Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Complicity, Intimacy, Community

At a recent talk, a colleague from the Exploratorium asked me a very simple question. He noted that many institutions I talk about that successfully foster personal relationships with visitors are small places. How, he asked, could a large museum that serves hundreds of thousands of people per year foster the same sense of personal connection and community that a small one can achieve?

I didn't quite know how to answer this question. I think small museums are generally better than large ones at fostering local communities of visitors and members. While there are tools and tricks that large institutions can use to approximate personalization, it's easier to get to know people personally when they number in the hundreds and not in the hundreds of thousands. The sense of intimacy that comes with the relationships you can form in a small place is hard to match in a large one.

But then an exhibit designer, Darcie Fohrman, made a comment that changed my perspective. "You know," she said, "I feel that kind of intimacy in one of my favorite museums and it's a huge institution." Darcie described the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a place where she is surrounded by working artists, where things change frequently, and where she feels as a visitor that anything can happen. She described a certain feeling of goodwill towards other visitors, saying it's a place where she naturally falls into smiles and conversation with strangers.

This got me thinking about the relationship between intimacy and complicity. Darcie was describing was a marvelous sense of complicity she felt with fellow visitors at the Centre Pompidou--a sense that they were in the experience together. It didn't require the staff at the front desk remembering her name or building a personal relationship with her. It required a certain kind of place and feeling that visitors manage (mostly) on their own.

We've all experienced complicity with strangers, whether sharing a knowing smile with someone at an intersection or seeing the gleam in the eyes of a fellow fan at a sports event or concert. Complicity makes big places feel intimate. It makes spontaneous feelings of comfort and community possible.

What makes complicity more common in some large spaces than others? To some extent, complicity is determined by individual attitude. When people are afraid, unsettled, or uncertain of a situation, they may be less likely to see others as complicit partners in a pleasurable experience. When I'm lost in a crowd, I feel the intense loneliness of a sea of strangers, but when I'm confidently striding down the same street, I feel the warmth of those around me who are also enjoying the day.

But there are some places that are designed in ways that make it easier to swing toward complicity and away from fear. Institutions and areas that clearly delineate how the space should be used put people at ease about what they can do (and what others might do in relation to them). For example, standing in line at a movie theater, everyone shares the excitement and energy of the show they are about to see. This sense of complicity is reinforced and supported by the fact that people obey the rules of the line and don't push past each other. When people cut the line, it breaks that implicit community pact and makes the space less pleasant and friendly.

How can cultural professionals encourage feelings of complicity among visitors to our institutions?
  • Help visitors understand clearly and in a friendly way what is and isn't allowed. When visitors feel confident about their roles and opportunities, they are more likely to feel able to extend their experience in a social direction. In the best of these situations, visitors are naturally inclined to spontaneously teach others how to use exhibits or share what they see--happily taking on a complicit role of friend and helpmate.
  • Where possible, staff should act as friends, partners, and helpers instead of enforcers. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an direct relationship between the tone of security guards in a museum and the amount of complicity felt by visitors. When people feel that they are being watched and monitored for potential transgressions, they start to worry--"Maybe other people aren't following the rules! Maybe I'm not following the rules! Maybe I'm going to get in trouble!" All of these concerns lead to fear and away from community experiences.
  • Design galleries and spaces to be used comfortably by large numbers of visitors. When visitors see each other as distracting or preventing them from accessing an exhibit, they are unlikely to see each other as partners in experience. When exhibits support group play, are numerous enough for no one to feel anxiety about "missing out," and accommodate many visitors easily, people are more likely to feel positively inclined toward each other.
  • Design exhibits that attract a crowd and invite group play. I've written before about the fact that large, active objects are often natural social objects. When families crowd around to watch a model train traverse its course or a fountain dance in the wind, they often end up pointing things out to strangers, sharing a smile and a special moment. When designers consider sight lines across exhibitions or performance spaces, there are opportunities to promote complicity among visitors who are at a "safe" distance from each other as strangers. Zoos and aquaria are wonderful at this, with many exhibits designed to naturally invite visitors to point things out across distances to each other.

When we encourage complicity in cultural institutions, we encourage shared play and learning. Complicity can make a large place feel intimate and communal. And the community feeling happens in a way that feels natural and visitor-driven.

