What Art Exhibitions Remind Us About Higher Education Websites

image of pictures hanging in a gallery

Art exhibitions versus higher education websites

Yesterday I visited the War Flowers touring art exhibition, in Toronto. Its organization and structure provided a strong reminder of the essential elements of building effective higher education websites.

War Flowers uses photography, video, optical crystal sculptures and scents to examine personal memory and human nature in war. A Canadian First World War army officer, Lt. Col. George Cantlie, enclosed pressed flowers in hundreds of letters he sent to his baby daughter, in Montreal. The flowers and their associated messages provide the exhibition’s inspiration.

I had the opportunity to talk about the exhibition with the sculptor, Mark Roberts, and its curator, Viveka Melki. The discussion brought to mind and reinforced key principles of higher education website design.

There are several hundred Cantlie letters, as he sent them daily. Early exhibition ideas involved using dozens of the letters. Expert guidance suggested focusing on just 10.

Attention spans are short. It is important to get to the point while not losing visitors in an over complex narrative structure. Viveka pointed out that as a documentary film maker, she normally gets to confine her audience in a darkened room for 90 mins.  At an exhibition that gets shortened to 30 minutes, on a typical higher education website it’s 3 minutes.

The exhibition comprises 10 multisensory stations, each with a flower, a sculpture, relevant photographs, video, a scent, an illustrative personal vignette and an overall background ‘soundscape’. The stations have an Arts and Crafts style evocative of the First World War era and station navigation and sequencing is self-explanatory.

The exhibition’s message is effectively communicated in 10 stations (they might be web pages).  The written content, the vignettes, are no longer than 100 words (French and English). A little shorter than the first three paragraphs of this post. 

The photographs and video have been very carefully selected and are used sparingly: roughly, 3 pictures per station and short looping video tracks play at every other station. There is little to be gained by overwhelming visitors with content with which they will not engage or have time to read.

The exhibition is particularly attentive to its audiences and is inherently designed to accommodate the needs of different visitors. For example, a visiting group of Syrian refugee women with limited English reading skills were still highly engaged by the combination of sculpture, photography, video and sound.

On the other hand, some visitors, with longer attention spans will crave more detail and the exhibition's sculptures provide this. University and college websites can meet a similar need with a few, highly relevant, links to subsidiary web pages.

The exhibition demonstrated excellent attention to its ‘information architecture’, to a visitor’s path through the displays and to the detail at each station, all within an overall principle of eliminating the superfluous.

There are lessons for the learning to be found away from websites, for websites – I discovered some yesterday.



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