Destination Argentina

Review

of an Exhibition

by Joanna Fisher

Published on April 19, 2010, Modified on May 10, 2010

  • Description:

    Visits by Joanna Fisher, Lisa Thompson, Dawn Farkas, Tim Lee, Blake Wigdahl, Mark Ellis, David Stroud, Wendy Aston, Sandy Inman, Tammy Spicer and Carolyn Crowley. Between Feb 9- Apr 13

    This is a group of Exhibit people from about 5 different museums within about an hour of Salt Lake City. We have decided to improve our professional practice by using the Judging Exhibitions Framework to review, rate and discuss exhibits. Our first exhibit was Destination Argentina at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah. This review is an attempt to document some of our experiences in the exhibition as well as lessons learned through the review.

    Not only is an outdoor exhibit challenged by the weather, but also the seasons. While some of us were able to visit on beautiful sunny days, most of us were there on gloomier days, even braving the snow and hail. We have gained a greater appreciation for the challenges of outdoor exhibits. There are issues with plants, their changes through the seasons, dirt and mud. Not only does weather wreak havoc on the physical environment, but it really does seem to affect the perception of the interpretation. The exhibit feels better cared-for on sunny days.

    The Great Salt Lake is a major stopping point for North-South migratory birds, as they head from North America to South America and back. This is set up as a theme for the Aviary, but also as a reason to include an exhibit on Argentina – many of the birds flying south are on their way to Argentina. Interestingly, the exhibit included birds that live in Argentina year-round and we never see the birds that migrate.

    The entrance to the Destination Argentina exhibit was not very well-defined and the area was not obviously set apart as separate from any other part of the Aviary. But it was a lot closer than it looked on the map. One of the first panels showed a postcard from a few children to their Dad. It seems they were headed on a trip to Argentina with their mom, but Dad had to stay home. We never quite get the whole story there, but we do get to see their journals and notes from the trip, which serves as a fun interpretation through the exhibit. Right behind the panel was a nest for a flock of peacocks. I am of the opinion that an Aviary should have a lot of birds, so it was great to have a family of peacocks wandering wild right at the entrance.

    Once in the area, it was an intimate route with a path that looped past an “abandoned” yellow pampas, a pond for black-necked swans and various waterfowl and another pond for a flock of Chilean Flamingo. The birds were so close I could touch them. But I didn’t. (During my visit there was a child that couldn’t resist and got too close to one of the Canadian Geese that wander the grounds. He got a bite he won’t forget anytime soon. Warning: Canadian Geese can be really mean.) The mounded earth, paths and where we imagined the grass will grow this summer did a nice job creating space and moving people at a leisurely pace through the areas. There was no question about where to go next and the multiple vantage points seemed to encourage me to look, and then look again. I could almost see the birds from all sides, and felt compelled to try. There were a lot of generously sized benches!

    The abandoned pampas was a free-flight aviary. The plaza was roomy and welcoming. Inside was really engaging. The aviary had quite a few varieties of backyard birds that were very different from the birds I see in my backyard, such as whole nest of monk parakeets, guira cuckoos, red-crested cardinals and the super-noisy Southern Lapwing (my favorite. I think the cartoon version is in the old Disney The Three Caballeros). Having so many birds in such close quarters sure made it easy for me to see them and watch them interact with each other.

    Height of signs was very comfortable for adults and taller children, but would not have been usable by children. Perhaps that’s okay, but the audience is clearly families, so adults have to read or lift the children up. The graphics were very important to the interpretation, but there were a lot of different types with different styles and different voices. This was probably the biggest distraction, and biggest missed opportunity we found, especially in space as small as this one.

    Different sign types:
    • Title and Orienting messages: These included some information about the flyway, but very little detail. For example maps were always of both North and South America with no political or geographical boundaries, which leaves some question as to where exactly Argentina is located or where it is in relation to other South American countries I am familiar with. One included tools to explore exhibit topics further, but these were very unsatisfying (buy a membership was one of them).

    • Journal entries and postcards: Written by two children traveling to Laguna Mar Chiquita in Argentina with their mother. (Why? And why did they leave dad at home?) These were a nice idea and contained a lot of interesting information and creative visual ideas. They left just as many unanswered questions. This was a valuable concept and could have been an opportunity to tie the many sign types closer together.

    • Species identification: Not all of these matched. They were written in a familiar voice, and included information that was interesting and generally relevant, which was nice. A few of these were below a ledge. The height was lower than other signs of the same type, which would have been okay if the ledge had not blocked my view from above.

    • Isolated Questions: These were nice because they did encourage thought and discussion. But they felt disjointed. I found myself wishing the curators had provided more help to find the answers. Why Argentina? Why change homes? Why fly back? I had to use my best detective skills to decipher the answers from the information provided, and couldn’t miss a single panel, making me feel like I was having to work too hard for the answers.

    • Keeper Comments: These were really helpful. They contained great information that either helped me understand the birds better, or, even better, enticed me to take a closer look and see things I may have missed otherwise.

    The birds were beautiful. The landscaping and route were well done. The inside of the pampas was engaging. But there were missed opportunities and competing priorities that were never reconciled. There was little to do beyond look and little variety. There were good starts at introducing content that was reinforcing, relevant and had a logic, but I was left thinking “almost”. In the end, our ratings averaged out to Comfortable- 2.8 (Good), Engaging- 3 (Good), Reinforcing- 3.9 (Acceptable), Meaningful- 3.7 (Acceptable).

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