Conceptual Vistas Part 2: This Time It’s Physical

Recently, my colleague Scott Smith posted some thoughts on authorship and narrative control, in the context of our work. Stories and their trajectories are a big part of exhibit design, but a visitor brings unpredictable perspectives and patterns to a museum experience. Can we ensure that every visitor will see information presented in a predetermined order? Is it possible to deliver a traditional narrative in space?

Actually, examples of spatial narratives are not hard to find— cave paintings, or the Stations of the Cross come immediately to mind. With the emergence of museums, ideas about spatial narrative evolved, and some of the first collections of objects we would recognize as “exhibits” used spatial narrative in a less linear way than the church. These spaces were designed to warehouse artifacts and provide opportunities to inspect them, and the relationship between the visitor and the content was tightly controlled and formalized.  The Wunderkammer was like this- the visitor was a master surveyor of the collected objects, and was free to explore them individually and in self-curated groupings. But through meta-curation, the “collector-warden” ensured that the space represented a very specific and personal worldview, not designed to accommodate wide-ranging interpretation based on visitor perspective. This arrangement was in a way an inversion of Foucault’s Panopticon, with the role of prisoner played by the objects and the narrative they describe. Imagine for a moment if this line from Discipline and Punish described the natural oddities on Ole Worm’s walls:

“He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”


Presidio Modelo, Cuba. I. Friman Photo.

Collections like Worm’s were meant to express humankind’s ability to name and order the universe, as a demonstration of man’s deep understanding of the way things are. Of course, the legibility of this intention was dependent on the visitor’s reliable reaction to the exhibited artifacts. But after the 20th century, it’s harder to believe that it’s possible to collect and present a universal microcosm. And who believes that even if such a collection existed, that we could design a spatial narrative around consistent visitor perspectives? Could visitors understand the collection in the same way as its author? The challenges storytellers face in the digital realm extend to the physical.

If it’s impossible to send or receive a complete story, either in print or in space, then what good is an exhibit? Scott’s point here is right on target: we may not be able to create a legible self-contained world, but we can create compelling conceptual vistas. We’d like to think that there’s meaning (or meanings) to be found out there in the world, in the Sciences and in the Arts.  The best thing we can do as storytellers is offer a compelling experiential landscape to visitors, with the hope that they are able to make their own connections, as Scott describes.

Thinking at a practical level then, what kind of models or metaphors could help us design physical installations with integrated media that provide conceptual vistas and avoid the pitfalls of ignoring visitor heterogeneity? One word: networks. If you’ll forgive me, a wild and Eurocentric generalization about three epochs of urban planning might help:


Organic, Formal, and Networked systems.

Many early cities developed organically, in response to site conditions like topography and water, as well as cultural conditions like, “We want the church to be in the middle.” Later on, designers wanted to be the boss of everyone else because they thought they knew best how to order the universe. So they sliced up the old cities into rationally and mathematically ordered formal spaces, which responded less to physical conditions and more to abstract ones. Theoricians like Thomas Sieverts and others have recognized that the modern urban condition is decentralized, nodal, and a hybrid of the organic and the formal.

If Enlightenment-era urban planning looks a lot like the wunderkammer in that it attempts to identify a universal language and apply it forcefully to a big organic mess, that’s no accident. It’s the same kind of spatial thinking.

So what’s the next step? A modern exhibit, if it’s going to respond to a modern visitor, has to recognize the decentralization of experiences and knowledge in the same way that modern cities have recognized the decentralization of economic systems, cultural practices, and almost every other aspect of urban life. An exhibit today has to be a network of experiences that can be freely combined by the visitor. But to tell real story, it must provide vistas from one idea to the next. Sometimes this kind of thing is achievable purely with physical exhibits, through the positioning of casework, artifacts, graphics, etc. But when space can’t accommodate this, or when some form of information augmentation is called for, digital media can be an indispensible tool.   

We’re working on an exhibit right now in which the story is the specific connections through time between objects and events. How can we show a causal relationship between events in the early nineteenth century and a visitor’s contemporary experience, when the exhibit hall will not allow that to happen by literally aligning objects in space? Digital space is infinite, and infinitely malleable. (I sense another post on uses of 3D coming.…) If we are careful about how, where, and why we make windows into that imaginary realm, we can provide opportunities for conceptual vistas that are contiguous with the physical ones, and become part of a larger narrative network that makes space for the visitor’s own interpretation.

_daniel meyers


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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