In April of this year I visited the city of Bath in southwest England, a city which is renowned for its archaeological remains and makes a booming tourist trade out of its wealth of heritage. I visited two of museums there, the first being the famous Roman baths museum and second the smaller, and less well known, Costume Museum.
Both these museums featured a method of visitor information which was new to me. On entering the museum, the visitor is issued with a device called an AcouStick, which looks like a very large mobile phone (about 30cms long) and works something like a personal stereo. A notice at the entrance of the museum informs the visitor that the idea of these is to wander around looking at the exhibits, all of which have a sign with a number on it. When the appropriate number is entered into the AcouStick keypad, recorded information about the exhibit is played. Some of the major exhibits still have boards with written information, particularly in the Roman baths, but for most of the time, the visitor relies on the AcouStick for commentary. The result is that the crowds of tourists wander round the museum in silence with these devices pressed to their ears. Attempts to discuss the exhibits with other members of your party usually result in shushing noises and glares from other visitors.
In the Roman baths, this silence can be an advantage. The baths are extremely well preserved, and the museum is always crowded with many tourists. The AcouSticks offer commentary in a variety of languages, which should mean that the exhibits are not crowded out by information boards in several languages, but the museum is often so crowded you can't see what you are listening to commentary about. One advantage with AcouSticks is that you don't have to wait your turn to get near the information board, and the usual noisiness given off by crowds of tourists and students is slightly alleviated. A problem with this, however, is that it is often very difficult to spot the appropriate AcouStick number, both because of the crowds and because the numbers seem to be in rather hidden corners. This might be due to a desire not to encroach on the ruins, but making the numbers more obvious would be an improvement.
The Costume Museum is less well known and does not attract such huge crowds. Aside from the use of AcouSticks, the presentation is very traditional. Floor-to-ceiling glass cases contain shop-dummies wearing costumes dating from Elizabethan through to modern times, and most have a typed card at their feet crediting the donor or lender. The exhibits are beautiful and numerous, but very little attempt has been made to show them off to their best advantage. The glass cases are empty apart from the mannequins, with no other artefacts or any other visible attempts at creating context. Because the costumes are presented in such a sterile way, this is the kind of museum in which I feel compelled to discuss the exhibits with others, to talk about the period being represented. But again, silence prevailed in the dimly-lit corridors which flanked the glass cases. There were few visitors when I went, and the stiff atmosphere, poor lighting and staring mannequins combined with the crypt-like silence to make the whole thing downright spooky.
The AcouStick commentary suffers from the same problem as written information in museums, in that it is simplistic, authoritative and represents only one of many possible views of the exhibits. This is perhaps unavoidable when one considers the range of visitors and the need to not make matters over-complicated, particularly for children. AcouStick commentary seems well suited for a museum visited by a lot of school parties, its novelty holding their attention as well as keeping them quiet!
I asked non-archaeologists in my party for their opinion on AcouSticks. They felt the commentary was over-simplistic in its approach and one complained that they were difficult to use, again because the number signs were difficult to spot. However it was unanimously agreed that the silence which prevailed was preferable to the noise and pushing which otherwise often occurs - a big advantage in the Roman baths. But when I asked if they felt they would prefer to discuss the exhibits rather than listening to recordings, they replied that AcouSticks were "preferable to listening to an archaeologist nattering on about theory!".
I would add one further reservation about AcouSticks - the entrance prices for both museums were very high, probably due to the cost of these high-tech visitor information devices. I expected to be overcharged at the Roman baths because it is such a tourist trap but I was not expecting to pay £3.75 (a concessionary student price!) to get into the old-fashioned, less popular Costume Museum.
Both the museums I have discussed are worth visiting on the merits of their exhibits. The Roman baths are fascinating, well-preserved and enormously valuable to Britain's heritage, and the Costume Museum has an impressive collection, albeit poorly displayed. The novel approach to visitor information caused some bemusement in my party at first, and the AcouSticks could be more distracting than helpful, but they could be useful in calming crowds at busy museums such as the Roman baths. Perhaps they would be an asset in places such as cathedrals where silence and an absence of information posters is preferable. In traditional museums like the Costume Museum, however, AcouSticks seem to be of little benefit, removing the fun of discussing exhibits, and the only thing they seem to enhance is the price!
©Jennie Hawcroft 1996