My museum observation took place at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. This Orange-County based museum’s collection is primarily multi-culturally based. The museum’s vision is to “celebrate world cultures through their arts.” It also has a reputation of offering diversified special exhibits from around the world including the Terra Cotta Warriors and 3500 year old mummies from China, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel, Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum, treasures of Troy from the Penn Museum, and many others.

These special exhibits complement the Bowers’ permanent collection of Native American, Pacific, African, Pre-Columbian, South American, Asian, American and local art. The collections are housed in a Spanish Colonial building with courtyard. The intimate space has recently been expanded to 30,000 square feet with a modern-designed wing. A visit to the Bowers is like spending a day in different parts of the world, without having to travel afar.

INFORMATIONAL RESOURCES

Upon walking into the Bowers Museum, one notices how clearly resources and directions are labeled. The information desk is centrally and prominently located in the museum upon entrance. The information desk is huge and well staffed. Large lettering titled “Information Desk” covers the entire front of the area. Brochures regarding the exhibit, maps, and membership line the front of the desk. In addition, prices are clearly delineated on signs. Special events are displayed on a LCD screen. The flow of traffic at the information desk moves freely. There are extra people on hand to answer questions besides providing tickets. The rooms are closely placed to the information desk. Once paid, there is a docent who additionally provides you with brochures and directs you to the rooms that can be visited. Once the patron has paid and walks towards the exhibit area, there is an individual who hands out audio guides and headphones if so desired.

Signage for the galleries and the artifacts is used in an exemplary fashion. The galleries and exhibit areas are prominently titled and the labels are large enough to read, positioned with good height, separating titled information (such as name, location and date) from descriptive body of text. Walls of maps and timelines complement the entry to and the spaces between the exhibit areas. Some of these include push-button elements to light up areas of maps or touch-screens to present additional pictures and information. These were quite popular with all visitors – both young and old.

The Bowers makes great use of transitional spaces between different spaces of the collection by presenting entry wall text, map and or images that highlight what one is entering into. This provides the viewer a means to become acculturated with the next selection being shown. These transitional areas were often populated with people reading or viewing this prior to looking at the artifacts. These transitional information sources were used in a complementary fashion and were sometimes viewed longer than the artifacts. Many spent a long time reading, some gave a cursory look, and a few passed by. Most of those who passed by had their audio headsets on.

Each room have laminated guides that some visitors seemed to pick up often, which meant that the laminated guides were not available for others to look at. Mini-theaters were spaced out between the exhibits to offer timed videos on different aspects and histories of the collections. This information resource was widely used. It acted as a passive means of receiving information and at the same time gave respite and break to the patrons. Docent-led tours were provided on a frequent basis so that groups stayed comfortably small and intimate. These tours were quite popular.

WATCHING WHAT HAPPENS AND PATTERN OBSERVATION

It is not uncommon to see such a varied typology of people at a museum. This can be clearly seen in visiting the Bowers and I found the most diverse collection of people in nationalities, ethnicities, income ranges, and age groups. Once patrons pay at the information booth, they are guided to the open corridor immediately to its left. The information booth is so close to the entry corridor for the special exhibit area and so clearly labeled with standing signs and helpful docents, that no one seemed lost as to where to go. Entries to permanent exhibit rooms function as offshoots from the main corridor and, again, are clearly labeled with standing signage to direct visitors.

However, the “gold” of the Bowers is their long-running special exhibits, and the corridor is clearly designed to work as a formal introduction to it. The corridor is covered with timelines, maps, and descriptive information and images. Interestingly, these are widely used. Those over 30 years of age seem to use these the most. However, youngsters liked to push the buttons and touch the touch screens. In the center of the corridor, artifacts are placed in clear rectangular museum displays that can be viewed 360 degrees. This allowed quite a number of viewers to look at the artifacts. Commonly, couples and groups would hover over these central exhibits, spending time, while you could view other visitors in the glass from the other side. This facilitated a flow of discourse, viewing, and some semblance of social contact and eavesdropping.

The Bowers also does an excellent job of creating a very formal entry space into the main collection area. The entry is arched with large lettering above, signage of the collection, and distinctive artifacts from the collection that act as “entry guardians.” In this collection, two figures from the collection stood by the doorway, promising a level of enticement upon entry. It was interesting to note the reaction of faces upon entering in this fashion. Often, it was with faces of wonder, expectation, curiosity, and sometimes anxiousness.

