I’ve been brushing up on a few museum and zoo reviews for posting and it occurs to me that often my biggest complaint with an exhibition is a lack of good signs. I’m not talking here about absolute basics (“This is a Brachiosaurus” – though even some places seem to eschew this minimalist approach) but pretty much anything more detailed than that – be it the age and geographical origin of the organism or a complete display about the phylogeny of the clade and it’s more interesting anatomical features.
A great many places of supposed public interest and education seem to rather lack that second aspect because of a lack of signs. Sure it’s educational to stand in front of a hall of bones or a paddock full of antelope, but signs add so much more. It is, let’s face it, uneconomical to have people standing around answering questions and interfering with people’s days (and indeed these can be intrusive and annoying) and a good sign can communicate lots of information without being dull or taking up a lot of space.
The obvious point to make might be that not many people *want* to read the signs, but this is misleading. I can’t imagine anyone buys a newspaper and reads it cover to cover – some people want the sport, some the stock indexes, other the comments, or the lifestyle section and so on. Everyone will likely get something different from the paper in differing combinations and amounts. If you don’t *want* to read a sign, then fine, don’t. But even if it’s a minority, I’m sure that lots of people *do* want to learn more about what they are looking at.
At the very least it’s almost criminal in a zoo or museum not to tell you the name of the species you are looking at. The one thing you hear more than anything else in these places is a kid asking a parent “What’s that?” and without a sign to hand often there’s no obvious answer forthcoming (or a wrong one – I one, honestly and truly, saw someone call a giraffe a ‘zebra’ once). Kids who get their questions answered are going to learn something and might keep up that interest / trait to ask questions. Those that don’t, will not. Even if they don’t take much in at the time, the name will likely be remembered and can be looked up later. And this hardly takes into account adults – plenty of people do read signs and want to learn more and that’s tricky without the information being provided.
There are of course some truly great signs out there, original, inventive, informative and exciting (like this dinosaur tree I have been meaning to show off – a complete dinosaur phylogeny with little models to represent the various clades). But signs need not be huge or dramatic or expensive to be informative. Something simple to say the same of a species, which family or higher group it belongs to, how big it got, when and where it lived and what it ate need not take up more than 6 inches of wall or display space and actually tells you quite a bit.
I really think there is almost no excuse for this kind of sign not appearing next to pretty much every single display – it’s simple and informative and unambiguous and is hardly likely to go out of date (unlike say the average sign of dinosaur behaviour, or the names of all the meerkats in the enclosure) making it cheap and easy to install. These should be used in conjunction with bigger displays and signs with greater depth, but something small and unobtrusive that will both no-one while informing many, and is quick to scan and digest should surely be essential for just about anywhere that wants to inform its audience.
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