Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Balancing Engagement: Adventures in Participatory Exhibit Labels

We’ve been doing a little experiment at our museum with labels. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum recently loaned us some fabulous surfboards that tell the co-mingled history of surfing and redwood trees in Santa Cruz. In our quest to make the public areas of the museum more reflective of Santa Cruz culture, we moved these boards from a comprehensive display in the history gallery into a main stairwell, prominently visible from the lobby and throughout the building.

The surfboards are beautifully hung in their new location, but they present a new challenge: we have to write very short labels. They’re no longer “an exhibit” per se—more of an evocative design element that hints at an important story told elsewhere in the museum.

We decided to approach the label-writing for these boards in a participatory way. We blatantly borrowed the brilliant technique the San Diego Museum of Natural History used to write labels based on visitors’ questions. We put up the following label along with a pedestal with post-its and pencils:
We're writing a description* for these surfboards and we need your help.
  • What do the surfboards make you think about?
  • What do you want to know?
Understanding what you think helps us think about how we display our collections.

*note: originally, this said "we're writing a label" but with that phrasing, lots of people wrote creative titles for the surfboards (like the title for a work of art) instead of talking about content of interest.
Visitors have gone to town, writing both basic questions (“who made them?” “who were the surfers who used them?” “how did they ride the plank?” "how old are they?") and sharing opinions (“better in their natural form," “my joyful youth circa 1963”). We’ve learned some things that should definitely be on the final label, such as the clarification that the plank on display is not an early surfboard but the raw material used to make one.

We can certainly write a decent label based on this activity. But one post-it threw me for a loop. It said:
“you should do something to spruce these up a bit. I wouldn’t have noticed the boards except for the post-its.”
Maybe this person was writing about his or her preference for neon paper products, but I doubt it. It was the activity that drew this person (and probably others) to the surfboards—not the objects themselves.

And that leads me to a basic question: Is it better to replace the post-its with a label that answers visitors’ questions, or to continue to support this participation? Instead of clearing the post-its and putting up a nice, discreet label (my original plan), we could keep the post-its and just write answers to the questions directly under them. Or, we could write a starter label based on the questions asked thus far, but then invite (and respond to) additional ones.

The fundamental question here is how we balance different modes of audience engagement. You could argue that visitors are more “engaged” by an activity that invites inquiry-based participation than one that invites them to read a label, even if they never get answers to their questions. Or, you could argue that this kind of active engagement should be secondary to sharing information, which can be more efficiently communicated by a label.

If museums are truly about inquiry-based models for learning, we need more tools—especially in history and art museums—to promote inquiry-based engagement. Science centers and children’s museums promote inquiry-based learning with multi-sensory experiences that are focused more on igniting curiosity than providing answers. Seeing how people responded to these simple post-its made me consider the relative paucity of tools we have to “ignite curiosity” in art and history institutions. If museums of all kinds are going to make serious claims about being places for 21st century, multi-modal, inquiry-based learning, we’ve got to have robust, diverse onsite experiences to back them up.

In this case, given the location on the stairs, we’re likely to replace the post-its with a label as planned. But the bigger question remains: How can we promote true inquiry in our institutions, and how can we give visitors the tools not just to ask but to debate, discuss, and address their questions with each other?
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