Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Exclusivity Paradox: Secret Gardens, Hidden Museums

A few weeks ago, I gathered a group of creative folks in San Francisco and asked them, "what makes a social venue feel welcoming and friendly to you?" To my surprise, secrecy and exclusivity were at the top of the list. One effused about the bar Bourbon and Branch, where you need a secret code word to gain entry. A woman gushed about Wild Side West's hidden backyard garden area, which includes eclectic statues and cozy corners to curl into. And then there's the Berkeley Ace hardware store, which has a basement lair devoted to model trains.

I had specifically asked about places that feel welcoming, and the responses were about exclusive experiences. What's going on here?

Exclusive places reinforce our identities powerfully. Despite the fact that we often think of welcoming places as being designed "for everybody," the places where we actually feel most welcomed and comfortable are often designed not for everyone but instead feel like they are made just for us. When you find a bar with your favorite song on the jukebox, or a museum room that feels like your grandmother's living room, you suddenly feel a strong affinity and are able to see yourself reflected in the space. In his identity work, John Falk determined that people use cultural institutions to reflect their personal self-concept as learners, social leaders, spiritual pilgrims, hobbyists, and experience seekers. The extent to which an institution can fulfill that self-concept is directly related to how specific and personal the visitor experience is. You never say, "this place is so me" when talking about a generic public space. You say and feel that in spaces that are unusual, distinctive, and in their own way, tailored to your preferences.

Secret places are a pleasure to discover and share. My friends all commented that they love bringing new friends to their favorite secret places; it makes them feel cool and magnaminous at the same time. I know I feel that way about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles; I feel a bit of pride every time I usher a skeptical friend through the non-descript storefront and into a world of strange wonder. Not only do I get to experience the fun of opening the door to something mystical, I get to play porter and grant my friends access as well. Additionally, because I feel like the Museum of Jurassic Technology reflects my self-identity well, I feel like I am letting my friends in on a secret about me as well as a secret gem of Los Angeles. While it sounds paradoxical, I'm more likely to talk about and bring friends to a place I perceive as exclusive than one that is transparent, because I feel like I'm more likely to offer them value by sharing the secret experience.

Secrecy introduces novelty to the visit experience. Entering a secret place has an emotional weight to it that affects the way that visitors approach and use these spaces. Sometimes, as at Bourbon and Branch, the secrecy is ritualized into a simple challenge that allows entering visitors to see themselves as "in the know" and having "earned" entrance into a special place. In other cases, just walking through the dingy, dark hallways that you know lead to your favorite secret spot can give you a feeling of accomplishment, specialness, and anticipation. You earned your private reading tree or library back corner, and each visit continues to confirm your value as a special and clever person.

In a world of over-advertised experiences, understatement can go a long way. Taking pleasure in hidden things increases when you live in an environment where everything is available and highly documented. I'm not surprised that this group, who live in an urban culture where everyone knows the cool new spots, gravitate towards experiences that they perceive as less exposed and perhaps more authentic. Secrecy operates on a scarcity model; if everyone knows about it, it's not as appealing. As knowledge shifts away from a scarcity model and towards one in which information is freely and instantaneously available, experiences are continue to be valued for their exclusivity. In fact, I'd argue that the value of exclusive experiences is increasing and diversifying. While wealthy people have always had access to exclusive experiences (country clubs, art openings), more and more people of other socio-economic classes are clamoring for personalized and exclusive experiences as an alternative to the mass-market, one-size-fits-all model.


Of course, the problem with all of this is that it sounds crazy from a business perspective. It may be great for a natural refuge to remain hidden, but that sounds like a disaster for a restaurant or museum. If your institution has a killer roof garden, why wouldn't you promote it? If there's a fabulous mosaic in a dusty third floor reading room, why would you let it sit there unadmired by the masses? And if you make design choices that intentionally keep your experiences secret, aren't you doing a disservice to institutional goals to serve broad audiences?

I think one answer to these questions (not a business answer), and the final reason we love secret places, is that they are a little crazy. They don't fit our expectations. We're used to things that are packaged, lit, and presented in a certain way, and we don't expect trap doors or weird dingy entrances or secret web pages. In 2007, I interviewed digital artist Jason Nelson about his work creating strange games and he talked at length about the beauty of working with hidden things and creating intentional "weirdness." As he put it, "I also think people connect with my stuff because it flirts with failure. How do you make something that’s messy, that isn't polished, that seems almost kind of broken? A lot of the content on the net is so polished. And I think there’s something ingrained in us that wants error."

It's a pleasure to discover an aberration in the system--a secret garden in the city, a hidden museum by a gas station, a cave in the hillside. Designers call these elements "Easter eggs" because they are little gifts that you have to find hidden in the system. Easter eggs are never practical to design, but they bring pleasure both to their designers and to the small percentage of audience who find and are rewarded by them. I hope that we will all continue to design a little more secrecy and weirdness into our work, both for ourselves and for those who love to discover wander the secret garden.

