Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Club Part 6: Getting People in the Door

This week, thoughts on Chapter 12 of Elaine Gurian’s book Civilizing the Museum, "Threshold Fear: Architecture program planning." I chose to include this chapter, despite overlaps with Chapter 11 (Function Follows Form) and Chapter 13 (Free At Last), because the term “threshold fear” is an important one—not just for visitors, but for museums as well. In this essay, Elaine discusses the various barriers to entry for non-traditional visitors to museums, that is, the threshold fear that keeps such potential visitors from walking in our doors. But there’s another kind of threshold fear I care about: the one that keeps museums from fully embracing and jumping into new ways of engaging the public, new ways of including visitors. We all have problems getting in the door—they’re just different doors.

Elaine starts by detailing a series of fears and the potential audiences who reject museums because of them. She then says,
My thesis is that when museum management becomes interested in the identification, isolation, and reduction of each of these thresholds, they will be rewarded over time by an increased and broadened pattern of use, though the reduction of these thresholds is not sufficient by itself.
What does this “not sufficient by itself’ bit mean? Later, Elaine comments:
Now, after researching the topic, I am less certain that broadening the audience for museums is achievable in general. … Cultural icons serve many important purposes, but these, I have reluctantly begun to realize, may be quite different from, and perhaps mutually exclusive with, museums focused on community well-being.
Or, as a friend of mine put it as we chatted about this over the weekend, “Do museums really want all kinds of people hanging out there? It seems like they're about objects, not people.”

He, and Elaine, have noticed the trends over the last several decades that hinder inclusion and community development, including:
  • pursuance of iconic museum architecture which promotes aesthetic over community design
  • lack of access by public transportation and rise in entrance fees, contributing to the perception of the museum as a special destination
  • open hours not conducive to times when locals might actually use the museum
  • lack of diversity among staff
  • increase in security and monitoring

Some museums have done remarkable things to reduce these thresholds and have, as Elaine predicted, been rewarded for it.
  • The New York Hall of Science’s Career Ladder successfully recruits and advances neighborhood teens as floor explainers, and their full-time staff includes many people who have come “up through the ranks.” These staff members are true representatives of their community, and help give the museum street cred with their local visitors as an acceptable and positive place to visit.
  • The San Jose Museum of Art has drastically changed its approach to security, replacing guards with visitor services staff who provide interpretation and monitor visitor actions in a less threatening manner.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a street (and subway) facing entrance that was closed for many years; since reopening, it has increased walk-in traffic as well as relationships with the local community.
  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art found that skateboarders were using their entrance plaza and invited them to continue.
All of these examples are indicative of an institution-wide approach to promoting inclusion. They aren’t isolated “first Sunday” programs; they change the face of the museum to visitors. Some are simple design choices—like at the MFA. But many are about personnel. It’s no surprise that positive in-person interactions that support a variety of languages, attitudes, and experience in museums can be the biggest factor in promoting inclusion.

How do we get there? Some of Elaine’s suggestions are highly practical. For example, she recommends that museum folks engage with architects in architecture program planning, sharing with the architects their expectations and desires with regard to how people will use and perceive the space—not just formally, but informally as well.

She encourages looking at other congregant spaces—malls, zoos, parks, mosques—and considering how they approach openness to new and potential visitors. I think the religious institution model is a particularly interesting one. Like museums, many people feel they “ought” to go to church (or synagogue, etc), but rarely set foot inside. How do we turn those curious parties into visitors and users? In religious settings, the formula is part ideology, part community. The emphasis on social experiences and relationships increases comfort and ownership of an experience that, like museum-going, starts out as something foreign and mystical.

But churches do not only seek converts among the non-visiting masses; they also redesign and restructure their services and buildings to meet people halfway. And that gets back to my friend’s question: Do museums really want this? Do they want to drop their Gehry skylines in favor of design that might bring more people in the door?

Which reflects a more basic question: who are museums serving, and how does their design support that customer? If the customer is the collector or the object, then the traditional “temple of the contemplative” model is apt. But if the customer is the everyday person, we have to reconsider our loyalties and actions. Imagine the difference between an architectural planning session for Disneyland and one for a museum. Disneyland doesn’t have big name architects; they essentially have urban planners who design little villages of fun. Imagine mall-builders talking about design goals; they probably talk less about “the presence on the cultural landscape” than the ways that they will support people browsing and buying.

If for no other reason, it's worthwhile to consider how other industries approach architecture for their unique vocabularies (and the inspirations that accompany them). Elaine concludes by mentioning a 2002 competition in which designers in LA submitted plans to fix “dead malls.”
One entrant used the following four categories when contemplating useful spaces: big box cathedral – gathering; global vortex – raving; elastic bazaar – wandering; and smart mobs – swarming. Even the words chosen for the categories intrigue me. Imagine if there were museums that wished for raving and swarming.
Indeed. The threshold fear that we experience around words like inclusion or diversity is at least as great as that felt by non-visitors. Perhaps new words will help us. There are lots of examples out there of spaces that are designed for people, not for objects or ideas. How do train station architects, restaurant designers, and park rangers talk about their designs? What can we steal from their successes crossing thresholds, and what can we learn from their shortcomings?

Next week, discussion about the National Museum of the American Indian in Chapter 20, "A Jew Among Indians."

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I think that additional useful discussions can take place between formal educators and the museum in talking about what the community already knows. For instance, tapping into the "funds of knowledge" that a community has already (how its members already do science or transmit culture in everyday life), or learning to see community members as part of the enterprise that a museum seeks to represent (like science). These ideas can be very helpful in learning from the community before trying to teach them. And I think that raises the probability of truly great teaching, mentoring and facilitation taking place within a museum's walls.

Nina Simon said...


Absolutely. And I think in many cases museum evaluators and or exhibit designers are trying to integrate community/user voices into design to involve the community on their terms as much as possible.

I think a problem arises when the exhibitions open, informed by the user community at one (formative) moment in time. As that moment sinks into the past, the exhibit becomes less relevant and connected to current users. So I think what you are talking about has to be an ongoing exercise, not just one for the capital building phase.

Ongoing community input takes time. It's one of the best reasons to implement 2.0-like feedback mechanisms that allow visitors to easily and continuously offer their thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I agree - it has to be over time, continuous. But often the communities that we most want to attract and make feel part of the museum are also some of the communities that are most left behind the digital divide. So it is not just a question of inclusion with Web 2.0 techniques, but getting that information other ways (with interviews, phone calls, community forums or focus groups). I worry a bit that the tools that seem most useful for soliciting feedback and comments are the ones that the people we most want to hear from don't use or have access to.

I guess I think that if it is going to be Web 2.0, it has to also include people at mediators, who can access the web and can access the community. Young people seem like they would be a great resource here.

This blog is great - a lot of good material to think through. Thanks.

Nina Simon said...


When I say 2.0, I rarely mean using the Web. To me, museum 2.0 (when it comes to visitor feedback) means talkback walls, post-it notes, call-in numbers, and many more opportunities beyond the comment book to share thoughts. The good thing about 2.0 is that unlike some traditional evaluation formats, like interviews, 2.0 applications are designed to serve the user. For example, the 2.0 visitor always has access to rate the exhibit, not just when they are asked by an authority to do so. The fact that we get some information out of it is a lucky by-product. The more we can encourage people to honestly and openly communicate in the museum on their own, the more we can listen in and use what we hear to make positive change.

All of that said, I also love the idea of using young people as a link to involve older visitors with some of these new technologies. Even better if it's visitor to visitor and staff don't need to get involved...