Exhibiting invisible objects

In Museums, Uncategorized on July 29, 2016 at 11:46 am

When we’re planning museum exhibitions one of the obvious starting points is the object list. We talk through the options for what we are going to put on display for the public to see.

But what happens when the subject of the exhibition isn’t visible to the naked eye?

Graphene is an incredibly thin wonder material – a million times thinner than paper but 200 times stronger than steel. It’s just one atom thick, which makes mounting an exhibition about it rather difficult.

Wonder Materials has just opened to the public at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. It seeks to explain and interpret graphene for a general audience. There’s been a lot of chat about graphene in recent years, since it was discovered a decade ago. But I wonder whether most of us really understand what it is.

A really simple, but effective, interactive shows a series of rubber sheets of blown up atoms on top of one another. Visitors are invited to peel the top layer off, replicating what the Nobel-prize winning scientists did when they isolated a sheet of graphene. It’s a really simple and effective way of showing us that this material is super thin, whilst also remind us that it’s super strong. By engaging our sense of touch, we are invited to feel the experience of splicing off a layer of graphene, rather than just reading about it on a text panel.

I wrote a piece about the exhibition on Northern Soul this week.

In this case, the subject of the exhibition meant that the objects selected for display were all going to have to be illustrative of graphene, rather than made if the material itself. That’s quite a challenge.

A key part of the museum interpretation process is thinking, at the early stage of exhibition development, not only what we will put on display, but also what story will those objects or art pieces tell and how we will interpret that story for visitors. It’s important that we keep their expectations and motivations in mind and that we think about what their visit experience will be like, as well as deciding what to include on the object list, be they visible or invisible.

Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond is at MSI Manchester. It’s free and runs until July 2017.


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