In April, I gave 13 UW graduate students a simple challenge: make an exhibit that gets strangers to talk to each other. 10 weeks, $300, and a whole lot of post-it notes later, they succeeded.
Last month, student Nicole Robert wrote about the concept for Advice: Give it, Get it, Flip it, Fuck it. Now, the exhibit is closed and we're throwing open the doors on what was created. You can explore the project wiki where we coordinated the exhibit, including the project overview, our six-week plan to get it all done, and individual sections for development of concept, content, interaction, graphics, marketing, fabrication, installation, and evaluation. There is also a final evaluation report available for download, which offers lots of great quantitative and qualitative content about what visitors did in the exhibit. It also includes reflections from the exhibit team on the project.
I recommend you check out the wiki and evaluation report to dig deeply into the content. Below are three things I learned from the Advice exhibit and will take with me into future work.
When we started this course, I really pushed the students to think about ways to induce unfacilitated interactions among strangers. I love facilitated experiences, but I worry that they aren't scalable to every visitor. In the end, the Advice exhibit offered four main experiences--two that were facilitated, and two that were unfacilitated. The facilitated experiences were an advice booth, at which you could receive real-time advice from children, money managers, tattoo artists, and more, and a button-making station, where a gallery attendant would help you play a simple game to make a custom button featuring your own advice "madlib" composed of your own nouns and verbs rolled into classic advice phrases. The unfacilitated experiences (discussed in more detail below) involved visitors writing their own pieces of advice on post-its and walls and answering each other's questions asynchronously.
At any time, there were two facilitators in the exhibit--one for the advice booth, and the other for the buttons. This might make Advice sound more like an educational program than an exhibit, or like a failure on the unfacilitated front. But the exhibit team did something novel. First, they replaced staff with volunteers--some entirely spontaneous--at the advice booth. Like the Living Library project, the advice booth was a platform that connected strangers with strangers--not just staff with strangers. One eight year-old enjoyed the advice-giving experience so much that he came back the following day for another shift in the booth!
Maybe more importantly, the facilitators were not the center of the Advice experience. They were roped to very specific locations and activities. Because they were a part of the experience rather than the focal point, they could impart an air of friendliness and participation without making people feel that they had to participate. They reminded me of street vendors or great science museum cart educators, imparting an energy to the space without overwhelming it. I know that floor staff are expensive, but they really make a space come alive (see this post). And in Advice, the activities for staff were interesting and specific enough that a really eclectic mix of volunteers could perform them successfully.
In Praise of the Post-It
There's lots of post-it-powered art on the web these days (like this and this). I'd like to add my ardor to the pack and suggest that you really can make a compelling, content-rich interactive exhibit experience with a bunch of post-its. In Advice, the setup was simple: the exhibit team came up with a few seed questions, like "How do you heal a broken heart?," and put them up on signs behind glass. Then, they offered different shapes and colors of post-its, as well as pens and markers, for people to write responses.
The engagement in this part of the exhibit was very high. Random passers-by got hooked and spent twenty minutes carefully reading each post-it, writing responses, creating chains of conversation and spin-off questions and pieces of advice. It's worth noting that the exhibit space was not exactly optimal--it was a hallway separating the lobby of the student center from a dining hall. The previous exhibit in this space was a very provocative art exhibit about sexual violence, and yet in our brief site survey in April we saw almost no one stop to look at the art. Not so for the post-its. The Advice exhibit hooked maintenance staff, students, athletes, men, women--it really seemed to span the range of people passing through.
There were 230 responses to the nine staff-created seed questions, and in a more free-form area, visitors submitted 28 of their own questions which yielded 147 responses. Some of the advice was incredibly specific; for example, one person wrote a post-it that asked, "should my 17 year old who is going to college in the fall have a curfew this summer?" That post-it received 9 follow-up post-its, including a response from another parent in the same situation. Others stood and copied pieces of advice (especially classes to take and books to read) carefully into their personal notebooks.
It might seem surprising that people would take the time to write up questions on post-its when there is no guarantee that someone will respond, and very low likeliness that someone will respond while you are still in the gallery. The exhibit experienced low traffic overall in an odd area of the UW student center. But the impulse to participate was high and the threshold for doing so was very, very low. The post-its and pens were right there. The whole exhibit modeled the potential for someone to respond to your query, and as it grew, the sense that you would be responded to and validated grew as well. We saw many people come back again and again to look at the post-its, point out new developments, laugh, and add their own advice.
People felt very comfortable not only adding their own advice but also critiquing others'. We saw many instances when someone would write "lol" or "love this" directly onto a previously posted post-it. People also asked follow-up questions. For example, one person recommended "grappa and Bessie Smith records" as a cure for a broken heart, to which another responded, "Who's Bessie Smith?" The query was answered by yet a third person, who wrote, "Uh, only the greatest singer of the 20's 'I need a little sugar in my bowl.'"
Do I know if the second person ever came back to find out who Bessie Smith is? No. But I know that the resultant conversation provided information to many subsequent visitors to the space. It's like following blog comments. Not everyone comes back to read the evolving comment stream, but the aggregate is always valuable to the next visitor.
Many Ways to Talk Back
When the student team inserted a "bathroom wall" component into the exhibit plan, I didn't really understand it. If visitors could write on post-its anywhere in the exhibit, why did they also need a place to scrawl with marker on an actual wall?
But the bathroom wall turned out to be a brilliant exhibit element. It was a release valve that let people write crude things and draw silly pictures. The bathroom wall was "anything goes" by design. And while the content on it was not as directed and compelling as that on the post-its, it served a valuable purpose. There was not a SINGLE off-topic or inappropriate submission on the post-it walls. They were totally focused on the questions and answers at hand. I think the bathroom wall made this possible by being an alternative for those who wanted to be a little less focused and just have fun with sharpies.
The Advice team also offered a guest comment book (sparsely used) for people to offer comments about the whole exhibit. There were also multiple ways to follow up or submit content online or by phone. All of these ways together constructed a landscape of visitor participation that supported a large number of people participating in ways that felt most appropriate for them.
This is a good lesson for museum talk-back design. If you only offer one place where visitors can contribute their thoughts to an exhibition, they are likely to use that opportunity to share their thoughts on all kinds of things. I've visited many exhibitions that ask focused questions at the end, and visitors respond with more general thoughts about the entire exhibition or museum. These contributions are valuable, but they erode the focus of the topic at hand.
In Advice, there were many forms of talk-back: the post-its, the bathroom wall, the book, the phone, the website. Each of these took pressure off the others as a visitor participation outlet, and the overall result was a coherent, diverse mix of on-topic visitor contributions.
What advice do you have for ways we might advance the practice of exhibit design for social interaction?