At a recent talk, a colleague from the Exploratorium asked me a very simple question. He noted that many institutions I talk about that successfully foster personal relationships with visitors are small places. How, he asked, could a large museum that serves hundreds of thousands of people per year foster the same sense of personal connection and community that a small one can achieve?
I didn't quite know how to answer this question. I think small museums are generally better than large ones at fostering local communities of visitors and members. While there are tools and tricks that large institutions can use to approximate personalization, it's easier to get to know people personally when they number in the hundreds and not in the hundreds of thousands. The sense of intimacy that comes with the relationships you can form in a small place is hard to match in a large one.
But then an exhibit designer, Darcie Fohrman, made a comment that changed my perspective. "You know," she said, "I feel that kind of intimacy in one of my favorite museums and it's a huge institution." Darcie described the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a place where she is surrounded by working artists, where things change frequently, and where she feels as a visitor that anything can happen. She described a certain feeling of goodwill towards other visitors, saying it's a place where she naturally falls into smiles and conversation with strangers.
This got me thinking about the relationship between intimacy and complicity. Darcie was describing was a marvelous sense of complicity she felt with fellow visitors at the Centre Pompidou--a sense that they were in the experience together. It didn't require the staff at the front desk remembering her name or building a personal relationship with her. It required a certain kind of place and feeling that visitors manage (mostly) on their own.
We've all experienced complicity with strangers, whether sharing a knowing smile with someone at an intersection or seeing the gleam in the eyes of a fellow fan at a sports event or concert. Complicity makes big places feel intimate. It makes spontaneous feelings of comfort and community possible.
What makes complicity more common in some large spaces than others? To some extent, complicity is determined by individual attitude. When people are afraid, unsettled, or uncertain of a situation, they may be less likely to see others as complicit partners in a pleasurable experience. When I'm lost in a crowd, I feel the intense loneliness of a sea of strangers, but when I'm confidently striding down the same street, I feel the warmth of those around me who are also enjoying the day.
But there are some places that are designed in ways that make it easier to swing toward complicity and away from fear. Institutions and areas that clearly delineate how the space should be used put people at ease about what they can do (and what others might do in relation to them). For example, standing in line at a movie theater, everyone shares the excitement and energy of the show they are about to see. This sense of complicity is reinforced and supported by the fact that people obey the rules of the line and don't push past each other. When people cut the line, it breaks that implicit community pact and makes the space less pleasant and friendly.
How can cultural professionals encourage feelings of complicity among visitors to our institutions?
- Help visitors understand clearly and in a friendly way what is and isn't allowed. When visitors feel confident about their roles and opportunities, they are more likely to feel able to extend their experience in a social direction. In the best of these situations, visitors are naturally inclined to spontaneously teach others how to use exhibits or share what they see--happily taking on a complicit role of friend and helpmate.
- Where possible, staff should act as friends, partners, and helpers instead of enforcers. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an direct relationship between the tone of security guards in a museum and the amount of complicity felt by visitors. When people feel that they are being watched and monitored for potential transgressions, they start to worry--"Maybe other people aren't following the rules! Maybe I'm not following the rules! Maybe I'm going to get in trouble!" All of these concerns lead to fear and away from community experiences.
- Design galleries and spaces to be used comfortably by large numbers of visitors. When visitors see each other as distracting or preventing them from accessing an exhibit, they are unlikely to see each other as partners in experience. When exhibits support group play, are numerous enough for no one to feel anxiety about "missing out," and accommodate many visitors easily, people are more likely to feel positively inclined toward each other.
- Design exhibits that attract a crowd and invite group play. I've written before about the fact that large, active objects are often natural social objects. When families crowd around to watch a model train traverse its course or a fountain dance in the wind, they often end up pointing things out to strangers, sharing a smile and a special moment. When designers consider sight lines across exhibitions or performance spaces, there are opportunities to promote complicity among visitors who are at a "safe" distance from each other as strangers. Zoos and aquaria are wonderful at this, with many exhibits designed to naturally invite visitors to point things out across distances to each other.
When we encourage complicity in cultural institutions, we encourage shared play and learning. Complicity can make a large place feel intimate and communal. And the community feeling happens in a way that feels natural and visitor-driven.
Do you have a story of a time when complicity with strangers changed your experience? What design elements made that experience possible?