Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mapping Experiences: Rethinking Wayfinding in Museums

This weekend, I visited the New York Hall of Science. We had just finished perusing an excellent exhibit, “Places and Spaces,” pouring over a complex map of 1.3 million scientific papers grouped into scientific paradigms. Next, we wanted to see “Connections,” an exhibition on networks. We looked at the museum map on the wall. It had considerably fewer than 1.3 million nodes. And we could not figure it out.

There was a recent post on the ASTC listserv from a museum planning to revamp their wayfinding system. The wayfinding question in museums—or any complex space—is multifaceted. There’s the “I can’t read the map” problem. The “Where was that thing I liked” problem. The “How close is the bathroom my kid is having a problem” problem. But let’s step back. At a global level, there are three wayfinding questions that enter my mind whenever I enter a museum:
  1. What do they have?
  2. What stuff do I want to see/do?
  3. Where is that stuff?
Interestingly, only one of these questions—the third one—is an explicit wayfinding question. But I think that a lot of the confusion in museum wayfinding stems from a lack of attention to the first two questions. Most museums aggregate their content, either by category (Impressionism, Dinosaurs, World War II) or by abstraction (3rd Floor, Green Wing) and the maps reference these aggregate names. This makes sense, IF visitors understand what those aggregate names mean, and IF visitors are primarily interested in the content available—as opposed to the experience available.

IF Number One. When the aggregate names are abstract, it’s hard to know what to expect. At the Spy Museum, our content is separated into two sections, School for Spies and Secret History of History. School for Spies (which features gadgets, interactives, and the tools of espionage) is further broken down into Cloak (disguise), Ninja (concealment devices), Dagger (concealed weapons), and Shadow (surveillance). With the possible exception of Dagger, none of these names helps you understand the content of that section. The names are evocative… but not useful.

And even when the aggregate names are clear, i.e. Optics, the experiences available in that section of the museum are not. This is the second IF, and in my mind, one that most museums don’t address. When I go into a museum, I’m rarely looking for specific content; instead, I’m looking for a specific experience. Maybe I want something contemplative. Something active. Something that will take about 30 minutes. Something I can share with a 10 year old. Right now, in most museums, I have to look at the map/aggregate names and guess where those experiences might lie. There are some rare aggregate names that are strong signalers; I feel reasonably confident that Bubbles will give me an opportunity to play with bubbles. But what about Chemistry? Will I do experiments? Will I see explosions? Will I learn about the history of the discipline?

Theme parks address this issue well. They have aggregated areas that are quite abstract (e.g. Tomorrowland) and within those, rides with only slightly more descriptive names (Space Mountain). But on the maps, alongside the names of the rides, there is shorthand information—what kind of ride it is, what age it’s appropriate for. Many theme park maps also feature pop-outs with lists of “must-dos” for visitors of different types–teenagers, people who only have 3 hours, etc. Theme parks are serious about helping visitors answer my second question: “What stuff do I want to see/do?”

Why don’t museums operate this way? Because unlike theme parks, which are focused on the visitor, museums are focused on their own content. Rather than addressing “What stuff do I want to see/do?,” museums tell you, “Here’s how we have chosen to organize our stuff.” Museums expect you to figure out how to interpret their institutional aggregation to create your own experience.

The map of science paradigms we were looking at had an interactive component in which you could select a particular scientist or subdiscipline (i.e. Neuroscience) and all the paradigms that your selection impacts would light up. Imagine museum maps in which you could hit a button that says “Toddlers,” or “Quiet Spaces,” or “Personal Narratives” and see all the places in the museum associated with that tag. It doesn’t have to be high-tech; even adding basic signaler tags like “interactive” or “adult” to the printed map can help. Then, I can spend my time with my quality map time trying to figure out which way is North rather than wondering whether the North Wing is worth my time.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

So I'm the guy with the ASTC listserv query, and while I think your analysis is spot on, Nina, I have to sheepishly admit that our wayfinding problems aren't this conceptual.

In fact, our problems are more or less strictly architectural. Leaving aside fundamental issues like the fact that you enter our building at the top level and the only bathrooms are underneath the stairs two levels down, we just have an awkward building. The spaces don't flow in a sensible or comprehensible way, and there's almost never a good one-to-one relationship of exhibition to exhibition space.

Our two main exhibit halls are just a bit too small to house a traveling exhibit comfortably, so we always have some spillage out into adjacent gallery areas. The lobby is too big to just be a lobby, but too small to do meaningful work as an exhibit hall. At some point in history, our museum store was wedged into one of the galleries in the most ridiculous way possible.

Our building is basically one long succession of "oh... I didn't think that would be there" experiences.

Anyway... I don't want to derail your fine post with a rant about our building. Thanks for your thoughts on the more conceptual architecture of the museum experience. If we ever conquer the practicalities here, maybe we'll be able to try to make progress with the stuff you're talking about!

--Allan Ayres

Nina Simon said...

Ah. Problems we all face. I'm at a museum constructed from six historic buildings... which would be fine if they weren't slowly drifting apart. We used to have maps but then found that they were so useless to guests that we stopped producing them.

Are you planning to physically relocate and reappropriate space in the museum, or just provide better ways to navigate? If you have to stick with what you have, perhaps you could take a humorous approach and show exhibits as bloated or smooshed into place. Flooring changes are a big opportunity for subliminal separation of spaces. Footsteps that guide you.

I was in an airport bathroom recently there was a handwritten sign telling you where the sinks were (they were strangely hidden behind a mirror). You knew looking at the sign that some exasperated employee had put up the sign after everyone asked. It might be a good exercise to have staff walk around the museum with paper and pens and make their own signage, just to see what they think is most important, most often missed or misunderstood. You may find something on the floor that makes you rethink the problem spots and how to explain directions. Good luck!