Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

When I was a teenager, I was enthralled by interactive fiction. I loved the idea of the web as an infinite landscape, with stories and poems spiraling out in nonlinear directions.

Fifteen years later, the web has evolved tremendously... but hypertext-based interactive art and fiction is  still a nerdy sideline at best. A cult of linearity has dominated content on the web, with implications about how we think about effective storytelling both online and in museums.

One of the loveliest recent examples of linear multimedia storytelling is the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek story produced by the New York Times. Spend a bit of time exploring it, and you'll notice:
  • Incredible pacing brings you into and out of media components to the story just when you want them. The photos, videos, and maps are not distractions; they are embedded wisely in terms of size, frequency, and length.
  • It's a linear story, told top to bottom, with pagination for "chapters" of the story. You scroll down, you read, you watch, you continue on.
There are real positives to linearity in storytelling, even in an online environment freed from the page. Consider this lovely little story about past and present colliding in a Portland basement. It's a simple linear progression of text and images. The back and forth between the images and text creates a kind of dramatic tension that builds suspense and encourages a slower, more contemplative read. Slight introductions of movement, as in this Pitchfork feature on Natasha Khan, help you connect the words on the screen with the ideas they intend to animate.

And yet it surprises me that we have come this far, and linear storytelling - mostly top-to-bottom, occasionally left-to-right - is the still the best option for most content. It would have been so easy--and appealing--to read the Tunnel Creek story laid out on a giant map of the mountain, with different pockets of the story emerging in the different areas where things happened. 

The cult of linearity online isn't limited to storytelling. Continuous scroll is now a dominant design pattern across the web. Whether you are browsing through Facebook posts or Pinterest pins, you scroll from top to bottom through a never-ending march of content. Why wouldn't it be preferable to see pins in clusters based on similarity? Or to see Facebook posts grouped by geography, or proximity to me on the social graph, instead of in a long, chronological list?

My reluctant conclusion is that for now, simplicity trumps possibility when it comes to online navigation. It would take time and energy to familiarize users with new modes of navigation, and that could cause people to opt out. Ergo, Jorge Luis Borges and I will have to wait for the garden of forking paths to become a reality.

This makes me wonder: does this preference for linearity impact people when visiting museums? Are people overwhelmed or confused by the "infinite paths" that we offer through galleries, collections, and exhibitions? 

I used to work at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, a "fixed march" museum that sends all visitors on the same linear path through the permanent exhibition. This format became increasingly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in history museums, where you could reasonably dictate the "right" path through chronological content. In some museums, like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the fixed march itself serves as a symbol of the content, whereas in others, it's a convenient way to manage visitor flow.

I grew to disdain the fixed march approach to exhibitions as too controlling and directed, leading to less interesting arrangements of objects than are possible in a more varied, free-choice approach. But maybe my disdain is based on the diverse and long experience I've had in museums. Maybe it is actually more comforting for visitors, more grounding, to experience most museums as linear stories. That's not to say you can't skip certain bits or linger in others--just that some expert is subtly telling you that you are on the right path, progressing through the story as it was intended to be shared. Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format. 

I'd love to see research on how open and closed exhibition layouts impact visitor dwell time, satisfaction, and engagement. What have you observed? 

Perhaps open floor plan museums are my dream opportunity to nerd out on forking pathways. Are museums pioneering renegades for their free-choice approach to visitor navigation and exploration of content? Or are we fools to ignore the preponderance of linearity in other forms of media?
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