Imperial War Museum Image of Social Interpretation Blog title

North, Big Picture Shows and Visitor Behaviour

This week I have been undertaking some visitor behaviour mapping in the main exhibition space up at IWM North. I had reservations about how well I would be able to complete visitor behaviour mapping as the space is intentionally confrontational, with a want of making visitors feel ill at ease. You get lost easily, and are never quite sure where the exit is, or if you have come from the right or the left. There is a chronology, but it isn’t easy to follow, and visitors do get lost and distracted. The museum is really one wonkily-shaped large central dimly lit room with small ‘silos’ focusing on particular themes.   So it was fascinating to see how visitors interact with the space, what behaviours they display, and which objects interest them the most.

One really impressive part of the visit is the Big Picture Show which happens on the hour, every hour. It stops pretty much every visitor in their tracks.   And if I’m honest, I ended up doing a sort of auto-ethnography (Jane will hate me for saying that).  You can’t help but be drawn in. As a brief announcement is made, the lights go out and the space is transformed into a 360 cinema with photographs and films being projected onto every wall, and audio being played; all focusing on a central theme. I found the experience to be stunningly effective. It was totally immersive, beautifully made and incredibly well executed. Powerful images and audio are a very important and impressive factor of the show, in particular the room acoustics was a big factor in creating a truly immersive experience, it surrounds the audience and allows them no choice but to listen and take notice. Absolutely mesmerising. The Big Picture Show commands attention. And quite rightly it gets it.  I have now seen all the different Big Picture Show’s and each is quite chilling. The one that I found blinking back tears from is the effect war has had and continues to have on children from WW1 to modern day.  It’s actually quite shocking.  It was probably quite unprofessional of me, when I was trying to observe other peoples behaviours.  However, when you see how other people are behaving you realise you aren’t the only one.  Even the school groups are quiet and contemplative.  The Big Picture Show certainly does its job.  What should you do when you are trying to observe visitor behaviour, but you end up having a visitor experience yourself? Can you remove that emotional bias? Or does that just demonstrate the ability of a museum space to transform experiences? Or does that demonstrate my weakness as a researcher?

Also after two days in the same space, it’s really interesting the things you learn via osmosis when you are wandering around observing other people.  I now know a lot about nuclear war from an info video about what to do in the event of a nuclear blast, all the words to it’s a long way to Tipperary, and how cool a 9 year old boy thinks a spitfire engine is.  These are things I really didn’t expect to learn during this project. But interesting nevertheless!





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  1. Laura W says: April 11, 201210:14 am

    It’s great that you picked up on many elements of the architect’s original intention. Daniel Libeskind deliberately designed the Museum to invoke a sense of disorientation in order to mirror the impact of conflict on the world and on individuals. This is most obvious within the architecture of the building itself- a shattered globe rebuilt following conflict – and then followed through into the interior design where we have curved floors and angular walls. It is our job to work hard within this environment to make sure that while honouring this intention our visitors are able to have a successful, engaging and enjoyable visit and that these factors enhance their visit rather than detract from it.

    I am looking forward to reading your visitor evaluation and seeing the mapping of the routes our visitors take in order to better understand how they move between objects and areas. This kind of research is really useful for us in helping us plan future changes to the gallery in terms of orientation and around the gallery as well as working out how to position displays, objects and graphics.

    Exhibitions Manager, IWMN

  2. CuratorTed says: April 26, 20128:51 am

    I would very much like to read your evaluation if you can publish it. It sounds fascinating.

    I’m particularly interested in the subtle use of wordless communication within museum display, and how desecrate interventions might bring about emotive responses and broaden audiences’ engagement with museum objects.

    The Big Picture Show at IWM North seems to be a prime example of object theatre. Do you know of any study of museum displays where subtle uses of wordless communication, and of the affect wordless communication might have on the museum going public?

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