A Visitor's Journey: One Innovative Approach

It has been ages since I was taken on a journey through a museum or heritage facility that employed a radically different approach. That changed during a recent trip to the Iberian Peninsula. I discovered an institution that dared to break the mould and take an interpretive chance.


In most situations my wife experiences early onset of "Museum Fatigue" as I continue to explore. This time however, we completed our “tour” at the same time, and we were both so enthralled, we felt like giving a standing ovation. To finish our visit simultaneously was a testament to this facility’s varied approach and brilliant treatment .

There were no high tech or virtual reality enhancements- no people movers or holograms, no escape room or magical illusions employed. These techniques CAN be used effectively but were not required in this case.

This happened surprisingly in an art gallery where traditionally some of the most standard methods of display seem to be ingrained no matter where you go in the world.

Bilbao was the city, Museo de Bellas Artes was the institution. ABC was the title of the exhibit, based on the title of a classic Basque children’s book.

This was the result of a collaboration between an author and a collection.  Kirmen Uribe, one of the most read and most translated Basque language authors was invited to respond to a quest for exhibition originality when viewing the museum’s collection. Art and literature were encouraged to merge allowing the novel perspective of having art reflect a noun, an adjective, and a verb that would represent an emotion, a location, an object, etc. -all encapsulating a myriad range of characteristics.

He assembled objects from all periods, styles, and disciplines placing the masters beside photographs, graphic works, etchings, posters, ceramics, all manner of forms.

This was a simple, yet powerful, organizing principle used as the visitor journey framework. The author turned each of the 31 gallery rooms into a letter of an extended alphabet where each room corresponded to a word according to the sequence of the alphabet (adding treatments from Basque and Spanish languages different from English as in the “ll” and “tz” for example).

Bottom line: the art spoke for itself, however it was creatively framed and focused so visitors who were not academically trained in the field could personally relate to the art in so many ways beyond brush technique, medium, artistic style and artist recognition. Ideas brought the works together not conventional chronology.

We were effectively held in each gallery engaged in how each of the pieces connected and expressed nuances of the chosen room’s title. Then our curiosity was employed to pull us along to the next letter to unravel again - how did everything that was displayed connect in a new way? Different viewpoints like supportive jazz riffs on a melody kept us stimulated and motivated to keep exploring. Then when I found myself saying, “Hmmm, I had never thought about … that way,” I realized this experiment was successful beyond just novelty.

Challenging conventional layouts is something we should all embrace.  Let’s look for partners to experiment with as guest curators. Let’s create opportunities for different ages, genders, disciplines, ethnicities to be invited to arrange exhibits from their vantage points.

The accompanying gallery guide was brilliant in its simplicity and perspective inducing effect. Short, easy to read quotations from the author were aimed at helping the visitor read the works of art by presenting a different view on word connotations.

This was accompanied by notes from the head of the museum’s Collection Department adding another lens. Personal experiences combined with cultural references that pointed to universal human experiences, helped focus the visitor in each gallery. If you are curious you can order the hardcover reference book in 4 languages https://www.museobilbao.com/in/publicaciones/abc-el-alfabeto-del-museo-de-bilbao-151

Or you can peruse a condensed version of the museum guide online in Spanish https://www.museobilbao.com/uploads/actividades_educacion/archivopdf_es-228.pdf

early artists work  Photo credit Bill Reynolds

early artists work

Photo credit Bill Reynolds

What word would you start with when using the letter A? ART!   But of course!
Then they abruptly proclaimed in the guide - there is no such thing as art only artists . The essence expressed was the primordial human creative urge so well presented by the diverse works chosen covering 12,000 years -from archaeological engraved bone to lithographs to a Gauguin painting on a cheap sackcloth.

Citoyen gallery  photo credit Bill Reynolds

Citoyen gallery

photo credit Bill Reynolds

The C or Citoyen/citizen gallery room paid tribute to the illustrious and the anonymous individual by displaying a series of busts of diverse material and colour placed on a table in the centre of the room. This allowed one to stroll around people watching from all angles on a broad spectrum of humanity.

In a similar vein, the R for Retrato (portrait)  gallery was more traditional as a grouping of paintings on a wall, but what was impactful was a veritable onslaught of examples that covered all 4 walls. This elicited many a subtle aah or substantial WOW when people would enter the room. The accompanying guide notes shed light on the evolution of changing parameters in portraits from 15th to 20th century.

portrait gallery  Photo credit Bill Reynolds

portrait gallery

Photo credit Bill Reynolds

The letter Z which stood for Zubi (bridge) was my favourite Uribe quotation that dug into a word’s possible meanings and set the stage for one’s gallery viewing pleasure: “The bridge is always a meeting place, right there is where people gather: friends, lovers, storytellers, vendors. A bridge unites things: it joins the two ends, it joins people. That’s why in wartime, the first things destroyed are the bridges.” The museum staff noted that the end of the alphabet also “aims at continuation, a bridge that can connect, approach, extend, and join.”

Hope this has given you a tantalizing taste of how to treat a topic in a non-typical way.  Change up how you arrange your “objects or stories” to create different relationships, thereby reinforcing in a new way what your site aims to have visitors experience.

Our next post will announce the winner of the book draw and include responses to your comments.