Monday, August 16, 2010

Techniques for Identifying and Amplifying Social Objects in Museums

I spent last week in the glorious country of Taiwan, hiking, eating, and working with museum professionals and graduate students at a conference hosted at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts.

Among other things, I led a workshop on "social objects"--artifacts and exhibits that inspire people to point, discuss, snap photos, and generally share their experience both with friends and strangers. I've been offering this workshop at lots of institutions in the past year, and I thought I'd share with you how it works so you can do it on your own if you like. It's not topic-specific; I've done these exercises with art, history, science, and children's museums to useful effect.

There are two parts to the workshop:
  1. Social Object Hunt. Go through the institution and identify places, artifacts, or exhibits that are highly conducive to social sharing. You should also look for places that are explicitly not social and should stay that way (i.e. exhibits that are best experienced in a more personal, quiet, or reverential manner). Discuss your findings with colleagues.
  2. Make it (More) Social. Pick an exhibit that you think could be enhanced by more social use. Come up with ideas, both crazy and practical, for how you might redesign the exhibit to improve its shareability. Make sure you DON'T try to make the exhibit broadly better--just focus on how you can make it easier for visitors to share their experience around it. When you're done, go on a tour of the "redesigned" vision for the museum with your colleagues, sharing your new creative ideas.
What's the value of this activity? At the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts, here were some of the things I learned from the social object hunt:
  • Social behavior is highly object-specific. This isn't surprising: when the term "social object" was coined in the online environment, the whole point was that people socialize around specific objects, images, or ideas, not general topics or interests. When I tell people this in a presentation, it can sound vague or dubious. But watch visitors move around a museum, and you'll quickly see the activity flare up around specific exhibits and not others. This museum was unusual in that the lobby area had a high concentration of pop art meant to appeal to a wide audience. It was shocking and a bit depressing to see how quickly the noise and energy of the lobby exhibits cut off when the artwork became more formal or complex just a few steps away. There were exhibits that were literally invisible from a social perspective, deserts between highly social oases.
  • If an artwork or exhibit is easily emulatable, people will pose like the subjects of the piece and take photos with it. See for example the photo at the top of this post. It's a print of the Mona Lisa in a cheeky pose, aped by the visitor standing in front of it. This same pair of visitors took other photos in the museum but I only saw them pose twice--when it was easy to emulate the art. To me, emulation is a kind of learning activity. Visitors not only personalize the artwork by choosing to be photographed with it; they have to look more carefully at the picture if they plan to pose like it.
  • People prefer to be photographed with things that are sized comparable to their height. There was a very popular exhibit in the lobby of large-scale versions of a famous toy mouse named Mousy. I watched hundreds of people take photos with the mice, and I wondered how people chose which mouse to stand with. I noticed a trend: children posed with the smaller mice, whereas adults stood with the largest one. They weren't picking favorite mice as much as they were picking the most comfortable place to stand. I think this was a simple expression of preference both for the poser, who could comfortably stand up next to a sculpture of comparable size, and the photographer, who could get a nicer shot in the frame. This isn't earth-shattering, but it does suggest that people care more about personal comfort and ease of taking a photo than picking a favorite object with which to stand.

Discussing the "results" from a social object hunt often leads to an interesting conversation about the difference between exhibits that are popular and those that are social. There's some obvious overlap--popular exhibits tend to buzz with more talk and camera shutters. But an exhibit doesn't have to be popular to encourage social sharing. There was a wonderful quiet exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts of photographs of Taiwanese people taken in the 1910s and 20s using a Japanese studio process. While the exhibition was rather empty, the people who were in there did a lot of pointing and discussing the photos. When I asked a few women about their conversations, they explained that some of the people in the photos looked like their grandparents, or were famous people they'd heard about. Besides perhaps a kitchen scene, I can't think of an exhibit more conducive to sharing than one showing personal family portraits. There was even a small interactive space outside the exhibition set up to look like a traditional photo studio, with backgrounds and props, so you could make your own 1920s-style portrait.

When it came to the second part of the workshop, the small groups set out and came back with some very clever ideas for making some of their favorite exhibitions more shareable. They suggested:
  • For an exhibition of religious art, inviting monks or representatives of different religions to serve as a kind of "Human Library," offering their differing perspectives on the artworks. (Read about the Human Library in chapter 3 of The Participatory Museum by searching that term here.)
  • For an exhibition of portraits in a very empty space, offering visitors string to make connections on the walls or floor between photos they felt were connected, with a tag on the string indicating how or why the two images were strung together. The result would be a web of connections or pathways to follow through the gallery.
  • For an exhibition of art related to death, inviting a psychic to come give readings in the gallery during the month of the year related to ghosts.
  • For the exhibition of Japanese studio portraits, setting up a station inside the gallery to help visitors digitize their own historic family portraits, some of which would also be displayed alongside the curatorial selections.
  • For the interactive photo studio room mentioned above, mounting flatscreen monitors on the walls outside showing photos taken by visitors inside, to help people understand what the room is for and to advertise its use.
  • Generally, offering people balloons shaped like question marks to carry if they would like to talk about questions about the art. There was some related discussion about training guards to be able to have some art-related conversations in addition to their security duties.
Where are the social hotspots in your institution? Where would you like them to be? How can you make it possible?
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