Sunday, September 09, 2007

Talking Through Objects: The Dog Analogy

I'm gearing up for some conference talks next month, and one of these is part of a very cool session, Eye on Design, at the Western Museums Association conference. The coordinator asked several folks to pick a design trend from outside the museum world and discuss how they might be applied to museum design. I've been thinking about what, of all this 2.0 stuff, is most exciting to me. And right now, it's the ways that these technologies encourage social engagement among strangers.

On the web, such socializing can happen around games (MMOs), shopping (Amazon discussions), trip planning (TripAdvisor), music or book collections (Librarything)... the list goes on. But I recently stumbled back upon one of the most powerful tools for stranger-stranger socializing in the real world: dogs.

I'm in the process of adopting a dog. Doing so has brought me to shelters, dog parks, and generally a heightened awareness of dogs and their owners. Dogs are the ultimate social object. They allow for transference of attention from person-to-person to person-to-thing-to-person. It’s much less threatening to approach someone by approaching and interacting with his/her dog, which will inevitably lead to interaction with its owner. Similarly, enterprising dog owners use their dogs as social instigators, steering the pups towards people they’d like to meet.

Why does this work with dogs but not with, say, 18th century coins in museums? When you are looking at a painting, and I am looking at the painting, why don’t we transfer our interest in the painting into social exchange?

One argument might be that dogs are owned and therefore uniquely associated with their owners. In the museum, neither of us has a vested interest in the exhibit with which we are both interacting, so neither of us can extrapolate back to interest in the other person. But that’s not quite true. Often I’m standing at an exhibit, totally thrilled by the way I can use my hands to make cloud formations or listen to strange sounds or… and would LOVE to share it with strangers. I feel some ownership of the experience I’ve discovered. I’d love to flag someone down and say, “Hey! Check out this awesome thing!” But I rarely do. I’m conscious of other people’s “alone time” in the museum. When I see someone having a great experience with an exhibit in a museum, my impulse isn’t to approach him and ask what he’s enjoying. My impulse is to leave him alone to enjoy his experience, to be alone with his dog, as it were.

But leaving dogs “alone” never seems like the right choice. They have so much social energy on their own, absent of owners. Have you ever had a stray dog, a sweet and not-too-mangy one, approach you on the street? In my experience these dogs are the best social generators. Immediately, I spring into action, asking the people on the street if they know the dog, have seen it, etc. Suddenly an ad hoc gang of strangers is shepherding this dog through the neighborhood looking for its home.

Imagine an exhibit that could do this—that could approach you, express a need, and spring you into social action. An exhibit that compelled you to walk around to other visitors and ask, “Do you know this exhibit? Is it yours? Any idea where it belongs?”

What are the general characteristics of dogs that make them good objects for sparking social interaction?

They are intrinsically relational. Exhibits are things. Dogs are persons (if highly limited in their abilities as such). The expectation with a dog is that the only way to engage with it is by being social with it, which then breaks the ice for being social with those around it. The expectation with an exhibit is that one approaches it intellectually, physical, even emotionally, but that the approach is uni-directional; that is, the exhibit isn’t giving anything back. You are the only active agent with an interactive. With a dog, you are both active agents, and the “interactivity” is social.

Dogs are outwardly emotive. There are many museum exhibits that are arguably as interactive as a dog. And yet the thing that makes dogs lovable is their desire to relate emotionally, to perform and to please. It’s easier as a stranger to respond positively to an animal that expresses interest in you than an exhibit that just sits there. And dogs’ attention is not uni-directional—dogs will spread their attention to all those around them. Which means if you are having a great experience with your dog, I can perceive and access that. In a museum, I can’t necessarily tell if the ancient bowl is communicating with you or you with it. Dogs are approachers. Exhibits only receive.

Dogs are endlessly interesting to their owners. If I approach you in a museum and ask what captivates you about the sculpture in front of us, you might look at me strangely and tell me you were just spacing out. But if I ask what you love about your dog or why he does that funny thing, you will chatter on for minutes. Yes, this happens in museums, but most often when you interact with museum staff, who have vested interests, relationships, and ideas about the objects on display. Museum visitors are rarely as “close” to exhibits as they are to their pets.


