Designing exhibitions as learning experiences

Totem doesn’t conceive of the viewer as a passive receptacle for information, but as an active participant in the process of building knowledge. Creating the opportunities for this participation is what Totem’s design process is all about.

 Students at Wits University's Origins Centre, designed by Totem Media.

The spaces it creates
are spaces to think in

Whether Totem is designing a book, a film or an exhibition space, it is always aware that it is designing a learning experience. First and foremost, the experience needs to be sensory, immersive, interactive and fun, involving as much of the person as possible. If we could use scent to complement the experience of our museums we would.   

Regardless of the subject
the principles of learning
remain the same
The experiences also need to offer enough relevant information to spark a learning journey in the viewer. Different visitors to museums are moved by different levels of information. The exhibition has to meet each viewer at their level and offer something meaningful, new and provocative to them.
It's not only about getting
feet through the door
we try to challenge
the way people think

This journey needs to continue long after they have left the museum space. For this reason Totem strives to extend its museum spaces into the virtual spaces of the Internet and mobile phone technology. 






































Here are some of Totem's design principles: 

1 | The primacy of the archive

At the heart of each museum project is that museum’s archive. It is needs to be understood by our team as it is the primary source for the creation of media. The exhibitions of the museum should reflect the archive that lies at its heart. Exhibitions come and go, but the archive keeps growing. This makes the museum a true resource for individuals and communities.

2 | Design is underpinned by an educational methodology

Totem tries to involve its clients in the deliberate design of an educational methodology. Educational methodology drives everything including staffing, exhibition design and funding.

We recognise that no education is neutral. All education has ideological roots and is based on a set of cultural assumptions and agendas. These need to named and interrogated to see whether they are the best building blocks for the desired learning experience.

 3 | The way we listen gives the client a voice

This is perhaps Totem’s key skill. It is able to have the kind of conversations that inspire vision. It does not go away with a brief and create something. It works closely with clients, helping them evaluate their reasons for choosing a specific kind of media and message.

4 | Critical histories rather than promotional media

Totem is not in the business of advertising or creating promotional media. It is in the business of creating critical histories. Clients who are trying to present a skewed view of their history and heritage, or are trying to represent a one-sided view in their messaging, find Totem’s approach disturbing. We include marginalised voices in our representations of history and multiple voices in unresolved debates.


The cover of Totem Media's book on the Bafokeng. 

5 | Multi-disciplinary dialogue

If you are trying to make sense of a particular subject why not get all the experts around the table for a day and see what comes out. This is not always a process that institutions are comfortable with, especially when they are over-protective of their intellectual property. A round table discussion is sometimes experienced as allowing the competition to see your “software”. In out experience, partnerships and exchanges of information strengthen the integrity of museums, help to make crucial content choices and add a lot to the design of museum narratives.

6 | Content leads, technology follows

A shortcoming of many exhibitions is that they allow the sensationalism of the latest technology to drive the exhibition rather than content. An exhibition delivers content, not technology. Technology choices must be made according to the best way of delivering the content. This sometimes means using simple mechanical devices, like pulling out the draws of a cabinet, rather than touch screens and projections.

Technology requires technological support. A museum can very quickly become tacky and disappointing when technology fails. If you are going to implement sophisticated exhibition technology you need to make sure that the technical support is excellent and preferably in-house. The same can be said of architecture. You cannot design the architecture of a space before having made crucial decisions about the content and the broad narrative of that space.


7 | We don’t present information as neutral

We support the critical engagement of content Totem does not offer a single authoritative voice. The process of design should not be completely hidden from the viewer. The viewer should be able to engage a level of content that reflects on and critically engages the rest of the content. This is a meta-level that unpacks the cultural values that have been embraced and the creative decisions that have been made. In this way visitors learn, “Someone decided to do this for a reason. This is not necessarily the only way it can be done. What motivated them?”


8 | The design must talk to the environment and engage the social context

All design needs to be cognisant of and talk to the context it is in. The community in the immediate vicinity of a museum is a powerful resource if befriended and effectively utilised. Part of the context is also the visual presence of buildings in the immediate vicinity – especially heritage buildings. The design needs to take these into consideration. 


9 | No design is complete until the museum team that will use it have owned it

It is the people who are going to use the design that have to be most comfortable with it and excited about it. Whether these are heritage workers or science communicators, they need to be trained in how to get the most out of the design. In every museum there are subtle cultural processes that cannot easily be seen. These have to do with the aesthetics, values, beliefs, attitudes and subsequent behaviours of the museum staff. Ownership of the museum as a space and as a set of ideas is vital for its success. 


10 | The importance of long-term programme development

The programmes that a museum offers need to be planned way ahead of time in order to anticipate logistics, market events and coincide with national and local events. This long-term planning should begin at the design stage. It also feeds into the sustainability of a museum.


11 | Sustainability is essential

Totem will not engage in a project if it is not convinced that it can be sustainable. A lot of effort and out-of-the-box thinking goes into planning how the museum can generate both income and funding.

12 | Partnership with educators

In a developing country the success of a museum is often reliant on teachers who recognise its value and plan school trips there. A museum needs to treat teachers as VIPs. The role of teachers and the museum's relationship with them needs to be decided on during the design phase. The museum content not only needs to have synergy with school and university curricula, but it also has to be based on research into the needs of teachers.

Teachers often see museums as an opportunity to let go of their learners and outsource their learning for a short time. Totem challenges this attitude. We don’t want teachers to simply dump their learners. We want teachers to be fully involved in the learning process. We want them to be engaged and follow-up the museum experience with appropriate classroom activities. The museum needs to facilitate the teachers in training sessions that introduce them to the museum’s programmes.

We want teachers to spend time in the museum on their own, planning their lessons, sharing them with other teachers and consulting with experts. Teachers who frequent the museum often need to be recognised with some kind of “frequent flyer card” that offers rewards in the form of opportunities and resources of value.


 Totem's educational resource book for the Origins Centre


13 | The impact of all exhibitions needs to be effectively evaluated

The museum itself needs to embrace a culture of leaning as part of its organisational culture. This means feedback! Effective feedback mechanisms need to be put in place so that visitors, corporate events clients, researchers and staff can give feedback that is taken seriously. There needs to be constant evaluation of exhibitions, messaging and the skills of staff that gets fed back into the system.

14 | Networking

The success of museums is often a product of their ability to network with other institutions and individual champions. We give a lot of thought to networking with those who can add value. These include schools, universities, government departments, businesses, community organisations, journalists, donor organisations, other museums and heritage sites.

15 | Do not underestimate the power of public participation

Many museums benefit from public participation. This could take the form of involving local artists and crafts people in the design.
It could also consist of inviting the local community to contribute to the collection of artefacts. It may mean public participation in research like the audit of local bird species.

Public participation primarily takes the form of the local community using the museum spaces for events.

If the public has a sense of ownership over the archive they will participate in ways that add value.

16 | The journey continues long after the initial media experience has ended

This can be achieved by continuing the experience online or through mobile phone technology. A website can add huge value for a museum. It is a virtual extension of the museum without the limitations of space and time.



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