Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What a Difference a Prompt Makes... Simple Analysis of a Participatory Exhibit Element

I am fascinated by the incredible differences in what people contribute based on format and phrasing of the invitation to participate. This week at my museum, as we are wrapping up our current set of exhibitions on collecting, I noticed a simple, subtle example of this that I thought might interest you.

Our current exhibition is about why people collect things. We are featuring several diverse collectors from our area--from a couple who collects priceless American flags to a woman who collects dryer lint.

One of the collections on display is a set of "found lists" collected by a local farmer, Danny Lazzarini. We decided to show a selection of Danny's lists in a hallway surrounded by a participatory element where we invite visitors to contribute to new lists on evocative themes ("Things we forget," "The best feelings in the world," etc.) that we selected during prototyping. This activity has been incredibly popular, and about every three weeks we replace one of the lists with a fresh copy so there is always space for some new contributors.

Last week, we made a mistake. The show was two weeks away from closing, and we needed to replace a "The best feelings in the world" list, but we had accidentally prepped a "Things we forget" list. To add another wrinkle, the volunteer had accidentally written "Things I forget" instead of "Things we forget" as the prompt on the new list.

We decided to go with it, and for the final two weeks of the show, we have both a "Things we forget" and a "Things I forget" list on the wall. Here's a closeup of each:

While the lists look the same on the surface (and bear in mind that the one on the left has been on display for 3 weeks longer than the one on the right), the content is subtly different. Both these lists are interesting, but the "we" list invites spectators into the experience a bit more than the "I" list. The prompt "Things we forget" tends to invite more communal or broad responses, i.e. "everything," "to be grateful," "that Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, MN" whereas "Things I forget" yields more personal responses, i.e. "zip up my pants," "my glasses," "who I picked for Birthday Club!"

A reference to dental hygiene shows up on both lists, but on "Things we forget," the response is "brush the teefres" whereas on "Things I forget," the response is "brush my teeth."

This is not earth-shattering, and there is definitely overlap on the two lists. But it's a good reminder that:
  • different prompts DO yield different actions on the part of visitors
  • careful writing and design decisions on the programmer's side DO impact on the overall result
  • sometimes, exhibit research is as simple as taking a couple photographs 

So think about your prompts, happy Thanksgiving, and keep those teefres clean.
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