I didn’t catch his name unfortunately; I had one eye on the thousands of butterflies in flight around me and one on a flight of my own that I later nearly missed. It wasn’t until I had, as requested, checked myself for tiny winged “stowaways” and settled myself and my thoughts in the fresh air outside the humid tent of the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterflies that I was able to fully appreciate the extent to which the gallery assistant (if you could call him that) had really elevated my experience.
Sensational Butterflies is a temporary exhibition, housed in a large white tent on the east lawn of the London institution. Within the great tarpaulin flutters thousands of butterflies, beautiful, colourful and varied. The visitor enters through a large plastic curtain akin to those found on old supermarket fridges, and follow a short snaking path around a wonderfully arranged series of flowerbeds, all the while surrounded, always, by butterflies. It is a truly magical experience.
The first sign you encounter as you enter the exhibition informs you not to use flash photography, not to stand on any of the specimens, and finally, not to panic if any of them land on you. They are harmless after all. I realised however when I had left the tent that this was the last thing I had read before the sign instructing me not to inadvertently steal any of the tiny fluttering exhibits on my way out. There had been information panels and other interpretation dotted around the tent, but I hadn’t managed to take in any of it. More often than not there was so much activity in the air around you that it was difficult to remain undistracted, occasionally the panels were even obscured by specimens who had camped out across the text for a poorly positioned rest. I’ll also freely admit that I am somewhat “squeamish” around insects (especially winged ones) so I occasionally found myself conflicted as to whether to turn the rotating interactive panels that were intended to reveal interpretive material for fear that something “scary” was resting on the reverse side.
I now realise that it was with great fortuity that the exhibition was complimented by such affable, knowledgeable and enthusiastic floor staff. The individual I spoke with approached us completely unprompted, but was an incredibly welcome interjection. He was, entirely through his own merit, the most valuable piece of interpretation available to me. Whilst my eyes were distracted by the forever flickering of wings in my peripherals, I was able to fully focus my uninhibited ears on the information he was so convivially conveying to me. What I received was far more than an audible version of the text panels however. Instead, this was interpretation with personality, which in turn made my experience of the exhibition more personal. I was able to obtain the answers I wanted, received information I didn’t know I wanted, and was even able to broaden the scope of my visit by enquiring about some of the more exotic plant life on display, (including a fascinating discussion about the etymology of the Passion Flower), and about the National History Museum itself. Most remarkably of all, his infectious enthusiasm for his insect subjects alleviated me of my unnecessary anxieties and for the first time I felt comfortable within the beating wings of my surroundings.
In the space of a five-minute conversation, he had achieved everything that good interpretation should. He had made the content relevant to me personally, made me feel comfortable within the exhibition and with my understanding of it, and had prompted me to further question and discuss what I had learned. Without the assistance of museum staff, interpretive materials must regularly exploit multi-sensory materials in order to achieve these outcomes (not all do yet, but they should). Human contact however is multi-sensory in its own right, and it struck me, amidst the endless butterfly ballet, that this “living interpretation” is not only best suited to living subject material, but it is the best asset any exhibition can have.
Obviously, a world of museums where every front-of-house staff member knows everything there is to know about the collections and their relative subjects is a pipedream. Those who do have knowledge of this kind tend to work behind the scenes as curators, collection managers and directors. People do have interests though that can be exploited to positive ends. University museums are perfectly positioned to do just that, the Kings Museum in Aberdeen and Glasgow’s The Hunterian for example both use students from sympathetic disciplines to give tours of different aspects of their collections. At the latter for example, students who study or take interest in Art History show visitors around the Art Gallery, while those of an archaeological bent give talks on the Antonine Wall display in the museum. This is a hugely effective process as, especially in the case of the Antonine Wall, many of the students have studied the subject directly, meaning they have a deeper pool of knowledge than any object label ever could, and the visitor can choose to dive as far into it as they desire.
These initiatives only work in the form of short tours however, as you cannot expect students to work the museum floor all day unpaid. For larger institutions though, they should encourage their paid staff to take a more active role in exhibitions. The duty of the museum should be to investigate who the people are who are representing them, find out what they know about, and what they are interested in and encourage them to follow these up. The staff should then be made to feel comfortable and confident enough to develop a willingness to share their knowledge and expertise with the visitor. They do not need to know everything about every thing, but a deeper, more engaging understanding of a few exhibits each, will every now and again, provide someone with a more a personal, memorable museum experience, as was the case with my trip to Sensational Butterflies.
The essential element here is that the information provided by the staff stems from genuine interest. Handing out scripts or asking guides to play different characters, fictionalises their role, depersonalising them, and in turn, your experience. Museums are full of extraordinary things, but they are real things, and they should be communicated to the world by real people, with a real interest in them. This is what I found at the National History Museum. The passion that exuded from the staff member I conversed with elevated every aspect of my visit, and an exhibition that at one point threatened to flutter past me, is now an important and affectionate memory.