Fieldtrip to Churchill Museum

Hello everyone, and sorry for the delay.

As you can see, instead of wasting time on a nice walk in the park and the first sunbathe of the year I am using the Eastern break to play catch up with writing and laboriously forge texts for the profit of the others and myself.

In the beginning, I will remind you all the aim of this post: almost a month ago we visited Churchill Museum and, by the chance, adjacent Cabinet War Rooms. Thus, I would like to share some of my personal feelings, and if you will find below something deserving any notice, to spark further discussion.

The first observation relating to the museum came to my head just in front of the main entrance. 3 years ago, during my first visit to London, I had stood at the same place totally oblivious to the fact that 3 meters below me exist the heritage treasure employing cutting-edge technology and multimedia displays for the entertainment and learning of common folk. This significant fact shows my shameful lack of knowledge (2006) about leading institutions in the British heritage sector, as well as sheds some light on audience of the Churchill Museum. The exhibition rather aims to attract visitors interested in WWII, churchillians, and citizens of USA, then occasional passers-by looking for easy pleasures.

Indeed, the complex maze of rooms hidden under the vaults of the Treasury does not bring any light-hearted joy. Burden of concrete and steel separating War Rooms from the outside world, dim light, austere conditions of subterranean dwelling offers claustrophobic feeling. The evidence of deadly struggle with Nazis has been materialised in a shape of fully restored private and official chambers sheltering Winston Churchill and his staff during the London Blitz. To provide a sense of wartime oppression there is lacking nothing but the cigarette smoke from omnipresent ashtrays.

In contrast to Cabinet War Rooms, the impression given by Churchill Museum seems to be far more compound. I would say that, the complexness of evoked emotions is comparable to the multifaceted personality of the main actor of the exhibition. By the careful arrangement of artefacts, documents, photographs and interactives there was constructed a kind of theatre; kaleidoscope of words and sounds bringing into life a multilayered picture of Churchill as a controversial politician, statesman, artist and family man.

The fact worth of mention is that limited quantity of ‘real’ objects has been used in design, especially in comparison to narrative richness of the exhibition as a whole. The visitor engagement is maintained mainly by various multimedia devices, stimulating almost all senses. Moreover, the equipment work, surprisingly (?), seamlessly and collaborate very well with each other in order to give a variety of information. The transmitted messages have not been reduced to single-lined narrative but are able to unfold diverse treads. As was stressed by the director of museum – Phil Reed – the display does not aim to imprint on audience any particular vision about the famous Prime Minister. According to his statement, the museum ambition is to provide an environment for learning and encourage making investigations on its own. (Though simultaneously, he has imposed a role of Churchill Museum as ‘centre of excellence’ in terms of the knowledge about the subject).

I must admit, that I was a bit disappointed with Lifeline, advertised as state-of-the-art interactive table charting Winston Churchill’s life almost day by day. The interactive chronicle of facts and deeds turned out to be literally a wooden board. Despite of it, I am more concerned about usability of this media than some technical ‘underperformance’. The Lifeline has been created to resemble a conventional archive and seems to be of little use for people used to immediate access to information linked in an intuitive manner. To retrieve information from table, there is demanded a good knowledge of dates, otherwise investigation resembles random roaming on a surface of events. Although most of interactives used in exhibition seem to be user friendly, potential of this one remains unlocked.

The issue become more noteworthy if we consider it in the terms of planned design and received outcomes. Despite of very rich content, Lifeline is not able to keep a visitors attention for longer time. According to evaluation report, the average time spent in this section counts for 6 min. – that is about 10% of visit. In the course of the meeting with the head of museum, he mentioned that the table helps to increase the level of engagement within the museum and to turn the visitor into ‘researcher’ (i.e. a person with the specific and focused sections of interest, requiring expert and in-depth knowledge). I must agree with him to some extent – the Lifeline is useful to extend knowledge on a specific subject area. Nevertheless, I doubt that it is able to convert people into zealous investigators due to the specific of museum visit (lack of time, lack of comfortable space). The logical consequence would be placing the Lifeline on the internet to make this precious archive more accessible.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. With no doubts, exhibition in Churchill Museum is a decent project and a highly interesting manifestation of multimedia capabilities.

And thank you all for the cooperation on our Egyptian project.