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Temporary Exhibitions for the Contemporary Cultured

Fiona Cole-Hamilton on the challenges of attracting and engaging a new target audience and presenting complex scientific ideas

About the author: Fiona Cole-Hamilton is Interpretation Developer at the Natural History Museum in London. Since 2012, she has led on a number of exhibition projects, most notably the five star reviewed temporary exhibition Colour and Vision, and the Hintze Hall Redevelopment Project due to open summer 2017. She is now seconded to the International Engagement Department and is leading on the redisplay of two permanent galleries at the Hong Kong Science Museum. Fiona has an MA in Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester


The Colour and Vision exhibition © Natural History Museum

One of the first steps of developing a temporary exhibition is identifying a target audience – it allows content to be appropriately shaped, marketing properly targeted and relevant Press bodies briefed. The target audience may be the segmentation that are known to frequent the institution and are thus likely to spend money on a temporary exhibition ticket, or alternatively, it may be the segmentation least likely to visit and are therefore targeted to try and raise the appeal of the institution in their eyes.

As a national museum welcoming over five million visitors a year, the Natural History Museum in London is not short on numbers, yet it is most frequently visited by families and international visitors, rather than the segmentation referred to by the Museum as Contemporary Cultured. Contemporary Cultured audiences are described as professionals making the most of their middle youth. They are seen as progressive, adventurous, ethical and open to new ideas and influences. They have a broad and heavy arts repertoire and engage with many different art forms, are seen as cosmopolitan and liberal and are usually aged 18–34 with an even gender split. They usually work full-time and are educated to degree level.

With a view to raising its profile with Contemporary Cultured audiences, the Natural History Museum programmed a series of adult-focused exhibitions in its Jerwood Gallery. The most recent of these, Colour and Vision ran July–November 2016. This article explores different elements of this exhibition and looks at whether the methods of presenting complex science were effective in engaging the target audience, whether the inclusion of a citizen science experiment in an exhibition setting was beneficial to both scientists and visitors, and whether the success of the exhibition should be based on press reviews, visitor satisfaction or ticket sales.

Communicating academic subjects to a broad audience
Aside from exploring the link between colour and vision in the natural world, Colour and Vision set out to explore three subjects that we know our audiences find difficult: deep time, evolution, and taxonomy. While these subjects may seem dry and science heavy, the exhibition worked to present a narrative that would include these subjects in an accessible and holistic manner, rather than as dry subjects to be conquered before the exhibition could be enjoyed.

After entering the exhibition through a light installation designed to act as a moment of colour-bathed calm before the shower of content, visitors were plunged into virtual darkness and brought face-to-face with fossils of the soft-bodied organisms that existed around 565 million years, a time before the image-forming eye had evolved, a time when animals existed but were simple in form. The aim was to encourage visitors to accept that the image-forming eye has not always existed and that the animals that lived several hundred million years ago, without image-forming eyes, were simple in form and colour because they did not need to be otherwise. With a view to conveying the deep time being addressed, the design brief suggested a graphic timeline that would allow visitors to anchor themselves chronologically as they walked through this first section. Unfortunately, evolution does not follow a graphic plan and as such, it became awkward to present the slow sludge of life for several hundred millions of years, and the sudden explosion of life that occurred shortly after the eye had evolved, in one clear timeline. Instead, visitors were told in both large text panels and small specimen labels that they were engaging with the remnants of life from hundreds of millions of years ago. Summative evaluation of the exhibition tells us that while visitors understood they were looking at life that existed a long time ago, few grasped the concept of hundreds of millions of years and that the visitors would have preferred more help with this subject, a useful learning for the Museum.


Visitor research showed that animations helped visitors understand that an eye could accidentally evolve from a simple pigment spot to a fully-formed eye in less than half a million years. © Natural History Museum

The evolution of the eye is a subject that even Darwin struggled with: ‘To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances (…) could have formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree’ (Darwin, C. 1869, On The Origin of Species, New York, p167), yet this subject was key to the Colour and Vision story and the Museum worked to convey it accessibly. One method involved Museum scientists, content and digital teams working together to create an animation based on the widely accepted model of the evolution of the eye over a theoretical 364,000 years, proposed by Land and Nilsson in their book Animal Eyes (Land, M. and Nilsson, D. 2012, Animal Eyes, Oxford, p15). Results from visitor research showed that the animation undoubtedly helped visitors to understand that an eye could accidentally evolve from a simple pigment spot to a fully-formed image-forming eye in less than half a million years. It did also suggest, however, that some visitors understood that an eye could evolve in this time, but they felt that this evolution had happened to facilitate a behaviour, rather than the other way round. It seems, then, that while the animation was effective in conveying the key message, visitors still struggle with the complexity of the mechanisms of evolution. It is perhaps worth considering that given the space available in a temporary exhibition, perhaps it is not the format to try and correct these misconceptions.