There were quite a number of school groups being shown around, mixed with docents leading tours, elderly, middle-aged, and young couples, individuals and families. The couples tended to stay together. However, some of them – particularly the younger ones, tended to separate while viewing different parts of the collections. Those following the docent led tours seemed to enjoy the exhibit as the conversations were lively, questions asked, and discussion was presented in short descriptions with examples and many stories. Some children did run around but somehow it flowed fine and they oriented themselves to the artifacts that seemed the “coolest” or followed the discussion of the leader, or most commonly, talked or shared amongst themselves.

It was interesting to note that a number of teenagers and young people seemed to be sitting the most often in the exhibit spaces. Frequently, these were the ones using the audio tours, and interesting that they preferred to sit in the room from a vantage point of seeing the whole collection rather than standing in front of each artifact. Sometimes they seemed quite bored or not connected to the artifacts. Also, it was common to see those with the audio tour headsets group together and hang out around an artifact for a long time, seeming to concentrate more on the audio than the artifact. This often acted as a blocking mechanism to others wanted to view these artifacts – specifically those that could not be viewed in the round. Therefore, some visitors would flow around those blocking the exhibits and return when they opened up.

Generally, the exhibit layout for the Bowers is well done. It mixes the exhibit space with introductory and transitional spaces, artifacts viewed in the round and open air, artifacts placed in center as well as glass walled cabinets and a movement into three primary rooms, separated by different angles of display cases and display spots. In each major room, a video-viewing room is situated with long benches and low lighting, and it was filled to the brim with people. Again, the room acted as a quiet, passive, restive “TV”-viewing spot that provided straightforward, assimilable information, and a spot to rest weary bones or quiet a small family.

The Bowers also mixes the artifacts in different ways – by format, by timeline, by type, by storyline, by area, so that it does not all flow in one way. This seemed to provide dynamism for the viewing by the visitors so they wouldn’t get too bored or worn out.

The items at the end of the exhibit seemed to be punctuated by the most outstanding, interesting, or different artifacts from the collection. These seemed to act as “exclamation point” for the visitors. Many “oohs” and “aahs” could be heard and this room was the one that visitors seemed to linger around, group around, or find lost members of their group in. Eavesdropping seemed to be a common practice and was most visibly shared in the last rooms.

Strategically, the museum makes you exit in only one way – the museum store. Oddly enough, this is one of the most popular areas and children in particular found this the most exciting. The museum creates the store as an extension of the exhibit so only those items that reflect that collection are in that store. Many of the children wanted an “artifact” from the store. The store was packed and hard to move through. Some even viewed the museum store like an exhibit!

PROBLEMS OBSERVED

The main problem was observed in the primary exhibit space after entering the central area of the exhibit space. Interestingly, this space is what I would term “dead space.” This room is where people seemed tired the most, sat the most, seemed bored, took a long time, and where children didn’t seem to hang out. I think the main reason for this was that the exhibit space was very boxed in, with three walls covered in typical glass cabinets. Items stored in this exhibit space looked similar to one another without much descriptive text or differentiation. There was little flow to the room and seemed cramped. The exit space from this area was small and not very visible. Oddly, people seemed already tired upon entry to this room space – even the teenagers!

Another key problem that seems to be typical of patrons using audio tours is the “herd” mentality. Those with audio tours seemed to be cut off from other patrons and other areas of the exhibit, as if they were in a bubble. They seemed to group together, even if they didn’t know one another. A bottleneck would occur because often the audio was long and the participant would stand there, not moving, until the audio was finished. This acted as a blocking mechanism for other patrons, and most significantly, for younger and shorter viewers. Additional seating would be beneficial to act as restive spots, as well as viewing spots. Whenever benches were provided, which were too few, these were used by young and old alike. I find it interesting how often seating is overlooked as a necessity in museum space.

One other problem observed was that after visitors exited the museum store, it was often difficult to direct them to other exhibit spaces. Often the patrons seemed to head more towards the courtyard spaces, the restrooms, the restaurant, and then exit the museum altogether. What seemed obvious was that the permanent exhibits had few visitors present in those rooms.

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