It’s one thing to experience and or be confronted by content that is uncomfortable, either in the form of an exhibition or a program. But what about interactive exhibits that give visitors active roles in the uncomfortable situation?
Two examples, both from science museums.
The first is Goosebumps! The Science of Fear, currently on display at the California Science Center. The exhibition starts with four interactive rooms in which you can confront your own fear: fear of creepy crawlies, fear of loud noises, fear of electric shock, and fear of falling. For me, terror resides in the creepy crawly room—not so much because I’m afraid of bugs, but because I’m afraid of the unknown, which they did a wonderful job conveying. Aquariums featured live dangerous spiders and snakes (not scary). The aquariums had thick black PVC tubes that appeared to lead from the animal enclosures to curtained troughs where you were expected to put your hand (very scary). There’s no explicit statement about what is behind the curtain, but the implication is that there are MORE tarantulas etc. lurking there—and the label told you to stick your hand in.
Heck. I’m a rational person. More than that, I’m a museum person—I KNOW they wouldn’t put real animals—dead or alive—behind a curtain and say “grab here”. And yet I was paralyzed by fear, unable to foroce myself to stick my hand inside the curtain. I started to feel stupid, then ashamed. Why wasn’t I willing to try what others did so easily? In the end, it was an experience that was uncomfortable, yet manageable. It left a strong impression, albeit one of partial humiliation.
Example two comes from the Exploratorium’s Mind exhibition, mentioned last week. In it, they have created a card game version of one of the Implicit Association Tests (IAT) in which people are instructed to match up four kinds of words: male names, female names, work-related words, and family-related words, with two categories. The first time, the categories are male/work and female/family. The second time, it’s male/family and female/work. In the Implicit Association Test, most people are shown to more quickly group male names with work and female names with family. It’s an uncomfortable truth about our hidden associations/stereotypes.
As I watched people race to sort cards into the right categories, I wondered why the Exploratorium chose the gender/work/family test instead of the most famous IAT, the Race Test. The Race Test, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, asks people to associate black and white faces with words related to good and evil. The unpleasant result is that most people, black and white, associate white more readily with good and black with evil.
Finding out that you associate women with family feels less icky than discovering that you associate black people with evil. (I won't go into the reasons...) Does that make it a more comfortable experience? Does it make it a less impactful one?
Visitors put their trust in us when they engage with an interactive. They expect to give us some time and their bodies, and expect that we will give them a good experience, something valuable in return. If we give them something disgusting, unsettling, or cruel, we start to lose their trust. Then again, I'd argue that few museums do that--at least not intentionally. Too often, we give them something dull, insubstantial, broken. We keep their trust that we will keep them safe, but not that we will keep them entertained.
What do interactives need to be risky yet safe?
Let people watch. Stepping into a secret, individual room can be uncomfortable on its own. In some cases, that's a good thing--unsettle, then amaze. But most of the time, it helps to put uncomfortable experiences in public locations where you can play voyeur before playing yourself. It helps you acclimate to the experience to watch someone else get shocked--even if you know it won't diminish the associated discomfort. (Interestingly, Goosebumps! switches this arrangement, putting the watching stations on the back side of the fear interactives, so people who have already gone through the interactives can watch. At that point, it becomes more performative, which is entertaining, but doesn't help newcomers to the interactives.)
Keep personal stuff private. There's a traveling race interactive, which I first saw at the American Visionary Art Museum, in which you take a photo of your face and then morph it into different races. It feels a little naughty, to giggle at yourself with stretched cheeks or overlarge eyes. But it's also instructive. And doing it behind a curtain, alone (or with your family) keeps you from feeling self-conscious about your self-interest. I think many people would be willing to engage in interactives about tough issues--money, stereotypes, sex--if they can interact in a personal, private way.
Provide an Escape Route. I love scary movies, but I never watch them at the theater. Why? Because at home, I can pause whenever I want, or even leave the room. While some interactives call for comfy chairs to ease you in, others call for quick potential getaways or pause buttons--so you can enjoy the intensity on your own terms, and walk away if you feel the need.
What interactive experiences have you had that crossed the line? What design criteria would you add to an uncomfortable interactive?