What Easter eggs have you designed into your own work, and what secret places bring you pleasure? Do you feel like secrecy is a problematic design or business proposition, or is the affinity it breeds is worth the exclusive approach?

11 comments, add yours!:

Mary Warner said...

Two of my very favorite childhood stories were (still are) "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett and "Charley" by Joan Robinson. The latter is less well-known, but it, too, involves a child hiding in a secret place. Someday I'd like to own a home with a secret room. If that ever happens, I probably won't ever talk about it because having a secret is exciting. It's so exciting that it's hard to keep a secret to one's self. Fabulous tension in that.

I love creating secret things, too, and have done so in the book of short stories I wrote called "Greenville: Where Longing Meets Loss." I created 3 separate editions, each with a different little secret.

My personal website also has a couple of Easter eggs, which were a blast to invent. No one seems to have stumbled upon them, although I've hinted at them on my blog. (Outright mentioned it here, now, haven't I? Will anyone take the bait?)

Cyberpedagogy said...

What an interesting twist on 'welcome'. But reading your post,it makes perfect sense. What makes one individual feel welcome is not the same for another, and so our welcome spaces are going to be unique. And when you find that space, you want to hold on to that feeling of it just being for you.

My favorite space in this vein is the Ando Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. It's a small gallery located in a corner of a gigantic museum, showcasing Japanese screens. The space itself though is quiet, serene, and totally meditative. And no one seems to know about it. I love sharing this spot with friends when we're browsing the museum.

Marti said...

What I like about this post is it prompts us to look beyond a narrow set of 'appropriate' engagement strategies and consider the more noir aspects human nature as a potentially motivating design elements.

How might exclusivity, secrecy be used in 'appropriate' or powerful ways to engage audiences/visitors/users/learners in museum settings?

The British design team Dunne & Raby have done some provocative, perhaps subversive exhibit/installation work, exploring fear, fantasy, excess and shock as ways to engage audiences in topics.

Some examples of their work at http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/exhibitions

I'd love to hear more about other work that seems to have less idealistic conceptions of visitors as learners, spiritual pilgrims, hobbyists, social leaders, etc. in their design of visitor experiences.

Lauri Berkenkamp said...

I like the idea of exclusivity being relative to the visitor--two of my favorite "secret" places are the Boston Public Library and the New York Public Library. Both are old buildings inevitably packed with people, but they offer public spaces that seem like secret gardens. Open a door or head down a hallway and suddenly an interior garden opens up, or a cozy "undiscovered" room appears. I like the paradox of large, public places that offer intimate and very pleasing surprises.

Jeff said...

See Pattern 127 Intimacy Gradient in Christopher Alexanders A Pattern Language

"In any building - house, office, public building, summer cottage - people need a gradient of settings, which have different degrees of intimacy."

Sarah said...

The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan, built hidden secrets into its space. There are steps and miniature leading nowhere, paintings on the ceiling, murals in out-of-the-way areas, and whimsical touches throughout. While it is likely that most visitors discovering these things, and so they aren't all that "hidden," the act of discovery itself makes the visit all that much more fun.

bean said...

Being able to share our favorite "secret places" with friends is definitely one of the great joys in life. I love taking people to Adler Museum (aka Specs) tucked away in a hidden corner of north beach for just that reason. The old photos and memorabilia lining the walls in combination with the beat poets you are likely to engage with, make a most interesting stop. the irish coffee is pretty good too!

Meg at The Henry Ford said...

At the House of the Seven Gables (of Hawthorne fame) in Salem, MA, the tour includes going up the "secret" staircase. This was a highlight of my trip to Massachusettes. In truth, the staircase is no longer secret (every able-bodied tour member goes up it), but just the knowledge that it had been secret made the experience more exciting. There truly is an atrraction to the secret or special.

Jones said...

In Dean MacCannell, The Tourist, they're called "back areas."

Jennifer said...

I used to work at Winterthur Museum, where you could enter the period room area of the museum through a number of different doors. My favorite route was to take people through a meeting room and totally non-descript hallway and suddenly appear through a door in the paneling into a fully-decorated 18th-century room. People loved it, and even though they were obviously in a major public space of the house, they still felt like they had been privy to a secret. This also reminds me of the "hidden Mickey" game that big Disney fans like to play at the Disney parks--looking for the "easter egg" characters hidden throughout the facility in murals, tile, etc.

Sue VanHattum said...

!. The Blind Pig in Ann arbor used to have a front cafe bar, and a back dance bar. The back area was behind a big painting, whose frame you had to pull on to open the door. (Historically, a blind pig was a hidden bar during prohibition.)

2. In SF, my favorite places to take out of town friends are nature walks that are off the beaten path. The stairway street down from Coit Tower, and also Corona Heights. Not secret, but special in a similar way.