Thursday, December 20, 2007

Content Comfort: Bodyworlds and Other Exhibits with Guts

Exhibitions that point out subconscious bias. Exhibitions that peer into personal lives and predilections. Exhibitions that shock, incite, and disturb. I'm not talking contemporary art--these kinds of experiences are popping up everywhere. What do we do with content that is controversional and, potentially, uncomfortable?

First, what makes something uncomfortable? The Tech is currently hosting Bodyworlds 2. Like other museums that have hosted Bodyworlds and its sequels, the exhibit has doubled overall museum attendance for 2007--and it's only been here for three months. Memberships are up several hundred percent. We're surpassing revenue projections. Science centers that have never worried about lines are suddenly managing huge queues, putting up sold out signs for the first time. According to Wikipedia, 20 million people have viewed a Bodyworlds exhibition.

In 2007, Bodyworlds most quickly brings to mind one word: blockbuster. But it used to be more strongly aligned with another word: controversy. There were ethical questions about the provenance of the bodies, decency concerns about the display of naked bodies and fetuses to mixed-age audiences, and aesthetic concerns about the artistic, potentially disrespectful presentation of the bodies (one man, for example, is shown carrying his skin in his hands).

Each of these concerns can and has been dealt with rationally through messaging and related programs. But in the beginning, these concerns seemed insurmountable, coupled by an assumption that the exhibit would be unsuccessful because people would be grossed out by seeing dead, cut open people.

How wrong we were. Turns out people LOVE seeing dead, cut open people, love it enough to wait on lines and pay big ticket fees.

Bodyworlds is fascinating as a case study in content comfort. Bodyworlds fuses highly uncomfortable content--death and dismemberment--with highly comfortable content--our bodies, ourselves--to create an experience that is at once challenging and familiar. The extraordinary uniqueness of the artifacts and their presentation, along with their essential significance to each of us as fellow humans, transcends the ick factor to such a degree that most people, after seeing the exhibit, can't even fathom or recall previous ick reactions.

How do you make the uncomfortable comfortable? Or, to be more precise, how do you exhibit uncomfortable content in a way that supports visitor engagement and response?

Start with a familiar reference, then push. This is what Bodyworlds does, starting with the human body (familiar) and pushing into art, illumination of parts, and death. But it's also what a good "issues" exhibit does--gives you an entry point you can identify with from which to delve into the stickier questions. And the universal entry point is the visitor. Everyone is familiar with and fascinated by themselves. You recycle--that's great. But do you compost? When it comes to advocacy in museums, working from "natural extensions" can both give people a pat on the back and challenge them at the same time.

Be careful how you tell the story. There's a reason I used the word "push," not "slide," in the above statement. While narrative is a compelling part in the exhibit design toolkit, it can lead to uncomfortable situations if the storyteller proves untrustworthy from the visitor's perspective. Consider the Creation Museum. For some visitors, the story their exhibits tell is highly compelling (and comfortable). For me, it would be uncomfortable, not so much because I'm uncomfortable with the content as I am with the way the content is presented. Similarly, some people have told me how much they loved the Spy Museum... until they got to the Cold War part, which they perceived as overly pro-American. One woman described it as getting sucked into a dream that turned into a nightmare. When the story is emotionally evocative and all-encompassing, a wrong turn can feel suffocating.

Put visitors' voices front and center. The book Visitor Voices features several museum professionals who argued that making talk-backs a focus of exhibitions allowed them to take on topics that were otherwise perceived as too controversial for the museum. When there's acknowledgment, via opportunities to write, speak, or show opinions, for a variety of views, people's desire and willingness to explore uncomfortable topics increases.

Accommodate basic needs. People can handle a lot of discomfort intellectually if they are physically taken care of. I'd be much more willing to sit through a weird video on a nice couch than standing up. So frequently, physical comfort is the biggest barrier to success in museums--with content at any level of comfort!--and when it comes to more obtuse or challenging things, a friendly seat, good light, maybe even some chips? goes a long way.

What experiences have you had with comfort or discomfort when it comes to exhibit content? Rik brought up the Holocaust Museum last week, which accommodates the above points by connecting you with individuals (familiarity hook), telling the story honestly and openly with many voices, and providing physical space that is evocative, but not overbearing.

Pull up a comfy chair and share your story!

3 comments, add yours!:

Yokota Fritz said...

Found you! I'm the bike nerd on the bus.

Shana said...

I think I seek out some museums to confront difficult topics--I definitely went to the Holocaust Museum for that very reason. I felt that a museum would allow me to learn about it in a respectful way that honored both intellectual and emotional reactions. In museums that deal successfully with difficult or controversial issues, I often don't notice that I'm confronting a difficult topic because the museum has done a good job of supporting my exploration. (Not to say that I'm not affected by the topic--rather, I feel safe to be affected by it.)

As a child, I often went to a local science center with my parents. My mother always took me to see an exhibit that really boiled down to fetuses in jars. While the center didn't offer a whole lot in the way of interpretation (other than labeling the development stages and weeks), the exhibit was always curated by my mom. She used it to tell me the story of my early birth, my struggle to survive, and my success in living. Because the exhibit was accessible to me emotionally, I could deal with the disturbing content.

I think this fits with most of your criteria, though to 'familiar reference' I might add 'appropriately addresses emotional and intellectual needs.' Too often, museums make the mistake of avoiding conflict by distilling a deeply emotional topic to basic facts. Emotions offer a richness that, if tapped appropriately, respectfully, and thoughtfully, can build a deep engagement in the topic and encourage more self-exploration.

Shows such as "Bodies: The Exhibition" (which I find to be even more ethically questionable), don't bother with any of your criteria. Perhaps the worst offense is that they attempt to establish a familiar reference by offering factoids and platitudes, several of which have no basis in science (or even basic English!).

Nina Simon said...


Interesting (and awesome) that you had that kind of experience with your mom as a kid. Perhaps museums should be (actively)encouraging people to create their own stories based on museum content. I've always wanted to see the madlibs guide to museums... and I could imagine replacing content labels with "Tools for discussing this content with family and friends." What would it be like if we created conversation starters instead of information machines (which often become conversation enders)?