Last week, we looked at the first section of Visitor Voices, on Talk-backs, and came to the conclusion that comment boards and the like are functionally conversations, and that their design, therefore, should focus on encouraging positive, lively, thoughtful, engaged discussion. This week, we look at the second section, Contributing Personal Experiences.
What makes this section distinct? Contributing personal experience is less about discussion and more about gifts--gifts our visitors give to us in the form of their stories and observations. These gifts may be emotional, analytical, even activist. They are not boisterous dinner parties. They are personal, sometimes private. And rather than forming a sequential narrative via responses and counter-responses, they form a collective narrative, a dataset of primary experiences from which meaning (and exhibitions) can be created.
What better example of this distinction than the Love Tapes? Created by video artist Wendy Clarke, and eventually part of the Exploratorium's collection, the Love Tapes project features visitors of all kinds sharing their personal experiences of love. Again, this is not a discussion about what love is or isn't. People aren't responding to each other. Yes, most visitors are encouraged to watch other videos before submitting their own, but the video creation process is set up as wholy about you and your experiences.
Wendy has a very specific set of ground rules about how someone is supposed to approach the Love Tapes: first, by watching others to get the feel for it, then, recording their own (to background music of their choice), then, deciding whether to include it in the total collection, and finally, viewing their own tape as part of that collection.
The "view, then record, then review" model is not surprising, but there are other elements here that are. First, the music. Rather than sit a person in a room in front of a camera with no context, creators speak over a song. In the beginning, everyone had the same song; later, people could choose preferred background songs. The songs serve a few functions: they set expectations about the time duration of the video, they set a relaxing mood, and finally, they offer accompaniment.
The accompaniment is a strange one. Robert Garfinkle of the Science Museum of Minnesota commented at ASTC that the cacophony of voices from videos in the exhibition RACE make people feel more comfortable talking about the issues the exhibition raises, since they are in the environment of other people's words. I think the musical accompaniment to the Love Tapes may play the same role--giving people something to sink into and become part of, rather than being cognizant of the stark aloneness of their own voice.
Another unusual element of the Love Tapes is the positioning of the subject, who faces a screen hooked directly to the camera. The effect is to let you watch yourself as you speak. At first I thought this might be terribly distracting, but what are the alternatives? To look at a blank wall? Label text? An evocative image? Ultimately, looking at yourself may keep the creator focused on what he or she is saying, on the extent to which the video is a mirror of his or her true expression.
The Love Tapes stand out for their power. Even just reading about them, I was moved and wanted desperately to see them. Part of their power, like that of the PostSecret project, is their originator's love for them and desire to see them grow. Wendy Clarke's reaction after recording hundreds of these wasn't, "thank goodness that's over." It was, "I wish I could do these with every single person in the whole world." The Love Tapes weren't a sideshow to a bigger exhibition--they were worth working for on their own. The content was serious, important, and deeply cared for. And clearly, that showed in what came out.
Supporting safe spaces for personal expression isn't all about empowering visitors--it can create new opportunities for staff as well. In some cases, those expressions aren't even the visitors' own. The Darkened Waters story--of an Exxon-Valdez spill exhibition at a tiny museum that became their first ever traveling exhibition based on visitor demand--is a heartening example where that expression was "show this to others." The Pratt Museum in AK should be extremely proud of the fact that they created something their visitors thought was so valuable it had to be seen by others. The visitors adopted the content and empowered the museum to go further. It's nice to see visitors and museums switch roles like that.
To me, these projects are successful when the museum is willing to do something with visitor contributions--to base an exhibit on them (as in the Love Tapes) or to act on them (as in Darkened Waters). In the examples where the visitor contribution was seen as a limited, non-essential component of the exhibit experience, the impact seemed minimal. So if last week's core lesson was about supporting engaging discussion, this week's is about caring for visitors, and thinking of them as integral to the exhibition content or direction. Again, a universal theme, easy to imagine, hard to implement honestly.
It's also hard to implement when the content is not deeply personal--as in the Love Tapes, Exxon-Valdez, or the Vietnam War (in an Oakland Museum exhibition). I don't think the question should be: how can we get people to share deep personal expression about topic X? The question should be: does topic X evoke deep personal expression? For whom? If not for our visitors, how can we share it? If we can't share it, what are we doing?
I did some digging and found this link, where you can watch a half hour of the Love Tapes from 1982. Share the love.