I spent some time playing with this question last week at the Milwaukee Art Museum, a large general museum that is moving toward redesign of the permanent galleries. I was there for a think tank about the reinstallation along with a handful of designers and academics.
As a visitor on my own, I got instantly lost in the main part of the permanent collection. There's no central spine or hub to anchor you. I wandered through labyrinthine galleries labeled only by tiny white-on-white numbers in high corners, feeling more and more like I should have unspooled a string behind me so I might later escape. While for me meandering was mostly pleasurable, if I were there with a particular goal or a group of people, I would have been stressed out. The galleries weren't huge--most seemed to be under 2000 square feet--but they had poor sight lines from one to the next. Parents in particular were keeping close watch on kids who might quickly slip from antiquities to modernism without an obvious way to reconnect.
So when the folks at the think tank asked us to make a media piece to address one problem we saw with the current setup, I decided to do a little experiment in visitor-driven navigation. I'd had a good experience earlier asking a guard what he recommended--it had taken me into a gallery I otherwise would have missed completely. I wondered what would happen if that interaction was scaled up.
I partnered with staff member Bambi Grajek-Specter, and we went out into the galleries armed with a simple question: "What would you recommend that I see?" We'd approach people who were looking at art, ask them what else they'd seen that they thought was cool or interesting, and then we'd write it down on a little card with an arrow pointing to that other work. The idea was to make lots of these cards and lay them on the floor around the galleries so if you wanted, you could follow them to a (potentially interesting) work. It was a super low-tech "if you like this, check out that" strategy.
At least, that was the idea. We talked to visitors and made and placed cards for about half an hour. We quickly learned a few things:
- You really can't guess what people will like. A teenage boy recommended a silver tea set because "I like seeing things that were used." A couple lavished attention on a painting because "we love lemon meringue pie". People told us about mummies and infinity rooms and gold crosses. A young boy recommended "the dental floss," referring to a large contemporary work by Cornelia Parker featuring rocks hanging from wire. This work is in the same room as another piece by Robert Gober that is considered highly appealing to families (and I saw many staff members pointing it out to parents), but the eight-year old we spoke to was drawn to Parker's abstract curtain of rocks instead.
- It's easy to ask visitors just one question. Bambi noted that she felt like she learned a lot more talking to twenty people for just a minute than trying to administer a two-page survey in the same amount of time. We never really had to apologize for taking up their time since the encounter only required one verbal exchange. In many cases, we ended up in long conversations with visitors, but that was always driven by their interest in telling us more about what they liked, why they were at the museum, etc.
- Most people enjoyed talking to us. They liked that we asked, and then that we listened. Our favorite pair, a father and daughter on a visit for the daughter's school project, were unsure of what to recommend to us when we first met them. But they showed us a couple things, and later in the hour, they approached us again and pulled us into another gallery to show us another beautiful object. Even though people were mostly pretty hushed in the galleries, almost all of them perked up when asked. This was reflected again in a great encounter I had at the Walter's Art Museum later in the weekend, when a silver-haired, well-coiffed lady (the perfect image of a traditional museum goer) told me "I get so annoyed by how quiet museums are. When I visit, I want to talk to people, strangers, about what I'm seeing." Amen.
- People who didn't want to do it saw it as a test. No one expressed that we were intruding on their visit or that they didn't want to talk. But a few people seemed nervous that we were trying to trick or evaluate them. They were okay talking to us, but weren't willing to have something written down or their photo taken. Interestingly, this included two young employees/volunteers.
- The cards are ok, but the people (and the conversations) are what matters.We had documented the activity with pictures of the people with their cards, and it was abundantly clear after the dust cleared that the personality and energy of the recommendations were in the images, not the cards. The cards were friendly but generic; they just said things like, "if you like this, check out XX around the corner," or "I love how realistic this sculpture is." As we flipped through the photos of the people we'd talked to, we saw hints of the curious stories that connected face to painting. A recommendation is a gift, and it is best packaged in some positive or intriguing sentiment. That packaging was in the photos, not the cards.
So what would I do with this little experiment? While visitors did notice the cards, it was clear that we had in no way created a good prototype for a navigational recommendation engine. It was too impersonal, in addition to it being just too darn hard to find something in one gallery based on a card-based recommendation in another. I could imagine expanding this to something digital that would be easier to use but no more compelling. It's a great example of a situation where even a simple prototype exposes a core flaw in a technology concept.
But the activity itself WAS compelling, because of the fun conversations, unusual recommendations, and evocative photos. There are two clear next steps I'd take with this:
- Do more of this, and publish the photos of people with their recommendations. The pictures I took are full of life and reflect the diversity both of the museum collection and the audience. I could see a great online campaign, map series, or touchscreen interactive where you can browse people and their recommendations.
- Test out a "by visitors for visitors" version. This is the holy grail for me. I'm imagining a game where visitors are encouraged to approach each other and get recommendations for what to see (functionally what Bambi and I did). This might sound unlikely, but with the right instruction set and a kind of game piece or card to use as a prompt, I think it could work. The instruction becomes a kind of social object that gives people something to talk about. And hopefully the conversation could yield more useful instructions about how to get to the recommended work than a card can.
This is definitely an unfinished idea--we only spent an hour on this experiment. Want to take it to the next level? What would you do? What could you try in an hour?