I've been collecting stories and images of really effective visitor-response stations for awhile now, and I've noticed an intriguing trend: exhibits that invite visitors to write a letter to someone, especially with a typewriter, tend to yield elaborate and interesting responses.
- In the late 1980s, the Brooklyn Children's Museum created an exhibit called Send a Letter to Snoopy. Kids could type letters on a Remington typewriter and put them in a mailbox marked "To Snoopy." Staff exhibited several of their letters nearby for other visitors to read. As Kathy McLean noted in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, while staff were afraid that typing on the typewriter would be too hard for some young children, "kids lined up to carefully and slowly type their letters." The museum received dozens of letters each week, and many visitors shared personal issues, dreams, and fears in their writings.
- In 2007, the Lowell National Historical Park exhibited Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On The Road to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication. Alongside the iconic manuscript, the Park featured a talkback area in which visitors could contribute their own reflections. Instead of offering post-its or pencils, the Park provided a desk with a typewriter (amazingly, donated by the Kerouac family) and an evocative quote from Kerouac: “Never say a commonplace thing.” Visitors responded incredibly, generating over 12,000 messages at the typewriter during the 6-month run. Rather than just saying, “awesome book,” the overall design of the space and the relationship between the typewriter and the manuscript inspired visitors to share highly personal and artistic commentary. Several wrote letters directly to Jack. Some wrote poems. The image at the top of this post comes from one visitor's response.
- Also in 2007, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh opened a new exhibition on the John Murray Archive. John Murray ran the publishing house that represented Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and Sir Walter Scott, among others. The exhibition was organized around eleven major authors who worked with John Murray Publishing and used the authors' letters to and from the publisher as the central thread of the exhibition story. Visitors entering the exhibition received beautifully typeset letters from John Murray himself (starting "Dear Visitor,") entreating them to interpret a particular artifact or story on display. The exhibition also featured a simple Victorian writing desk at which visitors could write their own long-hand letters to the famous authors themselves. National Library staff promised to write back to all the letter-writers, assuming there would be very few. They quickly found themselves overrun with hundreds of six or seven-page letters from visitors talking about their own adventures, triumphs, and challenges.
What makes these visitor response stations so successful?
- They force people to slow down. Whether you are working a typewriter or writing longhand at a writing desk, the overall experience implies focus, intent, and taking your time.
- They have an intended audience. When you write a letter to someone, even someone dead or fictitious, you know who you are writing to. You have a clear image of that person in your mind, and you are motivated by your desire to connect with them, not a general desire to express yourself.
- They imply a response. When you send someone a letter, it's the beginning of a conversation. In the case of the John Murray Archive exhibition, staff continue that conversation. In the other two examples, while visitors don't receive a response, they have opened up a mental conversation with Snoopy or Jack Kerouac to continue at their leisure.
- All of these stations were well-designed to fit into the overall exhibit experience. Letter-writing was the heart of John Murray's enterprise. The typewriter was central to both Snoopy and Jack Kerouac's stories. These visitor response stations were natural to the stories being told, and they were designed thoughtfully using the same kinds of tools as those that produced artifacts on display. The response stations allowed visitors to stay within the emotional space of the exhibits rather than wresting them out into a generic comment board or book.