitor information provided grew to several pages.

And in some instances, the result is downright confusing to visitors and learners, as happens with some organizational websites.

Because most guidelines for developing websites and tutorials were developed for new sites and courses, information architects, information designers, and instructional designers may not be aware of the compromises they are making to their original designs when they substantially revise the sites. Furthermore, information architects, information designers, and instructional designers often believe that changes in navigation patterns resulting from a revision carry through to the entire site, but often remnants of the old navigation patterns remain and leave the potential to create confusion among visitors and learners.

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