Exhibit Inspiration: Polar Night

When I was in university, I had a professor who would sing the praises of “elegant experiments.” He had respect for a clever, yet simple, approach to asking a question or solving a problem. His enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me, because one of my favorite things to find in a museum is an elegant exhibit (the other is any opportunity to play dress-up – have you seen me as a barnacle?). As a visitor and a designer, encountering an elegant approach to experiencing a subject is always satisfying.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit the Polar Museum in Tromso, Norway, home to my new favorite elegant exhibit,  Polarnatt: Liv og lys i mulm og mørke/Polar Night: Life and Light in the Dead of Night. The premise and exhibit elements are simple – highlight what happens in the ocean during Arctic winter using photographs, text panels, and small video screens.  It’s the way visitors experience and engage with the content – using flashlights in a pitch black room – that’s clever, effective, and all together elegant.


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So simple, and yet so perfect. Here’s how something as small as turning off the lights had such a big effect on my visitor experience.


It just makes sense that an exhibit about the darkness of Arctic winter should be…well…dark. Of course you can describe the darkness, or show photos and video of it, but this was so much better. It was easy to suspend disbelief and open myself up to the sensory experience of being in that environment.


Walking through the room, catching edges of pictures and words as I turned my flashlight this way and that, I felt like an explorer. What would I see next? Had I missed anything? One more sweep with the flashlight, just to make sure…


Because all I could really see was what was illuminated by my flashlight, I found myself looking at everything more carefully. Nothing seemed to exist outside that circle of light, so everything inside it became more important. The flashlight acted like a microscope and I became engrossed in all the little details.


Moving slowly through the dark (and quiet room), it was easy to imagine what it must feel like to be in a submersible deep down in the dark, not knowing what will cross the path of your light next.

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As the final bit of delight in the exhibit, did you notice the panel texts? With titles like “The werewolves of the sea,” “When the lights are long (and lust is great),” “Polar cod – the Barbie of the sea,” and “Krill – the marine potato,” someone had a lot of fun writing those. All the text was given in Norwegian and English – a very nice example of multilanguage labels.

Do you have any other elegant exhibits to recommend?

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