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.