Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who Am I? Internal vs. External Role-Playing in Museums

Recently I've been looking at ways cultural institutions invite people to self-identify relative to the visit experience. Having your own profile relative to an exhibition can help you find a way "in" to the experience via your own interests. It can also provide a memorable way to connect with other individuals--people you portray--affected by the historical time period on display.

I've noticed two fundamentally different approaches to visitor profiles in exhibitions:
  1. internal profiles, in which visitors create a profile that in some way reflects who they are
  2. external profiles, in which visitors adopt profiles for historical or fictitious characters
For example, consider the difference between the profiles visitors made in the Walters Art Museum's recently closed Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece exhibition and the traveling Titanic show:
  • In Heroes, visitors created profiles by picking a character from Greek mythology with whom they self-identified. Visitors could take an optional personality quiz at kiosks near the exhibition entrance to determine which of eight Greek heroes, gods, or monsters they were most like. The kiosks prompted visitors to take a personalized tag and ID card from bins nearby for “their” hero. The cards provided more information about the heroes and connected them to specific artifacts in the exhibition. Visitors could follow their heroes through Heroes by looking for his/her special icon on the wall. Staff reported that the profiles were popular and that many visitors wore their tags with pride, talking with friends and strangers about their heroes.
  • In Titanic, visitors are given "boarding passes" that tell the beginning of a story of a real person who traveled on the Titanic. They cannot find out the final fate of their boarding pass personae until the end of the exhibit. This external profile technique was also used at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum when it first opened to let visitors connect with the stories of particular people affected by the Holocaust. Titanic also includes costumed historical characters, which accentuates the "otherness" of the experience.
Both the Heroes and the Titanic profiles allow visitors to connect with characters--some real, some mythological. In the case of Heroes, the power of the experience comes from the feeling that the profile invites you to discover and express who YOU are and to enjoy the exhibition through that lens. By contrast, in Titanic, the power of the experience comes from connecting to a specific person from history, which gives visitors a concrete, personal connection to a historic event.

Internal profiles let visitors get deeper into their own skin, whereas external profiles let them try on someone else's. From a social perspective, both can prompt new discussions. In the case of internal profiles, the conversation tends to be self-focused: What makes me an Athena and you a Heracles? For external profiles, the conversation is other-focused: Why did my person survive the shipwreck but not yours?

There are some profile systems that bridge internal and external identity to help visitors imagine themselves in historical or potential scenarios. Several exhibitions have required visitors to use internal profiles to confront the ugly realities of segregation and profiling. At the Apartheid Museum, visitors are given tickets that reflect their race as perceived by the admissions staff (white or non-white) and are required to enter the museum through separate gates (and different entry exhibits) based on their race. While this kind of profile, like that in Heroes, is internal, it does not allow visitors to present an aspirational version of themselves. Instead, it forces visitors down deterministic paths based on racial identity, and visitors ask themselves: What would it have been like for me to live under apartheid?

Is one of these profile types "better" than the others? I don't think so. But if you are trying to design a profile experience for a particular kind of social reaction, you may want to think about which type is most relevant to your goals. Do you want visitors to learn more about themselves through your exhibition? Or do you want them to connect more deeply with someone else?

6 comments, add yours!:

B.Serrell said...

In both cases, aren't visitors still in the traditional role of passive receivers of information in the exhibition? These pseudo-identities allow them to focus on someone else's personal experience, but they do not affect the content of the exhibition (e.g., change it, add to it, deal with it in an open-ended way) as individuals themselves.

Nina Simon said...

Beverly -

In these examples, you're right when it comes to exhibit content... but I'm not so sure about the visitor experience. At least in the case of Heroes, the staff noticed many strangers talking to each other because of the tags-making social connections that arguably wouldn't have happened otherwise. So while they may not have changed the content of the exhibition, the personalization changed the experience of it (for some) - and scaffolded new social, visitor-directed interactions.

There are more extreme versions of this, like Jay Cousins' "talk to me" bubbles that he uses at conferences to help people meet others of like interests (see this post). I've showed this to a couple of museum folks who are now looking at adapting it for both staff and visitors.

My feeling is this: personalization makes people more confident about social engagement, which means new experiences (if not new exhibit content) for visitors.

KTinworth said...

You raise and good point. What do you see as potential next steps to take this into a more active, participatory direction in terms of exhibition content? Very cool idea, and I can see some potential applications by integrating social media as well more old school (low-tech) ways to engage visitors in the creation, development, and progession of an exhibition.

Festival Museum Nusantara said...

thank for share. it's usefull for my paper.. thanks very much :D

Michelle Aubrecht said...

This seems like a really good idea. I think people like sharing what they are experiencing in museums and this idea used in heros allows them to feel safe about interacting with others. It seems that allowing and encouraging a social interaction changes the rules of what has been the norm in the past. Some museums seem like libraries. I can't wait to read your book!

Kelly C. Porter said...


I think this is a very useful distinction to make.

I also think (and this is only backed up by a marginal amount of visitor data, so you may take my comment with all of the marginal gravity it deserves) that often the teenaged and young adult visitor is very cued to internal sorts of identification through social media avenues. If you think of the quizzes on Facebook as an example, people will merrily spend hours finding out what shade of green they are, or what kind of deciduous tree. There's this wonderful tension in young people between 1.) not wanting to be told who they are, and 2.) really wanting to know who they are.

So, in that light, it may not only be a question of aims, but possibly effectiveness with a particular audience.

I think Beverly Serrell's question is one that weighs on me, too. How can the people assigned to a particular 'internal' category somehow effect its shape and quality by their presence there? I'll be pondering that one.