In a strange way, the dog analogy leads to thinking about personalizing the museum. When the museum is full of objects, exhibits, and experiences that feel personal to visitors, visitors take ownership and have relationships with those experiences that are emotional and deep—like their relationships with dogs. I once toured an art museum with an art educator who told me that she thinks of certain pieces as “old friends” who she loves to visit and communicate with from time to time. It struck me that she was incredibly privileged to have this personal relationship with the art. But that relationship is like her own secret dog. It makes her experience more meaningful, but doesn’t necessarily induce social behavior.

Having personal relationships with museum content is a start—but that’s just the first step, when you clip the leash on the dog and call it yours. The real challenge is figuring out how to design exhibits that are “approachers,” that come up to you with interest and attention and needs and ask you to satisfy them. How do we design exhibits to be the cutest, most friendly strays on the block?

Please share your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ll be out socializing with my new friend.

10 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

As a lifelong dog owner, I applaud your analogy and completely relate! But I am also in complete synch with the "some of my oldest friends are art works" comment too, and therein lies the rub.

Sometimes when you visit friends, you want to give them your undivided attention, commune with them over coffee so to speak. You *don't* necessarily want to bring along others to chat, and small talk, dog park style, doesn't suffice.

So too with exhibitions and favorite works. I think another challenge here is how a museum stimulates the ripe opportunities for those who can/want to take an exhibition-viewing experience and share it, make it social, while not disturbing the occasional traditionalist who visits a museum precisely for the meditative alone time.

Libraries come to mind as handling this balance well... anyway,

thanks for the (dog) food for thought!

Nina Simon said...

Great point. We need a "dog park" section, a "personal time" section, a "pick up hot chicks" section...

Although arguably right now the museum is so much about alone or small group time that perhaps swaying forecfully in the other direction, while jarring, would be useful.

How do you feel libraries balance this well? I'm not sure who I would socialize with in the library.

I wonder how this works at zoos, where there are lots of emotive, moving animals to watch. Are people more social with strangers there?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks said...

Nice analogy, Nina!

Have you read Donna Haraway's recent thoughts on companion animals, and specifically about dogs? You might find them useful, and you'd definitely find them interesting.

The Wax Lion said...

I'd have to say that yes, in my experience zoos do provoke more social contact between visitors; I also notice that visitors seem more likely to engage staff when they have a question about a live animal than they do about an object. Interesting!

I think, too, that when I was a staff member at a zoo, I felt I could more easily start spontaneous conversations with visitors if an animal was doing something interesting at the moment I strolled by--it creates a point of contact, you know exactly what their eye is on when the bear is jumping into the swimming pool! So you can say something about how much that particular bear loves playing in the water, and there you go. In object-based exhibits, I do feel a bit more that I might not have a handle on what they're finding so interesting about X, and my comment might not be as welcome or as relevant. (This isn't to say I don't do it--but it does feel different than the spontaneous conversations I used to have with zoo visitors.) As always, your blog is great food for thought!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that the dog analogy is a great one.

It occurs to me that kids (particularly young kids) are a bit like dogs too, except many more museums allow kids through the doors. I wonder if kids can create communities of adults and kids that extend beyond "playtime" and into deeper experiences?

Elizabeth said...

I remember that I went to an exhibit at the Menil in Houston. Although I don't remember what the exhibit was entitled, I do remember that at a given time interval some of the mechanical sculptures would be activated. They were mechanical assembleges that would rattle, spin, purr, etc. Because they made such a racket, if even for only 30 to 60 seconds, it broke the ice. Strangers in the gallery would talk with one another about the sculptures. They would identify which one they liked and why.

Anonymous said...

I applaude your obervation. great read- along w/your tattoo palors and art museum post. :)

MissManda said...

I applaude your obervation. great read- along w/your tattoo palors and art museum post. :)

Tikka said...

Great analogy - if only we could get our exhibits to be more like dogs, or better still puppies.

I think Elizabeth is on to something in drawing attention to movement as a key feature of being engaging. I wonder if the utter stillness of objects in cases or on walls encourages us to shut down externally as well? Whereas dogs and puppies make you feel like imitating them - being silly, bouncing or other human equivalents of wagging your tale.

Your post on pointing as a sign of engagement makes a similar point. Somehow our exhibits have to overcome a kind of physical inertia so that visitors will talk, point, move and interact.

Thanks for the idea!

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