Whispering Loudly: An Update about the “Quiet Updates”

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Small changes can add up to big results! The look-and-feel at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum is evolving. See how “Quiet Updates” are making an impact.

Recently, visitors may have noticed some changes in the Main Exhibition Hall at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. New “consoles”—text panels that focus on each of the Museum’s aircraft—have been popping up over the past few months as part of an ongoing renewal process. These updates are aimed at making our exhibitions more physically accessible. Also, by reducing the amount of aviation jargon, and providing more background context for the aircrafts' stories, these changes are intended to make the Museum ever more inviting for family audiences.

I like to call these types of changes “quiet updates.” Back in 2019, I shared an article about quiet updates: smaller-scale changes museums make over time to improve the visitor experience. These renewal initiatives don’t receive special funding and they’re rarely promoted. Without them, though, museums can’t keep pace with visitors’ evolving needs and expectations. 

The Museum’s Main Exhibition Hall is grouped into eight open-concept thematic areas. My previous article focused on updates in the First World War section. These included new primary console panels for each aircraft, updated to include family-friendly texts and a greater emphasis on images. We also developed a series of large upright “thematic” panels that provide general background and contextual information. These panels, along with new installations like the Silver Dart display, embody a new graphic direction for the Museum, intended to bring a sense of cohesion to the overall look of our interpretative media and in turn make our content easier for visitors to explore. 

Our goal at the time was to proceed area by area, one section per year. At least that was the plan. What a difference a year can make!

Turning up the Volume

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many unforeseen challenges for museums. Durability has been one major issue. Exhibition panels are built to withstand a lot, but COVID cleaning protocols are very rigorous. With solvents and steam cleaning, even the automotive paint used on many surfaces was washing away. The yet-to-be-replaced console panels were a whole other matter. Liquids seeped into the structures, damaging the graphic films beneath. As many of these panels dated from the 1980s, we couldn’t simply hit “print” to produce new copies—computer files didn’t exist for our oldest panels.

The museum took the difficult decision to fast track the redevelopment of all its aircraft console panels. Rather than continuing our approach by moving from thematic area to the next, we launched into the full-scale redevelopment of all of the Museum’s consoles. This meant proceeding with research, writing, image selections, and graphic design for every remaining console in the Museum. It also meant having the console structures redesigned to align with our current Accessibility Standards, and then, in turn, fabricated.

A series of three different rectangular graphics, stacked vertically. Each graphic shows the design of a different airplane console panel.

The design for the Museum’s console panels generally evolved in two stages. The image above shows an original text panel, dating from about 1988. Note the cloud background, and the small dense text. The image in the middle shows an interim redesign. Text is larger and more concise, and images take centre stage. The cloud motif is retained. This design was used for certain remedials prior to 2020, where we needed to replace one panel, but didn’t want it to stand out too much from the others around it. The image below shows our final design approach; a timeless black background increases readability, and makes the images “pop.” The colour in the title circle changes for each of the Main Exhibition Hall’s thematic areas.

I know this was a difficult call for the Museum because so-called quiet remedials are rarely a top priority. Still, while the need for rapid remedials is never a good thing, the timing couldn’t have aligned better in terms of rolling out our new graphic approach. In my role as Interpretive Planner, I was finishing work on the Museum’s Exhibition Development Guide. This included updating our existing writing style guide, and pulling together the overarching interpretive strategy for our Main Exhibition Hall. A major focus of this project involved collaborating with Ingenium’s Exhibition Designer to develop the new “look and feel” for our signature graphic approach, as well as a strategy to integrate new elements among the old with minimal clashing. The rapid remedial allowed us to kick implementation into high gear. Thanks to this decision, we are now at an exciting tipping point where the new style has become the most visually prominent approach within the museum. You could say that we’ve turned up the volume on these quiet updates!

Where we Stand, and Where we’re Going

With 2022 coming to an end, I feel that it’s a good time to share where we currently sit in this renewal process. In early 2020, prior to the pandemic, we had replaced all of the consoles in the Early Aviation, the First World War, and the overseas part of the Second World War sections. This accounts for 20 of the Museum’s 64 consoles. Through 2021 and 2022, we redeveloped the Museum’s remaining 44 console panels. This includes the remaining Second World War (air training plan) panels, as well as those for the Northern and Bush Flight, Commercial Flight, Early Travel and Transport, Vertical Flight, and the Cold War areas. Most have been produced and installed, with a few that will follow in 2023.

