Monday, January 11, 2010

Dear Jack, Dear Snoopy: Using Letter-Writing for Visitor Response

Images courtesy Chris Danemayer, Proun Design

I've been collecting stories and images of really effective visitor-response stations for awhile now, and I've noticed an intriguing trend: exhibits that invite visitors to write a letter to someone, especially with a typewriter, tend to yield elaborate and interesting responses.

Three examples:
  1. In the late 1980s, the Brooklyn Children's Museum created an exhibit called Send a Letter to Snoopy. Kids could type letters on a Remington typewriter and put them in a mailbox marked "To Snoopy." Staff exhibited several of their letters nearby for other visitors to read. As Kathy McLean noted in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, while staff were afraid that typing on the typewriter would be too hard for some young children, "kids lined up to carefully and slowly type their letters." The museum received dozens of letters each week, and many visitors shared personal issues, dreams, and fears in their writings.
  2. In 2007, the Lowell National Historical Park exhibited Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On The Road to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication. Alongside the iconic manuscript, the Park featured a talkback area in which visitors could contribute their own reflections. Instead of offering post-its or pencils, the Park provided a desk with a typewriter (amazingly, donated by the Kerouac family) and an evocative quote from Kerouac: “Never say a commonplace thing.” Visitors responded incredibly, generating over 12,000 messages at the typewriter during the 6-month run. Rather than just saying, “awesome book,” the overall design of the space and the relationship between the typewriter and the manuscript inspired visitors to share highly personal and artistic commentary. Several wrote letters directly to Jack. Some wrote poems. The image at the top of this post comes from one visitor's response.
  3. Also in 2007, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh opened a new exhibition on the John Murray Archive. John Murray ran the publishing house that represented Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and Sir Walter Scott, among others. The exhibition was organized around eleven major authors who worked with John Murray Publishing and used the authors' letters to and from the publisher as the central thread of the exhibition story. Visitors entering the exhibition received beautifully typeset letters from John Murray himself (starting "Dear Visitor,") entreating them to interpret a particular artifact or story on display. The exhibition also featured a simple Victorian writing desk at which visitors could write their own long-hand letters to the famous authors themselves. National Library staff promised to write back to all the letter-writers, assuming there would be very few. They quickly found themselves overrun with hundreds of six or seven-page letters from visitors talking about their own adventures, triumphs, and challenges.

What makes these visitor response stations so successful?
  • They force people to slow down. Whether you are working a typewriter or writing longhand at a writing desk, the overall experience implies focus, intent, and taking your time.
  • They have an intended audience. When you write a letter to someone, even someone dead or fictitious, you know who you are writing to. You have a clear image of that person in your mind, and you are motivated by your desire to connect with them, not a general desire to express yourself.
  • They imply a response. When you send someone a letter, it's the beginning of a conversation. In the case of the John Murray Archive exhibition, staff continue that conversation. In the other two examples, while visitors don't receive a response, they have opened up a mental conversation with Snoopy or Jack Kerouac to continue at their leisure.
  • All of these stations were well-designed to fit into the overall exhibit experience. Letter-writing was the heart of John Murray's enterprise. The typewriter was central to both Snoopy and Jack Kerouac's stories. These visitor response stations were natural to the stories being told, and they were designed thoughtfully using the same kinds of tools as those that produced artifacts on display. The response stations allowed visitors to stay within the emotional space of the exhibits rather than wresting them out into a generic comment board or book.
What do you think? Is this letter-writing thing a fluke, or is there really something there? Have you seen examples of this working elsewhere?

8 comments, add yours!:

brad larson said...

Great thoughts Nina about forcing people to slow down, and having an intended audience. Usually an underlying goal is to keep people moving through an exhibit and not tie up a station for more than 5 minutes. But we do want them to slow down enough that their responses aren't trivial. I'm going to think more about how we might design an interface that slows people down in that intrinsically engaging way...

Taylor Dewey said...

I did this in my own apartment and an old Royal portable. We had a longish sheet of paper that stayed fed into the typewriter. Anyone could then start typing a sentence or two.

msh group said...


CDS said...

Nina I really enjoyed this entry. I am such a fan and advocate for good and well aligned visitor galleries within exhibitions. I have not experienced letter writting in an exhibit, but I see how it would work. I think this would be a wonderful addition at my museum.

Sarah said...

Interesting. We are in the midst of banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to get our (admittedly very young) visitors to leave thoughtful responses at our "talkback" areas. The idea of a letter is interesting.

Our talkbacks tend to be more of a prompt and response area - longhand writing on paper or post-its. We have found over 50% of our "responses" are scribbles or things like "Hi Mom" or "Best Buds 4evah 2009!" Not exactly heartening to an evaluator.

Since these areas do ask one to slow down enough to sit and write, I wonder if the real success of these areas comes from the fictional addressee of the letter, or the letter format itself? We've experimented with letter writing, without much success. Do you think age of audience is a key factor here? What age group did best at Brooklyn? And have other CM's done this since the 80s? I wonder, with a generation removed from typewriters and tuned to IM and text messaging, if the same concepts will apply?

Just questions pouring from a timely post! As always, Nina, great stuff!


Robyn Peek said...

I have used a typewriter with children 7 - 8 years in the last year or so. Admittedly my experience is in a classroom not a museum. Whilst the children had interesting things to say I found the greatest difficulty was that many of the children were unable to make a mark on the page. They were so used to computer keyboards where next to no pressure is needed that it took several attempts at utilising "people power" before the focus was put on what was actually written.

Alex said...

We haven't yet used typewriters, but we have had really great response to two recent exhibitions that have allowed visitors to write and share their stories at a spot in the exhibition. The first exhibition, Becoming American, asked visitors to take a picture in our photo booth and then write their own stories of becoming or being American on a 5x7 card. The response was overwhelming and the stories were so beautiful. A current exhibition, Breach of Peace: Photographs of Freedom Riders, asks visitors to take a photo in our photo booth and then post a card with an answer to the question "What cause would you ride for?" Again, the response has been fantastic. I think especially with intense content in an exhibit, it is almost necessary to give visitors an outlet to express themselves in respect to the exhibition. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Not to be redundant, but great insights. Those types of visitor-response stations are great. They definitely create a connection between the museum and the visitor. Instead of a building, we are connecting to an actual face. Creating an atmosphere is really important too. That's one reason why we go to museums anyway; to experience something new, to immerse ourselves in a world we might never get to experience otherwise.