Do you have a story of a time when complicity with strangers changed your experience? What design elements made that experience possible?

8 comments, add yours!:

Jeff Hurt said...

Wow, there's a lot here for me to digest. I read your posts to find fresh new ideas to apply to conferences and events. So much of what you talk about in Museum 2.0 equally applies to annual association meetings and tradeshows.

This post caused me to shriek, "Yes, yes, yes!" It has great application to large meetings and events. In today's Web 2.0 world, it's even more important for conference organizers to find ways for attendees to become particpants, feel safe and build community.

I love your suggestions for having staff and leaders serves as friends, helpers, partners and conduits instead of enforcers. Your concept of group play has me thinking in a variety of ways to create more engaging, interactive, participatory meeting experiences.

Thanks for sparking my right brain today.

Nina Simon said...

Jeff -
Thanks for sparking my brain! When I was writing this, I was so focused on public spaces and museum galleries that I didn't even think about how it applies in event-based locations like convention floors and parties... but it totally fits. I'm heading to a big museum conference next week and I'll be on the lookout for rooms, events, and situations that promote complicity among participants. We're trying to do some fun things with the sessions I'm running in that regard--I'll be reporting on it soon!

kare anderson said...

I am growing addicted to your posts as they so powerfully illustrate the power of sparking play and shared experience by design. This post reminds me of when we had such fun playing around Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain in Chicago - they were magnets for people to laugh, run around and take photos of each other... memory making... i wrote about it here“sculpture”-that-move-us-to-play-or-cry/

Chris R. said...

At our Milwaukee Public Museum there is an open diorama of a Crow Buffalo Hunt, one of the iconographic dioramas that are considered the "Milwaukee Style" of exhibit. Dramatic though this exhibit is, there is always a cluster of kids huddled on one side. The Snake Button. There is no sign. No one from the museum ever points it out. But every kid in town knows about it. Push the hidden button, and a rattlesnake shakes its rattles. The kids are happy to show off their secret knowledge to family and friends. Most satisfying.

Melissa said...

I work at a living history museum that is currently doing some extensive planning for what I'm terming our "new era" Some of our buildings are no longer going to be static exhibits, but very touchable. It's going to be a gradual process--so some buildings will remain "traditional" and others will be highly participatory. Here's my question: I'm convinced we're going to need a symbol to let people know it's okay to touch. Does anyone do something similiar? Any ideas?

Nina Simon said...

Melissa - the Oakland Museum of California (and others) have very simple and delightful stickers that show a finger pointing at something and say "OK." Here's a photo I snapped of one pointing to an artifact that people can handle.

Hope this helps!

Sabra said...

Could also apply to retailers....
Twice now I've been in shops with the 12 and 9 year old in tow and befuddled [grand]mothers approached us for advice on toys for boys. Child labor laws might now allow it, but my kids would adore seasonal jobs as Christmas elves, roaming the aisles and dispensing advice on what's good and what's not. It's taking that Gimbel's Santa shtick to the next level...

People-watching can be interactive, but that's a whole 'nother post... I remember an afternoon spent sitting at the walls of video and H2O in Millennium Park in Chicago. It was a golden afternoon of watching people interact with giant elements. So how disappointing it is to hear our Philadelphia leadership talk about taking a tremendous public space next to our magnificent City Hall and build a programmable flat fountain, but without the giant playful elements that would draw and keep a crowd.

As you've noted, large spaces need interactivity to be successful -- and the idea of "Playful" becomes a serious matter in design.

kavabuggy said...

there is a movie theatre here in houston that i just LOVE: The Alamo Drafthouse. something about the way it presents itself makes me go there before even thinking about somewhere else. there is a quirky humor to their previews and programs, and most of the employees are tattooed, and EVERYONE is extremely friendly. there appears to he a strong retention rate, because i am always recognized by the staff, even though i may have a different server each time i "use" the theatre, which is not always for a movie. they air episodes of popular television shows (lost, battlestar galactica), sporting events (UT vs A&M football, world series, superbowl, etc.), and have special screenings for parents with babies (babies allowed). additionally, there are special date packages (food + wine + movie tickets), and even special ladies night out pricing. i think this theatre knows its community and its needs extremely well, which is evident in all of there programs and events, which makes it a very attractive place to utilize.