In 2016 the Herbert held its first in-house natural history exhibition since a major redevelopment was completed in 2008. The exhibition, Nature Notes, explored the seasonal changes in local wildlife by displaying taxidermy, nests, insects, botany and fungi, botanical watercolours, oil paintings and contemporary artworks. It encouraged visitors to look at the natural world around them and the artworks aimed to inspire visitors to respond to nature in a creative way.
Nature Notes was designed to be enjoyed by all and accessibility was a key consideration in developing the interpretation and interactives. Additions to the exhibition included Makaton on the text panels and interactive tables; and the provision of accessibility aids such as torches, magnifying sheets and ear defenders. We considered contradictory needs such specific learning difficulties and visual impairments by producing lower contrast labels and providing high contrast large print text to take round the space.
The most popular part of the exhibition was the multi-sensory interactive tables with things to touch, smell and listen to. These were created by using low cost tables with adjustable legs with a vinyl graphic applied so they tied in with the exhibition’s design. Five pieces of taxidermy were commissioned – one of each season, plus a spare mouse. We worked with a local group of disabled and non-disabled teenagers to help us choose the right smells for each table – only the brave dared to smell the otter dung! As each offered the same experience of touch, smell and sound this meant queues did not form around one table, allowing for a better visitor experience.
Nature Notes ran for 20 weeks from July to November 2016 and the visitor target was set at 15,000. The final total was 24,000 visits – over 1200 a week – making Nature Notes one of the most visited exhibitions in that space. We evaluated the impact of the exhibition in several ways including analysis of the comments book and a report conducted by students over the summer holidays.
In the comments book 95% of responses were positive, 2% neutral and 3% negative although most of the negative comments were about taxidermy, rather than the exhibition. The student evaluation included 50 surveys, tracking of 50 visitors and general observation. They found that the sensory tables were the most popular part of Nature Notes. It was also noted the importance of gallery staff to help engage visitors with the tables and guiding them on the use of the accessibility tools available. Overall 40% of those asked wanted another natural sciences exhibition at the Herbert!
Nature Notes was designed to become part of the Herbert Touring programme once the run in Coventry finished. Despite being advertised via the Touring Exhibitions Group and our website, unfortunately we did not have any takers. Feedback has suggested that larger museums already have a gallery on local wildlife and smaller museums were not able to afford the cost of the exhibition, as the touring programme is not subsidised in any way.
However Nature Notes will have a legacy both for the Herbert and more widely. The sensory tables have been kept and one will be lent a local wildlife reserve in April 2017 for their Easter activities. We are considering how best to use the tables in the long term – they might acquire castors and become supervised holiday activities in the permanent galleries.
We have learnt a lot through creating Nature Notes and will be applying this knowledge to make future exhibitions more accessible. This project has shown that a lot can be done on a relatively small budget and that this investment can be used beyond the project’s lifetime. As well as the interactive tables being used again the accessibility aids are due to be relocated to the museum’s reception.
On a personal note, delivering this exhibition and getting visitor feedback has been a real pleasure. One moment in particular that stood out was during an audio description tour trial. The gentleman I was guiding had had no visual perception for 30 years and was only partially engaged by the spoken descriptions of objects. However, when I took him to the sensory table and he was able to feel the ears, eyes and nose of the fox he said ‘the exhibition has just come alive for me’.
We would like to thank our funders, NatSCA, the Bill Pettit Memorial Fund and Mander Hadley, whose contributions allowed us to create the exciting sensory tables that proved so popular.
Written by Ali Wells