Advice from me

Video in exhibitions – getting it right

Video in exhibitions is often done badly. A usual approach is “Lets just run that marketing DVD on gallery – that’ll make a good display”. So why isn’t this a good idea? Let’s look at what can go wrong.

This isn’t like TV

The main mistake people make in putting video in galleries is to think “This is like TV”. Although the pictures move and the technology is similar the gallery context is completely different and people behave in very different ways. The main difference is in attention span – typically people sit down on their sofa to watch a TV programme that they’ve planned to watch and has a particular interest for them. There aren’t many distractions – even if they switch over to another channel they can switch back immediately. Compare this to a gallery experience, visitors tend to come across a video by chance, they haven’t chosen to watch that particular one, they’re not sitting down and there are lots of other things to distract them. This is even more of an issue with groups of people as the whole group may not want to stay. And if they do wander off they’re unlikely to come back.

You can of course try and make the gallery surrounding more like a TV or cinema. Adding seating will encourage people to watch for longer, as will putting the video in an enclosed place free of other distractions. However, you can probably never get the same level of engagement with gallery video as happens with TV, let alone cinema.

Moving pictures are not enough

Unless your visitors have been brought up in caves they’ll have seen a huge amount of TV and cinema so the spectacle of moving pictures isn’t going to be very exciting for them. What is going to make the difference is the content of what you’re showing so you need to look critically at it and decide whether that content will be most engaging in a video form.
“Talking heads” are easy to do but aren't that engaging for visitors. We’ve all seen this on TV so it seems a natural thing to do. However, if you look at a quality TV programme you’ll see that the editors realise that they’re not very exciting. They show the person talking for a few seconds so you know who they are, and then they tend to cut to shots of something else while continuing the speech audio. Most people can read much faster than they speak so giving them the same information in text form actually reduces the attention span people need to take it all in.
For more on this have a look at Jacob Neilson’s eye tracking study -Talking Head Video Is Boring Online.

People may come in at any time

One of the biggest differences with gallery video is that visitors won’t necessarily watch it from the start or to the end. Common mistakes which fail to take this into account:

  • Putting titles at the start. If you put the title which tells you what the video is about at the start then the video makes no sense if you come in later. If the video needs a title or caption to make sense then overlay it on the footage or put it on the surrounding structure.
  • Similarly don’t put credits at the end. Almost all visitors will wander off at this point and if new visitors arrive then they won’t see anything of interest so they won’t stay. Take the same approach as with titles – if you must have credits then overlay them on the video or put them on the surrounding structure.
  • Keep the video short. This is a general rule for gallery video due to visitors' decreased attention spans but it’s particularly important when you consider that people may have come in half way through. Ideally you need to get your main point across within 30 seconds or shorter. If you provide seating you get a bit longer, but its easy to fall into the trap of making a longer film than people want to see.

These issues can be helped by giving visitors some way of controlling when the video starts (eg by pressing a button). However, this merely ensures that some visitors will see the start of the video – others will still come halfway through and attention spans won’t be any longer so you still need to keep it short.


Sound is the area where most gallery videos run into the biggest problems. Here are a couple of things to be aware of.

  • If your video has sound that will be audible in the rest of the gallery then don’t run the video on a continuous loop. If you do then the video will become the sound track to the gallery, quickly becoming very annoying and ensuring that people don’t stay long. The way round this is to either make sure that the video only starts on demand (by a button press) or making the sound only audible to the person viewing the video.
  • If the video has sound such as speech that visitors need to hear to understand what going on then it should be subtitled. This will enable you to meet your responsibilities to the deaf but also has other advantages. Typically in a gallery setting you can’t control the noise levels so having subtitles lets people understand what’s going on even if there’s a screaming child right next to them.

There are various ways of reducing the sound spillage from gallery video although none is a “magic bullet”. The two main ways are headphones or directional speakers.

  • Headphones can work well at stopping sound spillage. A major downside is that they stop group interaction. Even if you put several sets of headphones there may not be enough for everyone in the group and once people put them on they can’t hear each other so they don’t talk. Another disadvantage is robustness, although you can get armoured cables all gallery headphones break in time and you’ll need to keep lots of spares. Finally if you are going to use headphones make sure that the exhibit plays some sound at all times otherwise visitors will put on the headphones, hear nothing and assume that the exhibit is broken.
  • Directional speakers. It is possible to install “directional speakers” which play sound so that it’s only audible in a particular place. This can work very well but things to be aware of are - The sound quality tends not to be that good. It can be fine for speech but music may not be that great - You may get some sound spillage. How much you get depends on factors like how high the ceiling is and what your floor is made of.
  • Choosing and installing directional speakers is a skilled job. Get an experience AV firm to do it for you.
  • Directional speakers can be expensive.
  • Sometimes directional speakers they work too well and visitors aren’t aware that the piece has sound because they’re standing in the wrong place and can’t hear anything.

Don't let this put you off!

After reading all this you may be a bit daunted by the long lists of things to watch out for. Don't let this put you off - good video can really bring a gallery alive. However, once you've shot and edited your video it can be difficult (and expensive) to make changes if you decide that it isn't right. That's why its important to think about these issues at the planning stage. If you're commissioning a gallery video then make sure you discuss these issues with the production company. Most companies don't specialise in making videos for exhibtions so aren’t aware of these issues either. Video editing is a very time consuming process so it’s a good idea to give them these guideline before they start rather than once they’ve delivered the final product.

© Joe Cutting 2008. You are welcome to use this document for your own purposes but you must retain this acknowledgment. You may not sell all or any part of this document or use it for financial gain.