Rock climbing (safely) is a two-person activity. One person holds the rope, the other ascends the rock. For that reason, going to the climbing gym doesn't just require interest, it requires friends. My climbing gym addresses this obstacle with a wipeboard near the front that reads: “Write your name here if you need a partner.” It’s a very simple nudge towards encouraging users of the gym to meet each other. The gym staff aren’t offering instruction or serving as users’ partners; instead, they facilitate connections among the users.
I got thinking about this the other day with regard to museums. More and more museums are putting resources into floor staff who are trained to connect visitors with content, to serve as interpreters and informal teachers. But I don’t know of any programs or staff whose role is to connect visitors with each other, to instigate discussion among strangers.
And while the barriers that prevent strangers from talking to one another in museums may be high, the potential rewards of such programs are great. Floor staff are limited by time—they can’t possibly interact with all or even most of the people in the museum at any given time. While they can expand and enlighten visitor experiences with content, they also add to the perception that the museum authorities—curators, designers, and now staff—are the ones who dictate what the visitor experience is about.
Programs to encourage visitor-visitor interaction, however, don’t suffer these challenges. If they rely minimally on staff, they can be scalable to all visitors in the museum at a time. And since visitors are speaking to each other, they are less likely to feel that they have to be “right” and may feel more empowered generally to share their comment, critique, and enthusiasm—thus deepening their museum experience. If done right, it can be a financially light way to make visitors feel that the museum is an active, social place.
It’s worth mentioning the obvious: this happens on the web all the time, and if people online are willing to talk about their diseases, fears, and pets, why not in the museum? I’ve written before about ways social networking sites do this; today, some concrete ideas for how museums might as well. How could this happen?
Retrain floor staff to be party hosts. Floor staff already have the onerous task of interpreting whether a visitor is interested in being approached for discussion. It’s not too far a step from that to approaching two visitors, engaging them in discussion, and then walking away. In the same way the staff at my gym are more matchmakers than short-term matches, floor staff can get people together, and then move on.
Use simple low-tech signalers to allow visitors to “opt in” to discussion. This can be a wipeboard at the front—although it’s not entirely practical (or likely) in a winding museum space to have visitors trolling the halls, calling out the names of those listed on the board. One colleague suggested a wipeboard where people can post their cell numbers, and then call each other in the museum (potential privacy risk?). But I think the easiest way is to offer visitors a signaler at the admissions desk. Many museums require visitors to wear stickers or pins in the museum to signal that they have paid. Why not offer a second sticker that says ASK ME WHAT I THINK or WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THIS MUSEUM? Some people might look at it suspiciously, others might slap it on without a thought, and maybe someone will muster the courage to respond.
Make explicit invitations in label copy for multi-person exhibits. At the Exploratorium recently, there were a few “partner” exhibits I wanted to try in the psychology section—but my husband was lost somewhere in physics. Yes, the labels said “You will need a partner for this one.” But it might also be nice if they said, “Find a friend or ask a stranger to help you with this one.” I realize as I write this that I’m advocating for museums to explicitly encourage visitors (and children) to talk to strangers. Frankly, my experience at most children’s museums is that kids are ready to talk to and engage with all kinds of strangers; it’s the adults like me who are afraid to approach others for propriety’s sake. But the point is, if I had a label to point to and say, “Hey, excuse me, would you help me out with this exhibit?” it might help me get over my initial discomfort asking someone else to engage with me.
All of these are no-tech, dirt-cheap, and at least in the case of the stickers and floor staff, could be implemented in an experimental fashion with little planning. What other ideas are out there? When have you seen strangers engaging with each other in museums?