My favorite exhibition I saw this year was Great Whales: Up Close and Personal at the Royal Ontario Museum (“the ROM”) in Toronto. Here’s my attempt to summarize key takeaways from its whale of an achievement.
- Say who’s speaking.
- Really include community stakeholders.
As an outsider looking in, I’m not qualified to judge whether this exhibition was a “good” example of community involvement. But I’d like to recognize that the voices of Indigenous experts were utilized throughout the exhibit (not just acknowledged as a one-off at the beginning or end), and tobacco offering stations spoke directly to Indigenous visitors.
- Put numbers into perspective.
“We lost 10% of a species, and that’s equivalent to humanity losing all the people of North and South America” says a lot more than “we lost 10% of the species.”
- Take your labels from prose to poetry using the literary devices of consonance and assonance.
Notice how many words in this label have “d” sounds, either with the letter “d” actually in the word or phonetically with double “t”s.
“Dies…body….dense…bottom…down…cold, dark…depths. Does matter? Hundreds…deep-sea…decades.” (13/64 total words in the label = 20% of word count)
We can do the same exercise with “L” sounds:
“Whale fall…whale…falls…miles…whale…fall….minerals…cold…large whale fall…. (12/64 = 19% of word count)
And “s” sounds:
“Dies…its…is…so…dense…falls…ocean…sometimes…miles…brings…nutrients…minerals…ecosystem….ocean depths. Does…support hundreds…deep-sea species decades (21/64 = 33% of word count)
Any of these combinations could stand alone as a poem in its own right, abstractly conveying the label’s message. Together, they flow into a readable label without being heavy-handed with alliteration.
- Find piece harmony with your objects.
One thing I learned from taking chess classes in high school (besides that I’m no good at chess), is the concept of “piece harmony.” There’s something that just looks right about a chess board where all the pieces are positioned to support each other. No knight is left unprotected, no pawn blocks another’s path.
Great Whales gave us a masterful example of positioning the smallest objects in the exhibit (these specimen jars) right before one of the most shockingly large objects (the whale heart). The visitor doesn’t just read the message that big whales support small life–they feel it in their surroundings.
- Answer the obvious question.
“Why are they called GREAT whales?”
“Is that REAL?”
If there’s a question everyone will be asking, confront it head-on and answer it.
- Speak to hope and action.
Fear of loss catches attention, but doesn’t sustain long-term motivation. Inspire people to make a positive change by suggesting specific ways to help.
Share relatable success stories.
- Be up close and personal.
The subtitle of the exhibition was “Up Close and Personal,” and that’s precisely where it took me.
It taught me what we have in common with whales so I could relate to them as neighbors.
It used sensory cues like smell to put me in the action of a salvage expedition.
It even turned the assumed appeal of “up close and personal” on its head.
No part of the exhibit stayed with me longer than the revelation that so few North Atlantic right whales remain, we can know them each by name and picture.