The human link: recognition and surprise in museums (2008)

The human link: recognition and surprise in museums. Published (2008) in Museum Practice (Museums Association, UK).

Frans Ellenbroek


In a review of a renewed permanent exhibition in Natuurmuseum Brabant (Tilburg, The Netherlands) Jane Morris quoted me: ‘Our starting point is that people are interested in life – their own lives, at least – so we wanted to present biological and ecological subjects in ways that trigger recognition among visitors. Nature is interesting, but the most interesting phenomenon in nature is Man’ (The missing link, MP, august 2005). Triggering recognition is a widespread and effective method to catch and hold people’s attention, both in education and marketing. This notion and the good experiences with it in my own museum made me wonder if it might be relevant for all sorts of museums. In my opinion it is.

Encounters with images, facts and notions that are more or less familiar to the museum visitor can give him the comfortable feeling that he has not entered this place of culture as a complete stranger. Especially for the not so experienced visitor this recognition makes him feel at home; the museum becomes – in a way – his museum. Being able to classify a painter’s style, a historical event, an animal species becomes an anchorage in the sea of new experiences which a museum should also be.

This implies that a museum professional can never spend enough energy in understanding his visitor’s mind, knowledge, fields of interest and fascinations, and in applying this knowledge in the exhibitions and educational programs of his museum, or even in the museum’s collection policy. For any commercial marketing manager this would be like forcing an open door. A crucial element in translating this understanding effectively into exhibitions is a balanced mix of recognition and surprise.

Since Darwin this simple principle became even easier to apply in natural history museums, as all biology became evolutionary biology and Man became a creature among the creatures. One of the strongest examples of this is the human familiarity with ape behaviour, which can even lead to apes being mistaken for potential objects of love, as was recently and dramatically shown by a Dutch woman and the Gorilla Bokito. But the possibilities for creating recognition in our exhibitions go far beyond our physical relatedness with nature: nature is full of phenomena related to Man’s behaviour in a modern human society. Where to look for these possibilities then?

During the last few decades museums and their audiences (re)discovered, that the inherent quality of a museum and its objects is not more and not less than their utility in bringing across ideas, knowledge, visions and insights. So these are the starting points in finding the recognition triggers that we want. The most suitable as well as accessible source for understanding the minds of the audience is whatever dominates daily communication: political, social and ethical issues that provide the daily media headlines and subjects of conversation in pubs and living rooms.

For my museum this has led to an emphasis in the exhibitions on the themes of life. These – of course –  are not very different through times, places and species. The relationship between men and women, the well and woe of families, youth and the drive to play, learn and develop, migration and travel, one’s need of a safe and sound place to live, the dangers of life and our ultimate and frightening destination in the end: all these are not only the chapters in our exhibition, but also the chapters of every birthday party conversation or headline inventory. It is as simple as that.

This idea is so universal and unchangeable, that I strongly believe that mixing in a human recognition in any sort of exhibition, not only natural history, is a good recipe for the attraction of visitors’ attentions. Any novel writer, film maker, opera composer and pop song writer will confirm: if it is not about life, everybody will fall asleep. Understanding life, naturally, begins with biology, reading headlines and visit birthday parties and pubs.

For anybody who wants to become more acquainted with this way of thinking I want to recommend the reading of my book ’the biological evolution of the arts’ (2005). Here I have tried to share my fascination for human behaviour and its biological roots with a broader audience of art historians, philosophers and ordinary people.

Finally, to show that not only natural history museums can apply this paradigm, I want to mention three recent winners or specially commended museums in the European Museum of the Year Award contest . This year I had the pleasure to see the 2004 winner, the archaeological museum of Alicante in Spain. It is the very first archaeological museum that succeeded in holding my attention all the way. The simple reason was, that prehistoric life appeared to be not only very different from that in the 21st century, but – in many aspects – so strikingly similar, because of the many still recognisable things, of which emotions are no doubt the most prominent. The winner in 2005 was the Open Air Museum in Arnhem (The Netherlands), a historical museum that integrates today’s and yesterday’s life of ordinary people in its presentations. A striking third example – to conclude – is this year’s specially commended museum Het Dolhuys in Haarlem (The Netherlands), about psychiatry. As it confronts the visitor with the seemingly rude but legitimate question: ‘how normal – actually – are you?’ and ‘where would you draw the line between sound and crazy?’ it pleasantly and amusingly forces any visitor to absorb its entire presentation, eager for more recognition as well as surprise.