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It’s behind you!

What would you do if you suddenly came face to face with a dinosaur? David Erskine thinks a bit of suspense in an exhibition enhances the visitor experience
David Erskine
'Don't go down to the cellar!' We scream (more likely inside our heads) as the character on screen descends the steps to meet their terrible fate.

We know something is about to happen, as, unlike the
character, we have been privileged with a glimpse of the thing that lurks in the shadows below. As each step creaks, we relish the anticipation of our protagonist discovering what we already know and continue watching to find out what happens next.

Can we achieve this kind of suspense in museums? Suspense is a powerful tool. It can raise expectation, create anticipation, maintain interest, arouse curiosity, build tension and produce surprise. Directors and writers habitually use it to draw us in and keep us engrossed until the end of their story. But can we make anticipation work for us in exhibitions?

This challenge led me to look at how suspense techniques used in other media could be transferred to exhibitions. I went on an emotional rollercoaster, from mild anticipation to the edge of fear, as I subjected myself to an onerous round of thrillers, horror films, noir novels, TV gameshows, and the adrenalin-pumping pleasures of the theme park ride.

Alfred Hitchcock was my starting point and inspiration. He said, 'You can only get suspense going by giving the audience information.' This is the first and most important principle of suspense. The audience needs to know something is going to happen, because without this knowledge there is no anticipation, no build-up and no level of expectation.

Coupled with this is the delay - the ticking bomb, rising water or slowly turning doorknob - which allows the tension to build and the audience to participate in the action. So, the second principle is that suspense builds slowly and is achieved by delaying the outcome. It is the anticipation of this that provides much of the pleasure.

A good example of an exhibition that has successfully achieved a level of suspense by using these principles can be seen in the dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum. The raised walkway transports visitors down the full length of the gallery.

Although a practical solution, this structural element also builds anticipation by delaying the moment that the 'star' dinosaur is revealed. Visitors know something is going to happen as posters announce 'T Rex returns'.

Sounds remind them of what they are going to see and, together with dramatic lighting, the anticipation and expectation builds as they move along the bridge towards the concealed dinosaur.

There is no pleasure in seeing everything at once and so concealing and revealing is a good technique to build anticipation. But for it to be most effective the audience needs to know something is going to happen. On the other hand, an element of surprise can be introduced when something is revealed without warning or what is revealed does not match expectations.

Watching visitors slide down Carsten Höller's incredible shoots in
the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern reminded me of the third principle -
suspense is an emotional experience. But artists are much better at
taking risks when they are not frightened to push boundaries. Here was the excitement of the funfair in a gallery space, but it was also something beautiful and inspiring.

Visitors will have experienced the whole spectrum of emotions, including excitement, anticipation, uncertainty, surprise and in some cases fear as they reach the point of letting go.

The fourth principle of suspense is that the audience needs to
identify with the protagonist and feel part of the events. Here, exhibition designers can take inspiration from those installation artists who create intriguing environments in which the visitor becomes an active protagonist.

The British film-maker Peter Greenaway approaches exhibitions as a form of three-dimensional cinema, where the audience moves through the space as actors. Museums do not generally take risks, but looking at the ways things are done in other areas can produce exciting and unexpected results.

As well as introducing suspense by using one or two individual methods, the principles and techniques outlined can also inform the underlying narrative and physical structure of an exhibition. For example, publicity material can be developed that starts building suspense before visitors arrive, creating a feeling of anticipation, expectation and excitement around the exhibition.

Large-scale exhibitions might incorporate a queuing area, where waiting is made part of the experience, and an introductory area, like the prologue of a novel, can provide glimpses of the story that is about to unfold.

The storyline can be broken down into scenes that build to a climax. And within each scene a smaller event ensures there are peaks and troughs that help to hold the audience's attention as they anticipate things happening along the way. The way that the audience moves through the space - whether free-flow, routed, or time-based - will affect how suspense builds.

Of course, suspense is not always about big climaxes, dinosaurs or explosions, but about creating anticipation. This can be experienced at many different levels, from the mild, such as glimpsing an object through an opening, to the acute, which may involve dramatic sound and lighting effects. Suspense may not be appropriate or possible in all exhibitions.

It must be remembered that suspense is developed in the mind of the
visitor who brings their own perceptions and experiences with them. These techniques are not a formula, but more an approach to generate ideas to create intriguing exhibitions that engage the audience's imagination, trigger their emotions and provide a memorable visitor experience.

David Erskine is the exhibitions manager at Buckinghamshire County Museum

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