“Museum scientists, content and digital teams worked together to create an animation based on the evolution of the eye”

Of the Tree of Life’s roughly 38 branches, animals with image-forming eyes are found on just six of them (but roughly 98% of species are found in these six). It was necessary to convey the subject of taxonomy within the gallery to ensure the audience would appreciate the evolutionary significance of similar biological traits evolving on several distinct branches, yet the subject is tricky and visitors tire of it quickly. The design brief suggested an immersive tree and Nissen Richards Studios, responsible for both 2D and 3D design, responded to this by proposing printing a walkable Tree of Life onto the incredibly resilient G-Floor – a single, solid layer of polyvinyl that encases the graphics, resisting scratches and other wear and tear. By allowing visitors to walk the branches of the Tree, the audience was immersed in taxonomy. The phyla holding animals with image-forming eyes were picked out in unique colours that corresponded to the showcase backdrops, clearly separating them from the other branches. This subtle, but effective design intervention allowed visitors to engage with taxonomy, and according to the visitor research, understand that the branches of the Tree of Life were independent, yet still linked.

Using citizen science to engage
The Natural History Museum has a rich programme of citizen science projects ( – research, collection and education are all streams of the Museum’s work that benefit from the input of the interested public, yet this is not something that usually features in exhibitions, either temporary or permanent. After consulting with Prof. Martin Stevens, Head of the University of Exeter’s Sensory Ecology Lab (, on content research, the idea for citizen science collaboration was posed. Stevens and his team had already developed a successful, computer-based citizen science experiment to test the effectiveness of camouflage in nightjar birds. The group proposed developing a similar game that would allow them to use our visitors to test the effectiveness of shore-crab camouflage. Visitors could choose to play as either a human or the crabs’ natural predator, the Pollock, (each of which has a different visual system) and were then asked to spot crabs within a variety of natural and engineered habitats. Gameplay numbers were high (around 20,000) and the number of crabs found compared to those not found was enough for the scientists to draw some interesting conclusions (nearly 315,000 vs around 16,000 that were not found). Evaluation suggests that visitors enjoyed the game, but around half had skipped over the information and consent screens and therefore didn’t realise they were contributing to a citizen science experiment. This is a lesson learned in the need to present a citizen science experiment clearly as such, making sure visitors know what kind of project and experiment they are contributing to.


Colour and Vision received over 40,000 visitors in 16 weeks © Natural History Museum

Judging success
Colour and Vision received over 40,000 visitors in 16 weeks and segmentation research shows that, as expected with most of the Museum’s exhibitions, the visitor groups were reasonably mixed. The number of international visitors was high, as were Learned Liberal audiences (similar to Contemporary Cultured, but in a higher age bracket), and there was a rise in Contemporary Cultured visitors. The exhibition received five star reviews from The Guardian, Time Out, the Londonist and four stars from the Evening Standard, alongside positive reviews in the Museums Journal and other publications, while exit surveys demonstrated that 89% of visitors surveyed ranked their enjoyment of the exhibition as either ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. Looking at these outcomes, should the success of the exhibition be judged on the number of ticket sales, the levels of visitor engagement or the reviews it received?

“Should the success of the exhibition be judged on the number of ticket sales, the levels of visitor engagement or the reviews it received?”

For the Museum, the most important is the rise in engagement with Contemporary Cultured visitors; this was a key aim and an ongoing ambition. While the increase was not huge, it was enough to demonstrate that the Museum is beginning to be seen as place for this audience to engage positively. Further, the positive reviews in publications read by this particular audience should have helped to raise the Museum’s profile amongst this group, potentially leading to increased visits in the future.

Overall, the Museum has drawn a number of benefits from Colour and Vision, and it has been be considered a positive starting point for increased engagement from the Contemporary Cultured audience, while the valuable lessons learned will be applied to the next exhibition in the series, with the aim of even greater success.

Fiona Cole-Hamilton
Interpretation Developer
Natural History Museum, London

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