Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Engagement, Distraction, and the Puzzle of the Puzzle

Note: Thanks to Lisa Hochstein for allowing me to quote her emails in this post. She is a fabulous and thoughtful artist. You can learn more about her work here.

Two weeks ago, we inaugurated a Creativity Lounge on the third floor of our museum. It's a little living room in a lobby area that invites people to lounge on comfortable chairs, leaf through magazines and books related to art and Santa Cruz history, and generally hang out.

The area that houses the Creativity Lounge also shows art. The same day we opened the Creativity Lounge, we opened new exhibitions throughout the building, including a paper collage show in the 3rd floor lobby by local artist Lisa Hochstein. Lisa was thrilled that her work was on display at the museum. She was less thrilled about the Creativity Lounge--or very specifically, the art jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the coffee table.

Lisa emailed me to ask us to remove the puzzle, commenting:
It seems to me that there's a fine line between something that is inviting versus something that is distracting, and for me this falls into the latter category. I think it also sends a message that you don't trust the exhibits to engage the public and that, instead, you will bring in something else to entertain them.
I disagreed, and the puzzle stayed. We started a pretty fascinating (and yes, a little frustrating) dialogue about the puzzle and the question of what constitutes desired engagement in the museum.

Lisa and I have fundamentally different ideas of what a "good" museum experience is. For Lisa, the goal is for people to engage with the exhibitions. For me, the goal is for people to have an enjoyable, educational, cultural, social experience. That includes exhibitions, but it is not limited to them. I consider visitor experiences successful if people walk out inspired by art, stimulated by history, and eager to come back and share more with friends and family. I think it takes a diverse range of components to provide these outcomes, and I see the museum as a holistic experience comprising these components.

But for obvious reasons, Lisa cares about the experience people have with her exhibition specifically. When Lisa and I first discussed this, I argued that increased dwell time in the area and increased visitor comfort would likely lead to people spending more time looking at her work than would otherwise occur. But Lisa questioned this. Would visitors remember the puzzle or the exhibition around it? Is a contact high really sufficient when it comes to exhibition engagement?

This is a version of what I call "the petting zoo problem." An unnamed art museum once created an incredible interactive and participatory installation related to a temporary exhibition. This installation was a big hit by exhibition evaluation standards--high dwell time, high engagement, high satisfaction. But some people on staff at the museum questioned the validity of the installation, saying, "Of course people like it--it's a petting zoo. People love petting zoos."

To Lisa, the jigsaw puzzle is a petting zoo. Interestingly, she sees art and history books as more sympatico with the goals and intent of a museum, and she feels positively about people perusing them. I don't see the puzzle as different from the books--both are tools that offer people alternative activities, and I don't see one as more absorbing or distracting than the other. From my perspective, if one part's a petting zoo, it's all a petting zoo. But it's an on-mission petting zoo--and that's what matters to me.

There's no question that the Creativity Lounge (and the puzzle) is a hit with visitors. We've received several positive comments about it, and we've observed a major increase in dwell time and repeat use of the third floor lobby since the installation has gone up. Families who used to zip through in under a minute are now spending thirty minutes working on the puzzle and looking around. Teenagers are curling up with art magazines. One woman worked on the puzzle for two hours last week--when I asked, she said her teenage daughter was out shopping and she decided to come play in the museum while she waited.

To me, this is all good news. It demonstrates that we're on our way to becoming the "thriving, central gathering place" in our strategic plan. But it doesn't necessarily mean that more people are engaging with Lisa's exhibition more deeply. In the future, I'd love to make custom puzzles based on work in our collection (like the Columbus Museum of Art does) so that people can engage more deeply with those specific works. But I'll always also feel great about opportunities for people to engage with each other around culture in ways that are not exhibition- or collection-driven, because that's our mission too.

Now, two weeks later, I contacted Lisa again to ask if her opinion had changed after spending time in the space. Lisa wrote:
I do see a value in creating a space where people like to spend time and where they feel comfortable to just unwind and be. It's good for the museum to become important in more peoples' lives, thereby assuring (hopefully) its longer-term viability. If attendance and membership go up as you add more of the types of features that I would consider distractions, then maybe they're a good thing. Personally, it's a bit of a disappointment to me to think that the displays in the museum aren't sufficient to accomplish those goals, but I recognize that my own biases are just one piece of a much larger picture (or puzzle).
Kudos to Lisa for being open to a thoughtful dialogue about these issues. It's interesting to me that she talks about the displays not being "sufficient to accomplish those goals." I don't think of exhibitions as the be-all end-all of the museum experience, and so I don't think they should be sufficient on their own to accomplish our visitor experience goals. I don't think I'm devaluing exhibitions by adding the puzzle--I see it as an "and" that makes the whole museum a more desirable place to be.

I'm curious if you've dealt with similar debates at your own museums--either with external partners like Lisa or internally with other staff. What's your experience, and how have you resolved issues like this?
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