View facing the nose section of the Avro Arrow. A new backlit console panel sits below the nose: black with grey and vivid red highlights. A tall upright panel sits to the left of the nose, also backlit, with a similar black and red design. A small wooden wheeled biplane, the type that a small child would ride upon, sits in the foreground.

New console and thematic panels bring attention to a true treasure within the Museum: the Avro Arrow nose. Impossible for visitors to miss it now!

At this time, we also fast-tracked the development of certain upright thematic panels. These new panels have been added to the Vertical Flight area, as well as one beside one of the Museum’s most notable treasures: the Avro Arrow nose. Thematic panels have also been developed for the Second World War area, and are slated for printing and installation in the new year.

As well, the Museum proceeded with the redevelopment of certain of its most dated installations. The Propeller Wall display was redeveloped in early 2020 (just before the COVID-caused closure, but I think it still counts!). The wall surface adjacent to the Second World War training aircraft was in turn completed this past month, capturing the Museum’s new signature look. The area now presents a concise history of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan for a new generation of museum visitors.

Angled view of the length of a wall surface. The black wall features muted grey, green, and beige circles, which complement a series of tiles, texts, and images. The main title reads “Canadians on the Homefront.” A reader rail lines the closer half of the wall. Embedded within its shallow display are a couple of cloth insignia and pennant flags. A yellow biplane is fixed in the air, anchored to the top of the wall section.

Canadians on the Homefront. This new display introduces the roles of Canadians in mobilizing for victory during the Second World War. This leads into the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan—arguably Canada’s greatest contribution to Allied victory (besides Canadians’ service in the military).

This fast-tracked approach allowed us to turn lemons into lemonade. It was hectic—the full team was learning to work remotely, and completing the update work alongside other key priorities such as the development of our recent exhibition Eyes on the Skies: Managing Air Traffic in Canada. Still, through this initiative, we have made great progress toward making interpretive content more accessible, easier to absorb, and more family-friendly. 

And we aren’t finished yet!

As we return to an area-by-area approach, the exhibition team will focus on increasing the number of smaller artifacts on display. This is a great way for us to fold in more stories that centre on peoples’ lived experiences. We will find innovative ways, often through digital technologies, to embed further content layers for visitors to explore. We will also look at other recurring aspects of our interpretation, such as artifact labels, and find new ways to present these layers cohesively.  

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

This is also good an opportunity to pull back the curtain, as so many Channel articles do, and share some insights about the people who are involved in exhibition renewal processes. Quiet updates are only possible when everyone involved, from the Museum’s Director General to members of the installation team, makes them a priority. Museum professionals—certainly those I work with—can be described, I feel, as “mission-driven.” At our best, guided by mutual respect and trust, we build on each other’s strengths to create something larger than ourselves. It may be a cliché, but it certainly applies here. 

If you are familiar with Rénald Fortier’s (many) Channel articles, you may have noted that initials follow some of his statements—subtle “shout-outs” that speak to our strong professional relationships and quirky senses of humour. Today, I’d like to make a few shout-outs of my own:

Our recently-retired Exhibition Manager believed in this project, and ensured that everything aligned to move things forward (SB). Our current Exhibition Manager is overseeing the final installations, and keeping the momentum going (SC). Our past Curator put his heart into the redevelopment, actually delaying his retirement to see the project through (Hello, RF!). The current curatorial team strongly advocates for a visitor-centered approach, which makes my work a real pleasure (EG, VW). Effective visual communication is the linchpin of this project, and our long-serving Exhibition Designer has been instrumental in establishing the Museum’s new graphic vision (GL). Our Exhibition and Logistics Technician, in turn, has provided valuable expertise with a keen eye for quality control (JR). These team members, and many more, play a vital role in making the Canada Aviation and Space Museum a world-class institution. 

I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this project, and so many others, with such an amazing team. Rarely as an interpreter do you have the opportunity to influence a museum’s long-term approach, and yet see the vision roll out in short order. I’m excited to see the final phases of these quiet updates roll out in the coming year, and know that there will always be more to come. 

Now that you know what to look for, I hope you too are excited to see these changes.

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Erin Poulton

Erin Poulton was the Interpretive Planner for exhibitions at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum from 2013 to 2023. She graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 after completing her Bachelor of Arts in English and History, her Master of Arts in Canadian History, and her Bachelor of Education respectively. Erin has been working in the museum field since 2000, and enjoys finding fun and effective ways to share Canada’s aviation and space stories with the public.