Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Feelings and Participation

Me with a friend

As I keep saying, I’ve been to a few museums of late. In reflecting on the sample, I’ve made some broad reflections on museum workers and visitors. Today, I wanted to think about participatory elements, something so essential to this blog.

Before I do, I wanted to tell you I'm not picking the best of the best, but rather ones that I illustrated my themes. In this field, we are definitely low on praise and even lower on profit. Awards can be incredibly gratifying. Awards can show higher-ups the value of our work and they can be important tools for showing funders results. And, I have been known to give out an award or two. (Psst, also consider entering the Muse Awards come 2020, but that's a story for another day)

This list is instead some good things I’ve noticed, without any saying they are the best. Why? As important as excellence is, shared success is equally important in this field. Our visitors often see museums as a genre, not unlike hospitals or libraries. They understand we are different, but they don’t see us in competition with each other. We should see ourselves like those board games, where all the players have to work together to win. If all museums get better, we have more people who like going to museums, which increases museum revenues, and makes the field more stable. I’d much rather think of museums as all rising with the tide, then being torpedoed one by one.

Lumin at Detroit Institute of Art

Now on to the interactives…I’ve been thinking a great deal about the function of interactives in museums. We often use them to add in extra content we couldn’t get into the label or assess people’s learning. Both of these seem natural as we are in the business of ideas and we are adjacent to formal education systems. But, while adjacent, museums differ from formal classrooms in numerous ways. People go to school because they have to or want to in order to get to their goal. (People go to museums for leisure.) People go to school regularly over a period of time (and to museums intermittently, occasionally, sporadically, or rarely). But, to me, the biggest difference is about how learning is connected to feelings. Think of the classes where you learned the most. What are your feelings about your teacher? Those feelings developed over hours of classroom time with a human. Museums get our visitors for an hour or two if we’re lucky. And we don’t even have the carrot and/ or stick of grades. We have people’s good wish and natural interests. With this in mind, when we produce participatory experiences, while our impetus is to serve our power users with extra content or “check for understanding” interactives, there are so many other ways to use interactives. Let’s think about these other kinds of interactives (and I use this word loosely) in terms of the feelings they elicit.  

Sewing interactive at the Museum of the City of New York

Engaged: Engaged is the underlying feeling with the in-depth interactives I mentioned above, but only for people who feel learning a lot more or proving you’re right. Many people come to museums and already feel they don’t get it. For them, in-depth interactives can support feelings of not belonging.  For some visitors, the feeling of engagement comes from being connected to ideas quickly. Making things is one way to feel engaged quickly. Tate Exchange in London, for example, had a wonderful moment a couple summers ago where people could embroider their immigration stories on a patch to add to a collective wall. This activity went with an artist’s work where she told of immigration stories. Doing is also learning in Museum of the City of NewYork’s sewing machine interactive. This interactive combines an actual sewing table and an interactive. You’re supposed to sew on the line in order to earn a few pennies. I watched people do this interactive. Every person left that interactive realizing how hard piece-work was. That interactive did more for that exhibition than any one label.  

The Cloisters

Enthralled: Immersion is a hot topic in museums. I wrote about it last year and I talked about it this year on Emily Koteki’s podcast series. For me, immersion should drop you into an experience. Immersion is not about dropping people into interpretation; it's about allowing people to feel things. One of the most immersive museum interactives isn’t one at all. The Cloisters is a set of buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You walk out of the 21st century and into Medieval Europe. Technology is, of course, a hot topic in immersion. In this case, I find the most interesting ones to be made by artists. Anyone who has ever spoken to me in person about VR knows I love Laurie Anderson’s VR that was at MASS MoCA last spring. You walked through a chalkboard world; your wonder drove your interaction. The Pointe aCalliere in Montreal does a good job of disseminating actual content in an immersive light/ content show that overlays an actual archeological site.

Surprise: We don’t need to do much to surprise our visitors, given how pervasive traditional galleries are. That is why I want to applaud those museums that offer surprises to visitors. Surprises are those moments where you often hear unrelated social groups chatting. I was at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and there was a peephole to look at an anamorphic image. Person after person was surprised and intrigued enough to ask a stranger what was happening. That’s huge. Sound is often a good surprise in spaces. The Hampton Court Palace also in London did a good job in their spaces to have ambient sound that evokes the past of their spaces.   

XYZT Light interactives

Joy:  We rarely think about the feeling of joy when we work on museum galleries. But I argue this is one of the best things we can add to our visitors’ lives. One of my favorites was XYZT at the Peabody Essex Museum a few springs ago. People were transfixed by the space. It was one of the rare times in a museum that I heard people laughing with happiness. The American Museum of Natural History had two wonderful moments happening this summer. Their T Rex show brings joys to anyone who loves a giant, feathered predator. But dinosaurs are sort of a freebie. I was impressed by the joy people felt about the projection of a wave at the entrance of their Unseen Oceans show. People of all ages were oohing and ahhhing, and most importantly smiling.

mesmerized by T Rex at AMNH

Equally mesmerized by waves at AMNH

Overall, I invite us all to think about what experience you want the visitor to feel and why. As you add more interactive or participatory elements to your space, I invite you to balance a variety of feelings. Don’t ignore the “light” emotions of joy and surprise. You don’t have the hours your favorite teacher had. Your chance to be memorable is in a very short window. Do you want to be memorable for only hitting one kind of visitor?  

Speaking of visitors, last week I asked if you think most museums act like we like our visitors. I’m asking for responses here or on social. Next week, I’ll compile people’s thoughts (with credits) into a summary post of this month.  

Also later in the fall, I’ll be focusing on Front of House staff. I’d like to hear from the security guards. Please help me get responses to my survey. Pass it to all your friends who were once or are now guards.

Find me on social @artlust on Twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG or leave me a comment. 

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