There was a recent post on the ASTC listserv from a museum planning to revamp their wayfinding system. The wayfinding question in museums—or any complex space—is multifaceted. There’s the “I can’t read the map” problem. The “Where was that thing I liked” problem. The “How close is the bathroom my kid is having a problem” problem. But let’s step back. At a global level, there are three wayfinding questions that enter my mind whenever I enter a museum:
- What do they have?
- What stuff do I want to see/do?
- Where is that stuff?
IF Number One. When the aggregate names are abstract, it’s hard to know what to expect. At the Spy Museum, our content is separated into two sections, School for Spies and Secret History of History. School for Spies (which features gadgets, interactives, and the tools of espionage) is further broken down into Cloak (disguise), Ninja (concealment devices), Dagger (concealed weapons), and Shadow (surveillance). With the possible exception of Dagger, none of these names helps you understand the content of that section. The names are evocative… but not useful.
And even when the aggregate names are clear, i.e. Optics, the experiences available in that section of the museum are not. This is the second IF, and in my mind, one that most museums don’t address. When I go into a museum, I’m rarely looking for specific content; instead, I’m looking for a specific experience. Maybe I want something contemplative. Something active. Something that will take about 30 minutes. Something I can share with a 10 year old. Right now, in most museums, I have to look at the map/aggregate names and guess where those experiences might lie. There are some rare aggregate names that are strong signalers; I feel reasonably confident that Bubbles will give me an opportunity to play with bubbles. But what about Chemistry? Will I do experiments? Will I see explosions? Will I learn about the history of the discipline?
Theme parks address this issue well. They have aggregated areas that are quite abstract (e.g. Tomorrowland) and within those, rides with only slightly more descriptive names (Space Mountain). But on the maps, alongside the names of the rides, there is shorthand information—what kind of ride it is, what age it’s appropriate for. Many theme park maps also feature pop-outs with lists of “must-dos” for visitors of different types–teenagers, people who only have 3 hours, etc. Theme parks are serious about helping visitors answer my second question: “What stuff do I want to see/do?”
Why don’t museums operate this way? Because unlike theme parks, which are focused on the visitor, museums are focused on their own content. Rather than addressing “What stuff do I want to see/do?,” museums tell you, “Here’s how we have chosen to organize our stuff.” Museums expect you to figure out how to interpret their institutional aggregation to create your own experience.
The map of science paradigms we were looking at had an interactive component in which you could select a particular scientist or subdiscipline (i.e. Neuroscience) and all the paradigms that your selection impacts would light up. Imagine museum maps in which you could hit a button that says “Toddlers,” or “Quiet Spaces,” or “Personal Narratives” and see all the places in the museum associated with that tag. It doesn’t have to be high-tech; even adding basic signaler tags like “interactive” or “adult” to the printed map can help. Then, I can spend my time with my quality map time trying to figure out which way is North rather than wondering whether the North Wing is worth my time.