Category Archives: Museum from scratch

False dichotomies, straw men, and real change

So, there I was, sitting at home thinking about PEM’s announcement of the new architect for our expansion. I was hired to be part of the team tasked with filling that space with meaningful art experiences and I think about it incessantly. I had gathered a pile of recent interesting articles that might help me in that work and was looking forward to digesting them. Then along came the Sunday New York Times, and Judith H. Dobrzynski’s  article “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and those plans went to Hell. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know I’m not a fan of the piece, but if you’re new to the game then I’ll confess I found it a smarmy, elitist, passive-aggressive bit of whinging, the kind of which I’m heartily sick and tired of reading. The aggrieved sense of privilege dripping from it made me want to wad up the paper and toss it in the trash. Oh, New York Times, you make me so mad sometimes!  Don’t even venture into the comments, you’ll regret it even more.

Rather than wasting my time and yours pointing out the myriad conflations, mischaracterizations, and opinions couched as fact in the piece, I thought I’d try to explore some more substantive therapy. And going back over my pile of juicy, neglected Sunday reading, they all bear on some of the themes in Ms Dobrzynski’s article.

The Museum  – Temple or Bazaar, or Both?

Egypt – Temple of Seti I, Abydus. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection (S03_06_01_018 image 2401)

The tone of the article seems to lament museums’ drive to find more ways to engage their audiences. Ms Dobrzynski seems to be in the same camp as Alain de Botton in thinking that art museums are supposed to be secular temples to culture; timeless and changeless. She writes, “In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.” Very much in keeping with the view of an ideal art museum experience articulated by Benjamin Ives Gilman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1918. Gilman championed what has become the dominant paradigm for art museums since then; the white gallery housing only a few objects, provided with benches so the lone visitor could appreciate a single artwork at time in a properly contemplative state.

It was also a radical departure from the cluttered salon style hangings that had been the fashion beforehand. And both are of course, different from the ways religious art was displayed in religious contexts, and different from the ways the elites hung portraits of themselves at home, and different from the ways that objects that didn’t start off as objets d’art were displayed in their original use context. And we won’t even start on the changing role of mission of museums between the birth of the first modern museums and the present… She blithely presupposes an eternal state of being that never was, and laments it’s passing in favor of gaudy spectacle. In fact, her piece is a perfect counterpoint to a lot of the uncritical, unreflective fluff that gets written about participatory design in museums. Both set up a straw man of the Gilman type art museum, one to wax nostalgic over it’s alleged demise, the other to tilt at it like Don Quixote going after his giant. Neither position helps us figure out the task at hand; how to incarnate the mission of our museums using the resources (usually our collections) at our disposal. I mean incarnate in it’s original sense – to embody in flesh – because so much of what makes museums special has to do with their materiality.

Materiality, participation, and digital interactivity

Medical School, Sydney University – interior view of laboratory Digital ID: 4481_a026_000381

The Medical Museion in Copenhagen is near the top of the list of museums I mean to visit next time I’m in Europe.  The work and thinking coming out of there is always provoking in that way that solid thinking always is. If nothing else, go read this blog post on their manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions. Good stuff. Adam Bencard wrote a recap of a workshop they had recently called Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality that is a wonderful, short exploration of how object-based learning can and should be done. Putting a diverse group of people in contact (literally) with collections objects triggered a remarkable outburst of creativity as the participants jointly (not alone in silent respectful awe) explored these objects and dreamed up things to do with them in that museum.  Being in the presence of the authentic and being able to interact with it (a naughty word to Dobrzynski) gave them an experience (another naughty word to Ms Dobrzynski) they could not have had with a picture, a video, or an interactive, or with simply staring at the objects in cases. Adam’s rationale for the workshop says it all:

“What is the point of it? The point is that objects are powerful. Engaging with them has the potential of opening up our emotions, our imaginations and our ideas. They open up parts of us that are otherwise difficult to tap into. Their effects upon us are unruly and we respond to them in unexpected and opaque ways. They have presence.”

It reminded me of being at ASU a couple of years, going through their immense meteorite collection with one of the faculty. At one point he picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.

Museums are all about change

Audience wearing special glasses watch a 3D “stereoscopic film” at the Telekinema on the South Bank in London during the Festival of Britain National Archives UK Catalogue Reference: WORK 25/208

The fact that Dobrzynski prefers a more passive Gilmanesque museum experience is a personal preference and, as such, unassailable. But she makes it sound as though the Gilman model has existed since museums came into being, and that just ain’t so. Her treasured status quo was once a response to the status quo, a radical rethinking of what a museum should be, and be like, in response to its times. While I haven’t done a quantitative study of it, most museums I know of seem fairly resolved to remain relevant as relevant in this century as they were in the last, and this requires adaptation and change. Gilman’s world, where black and white photography, silent pictures, and telephones were the high technologies of the time, is very different than ours. And if museums intend to be forces for good, and change the world (or at least our visitors’ lives) in meaningful way, it requires us to be responsive to the world around us. Hand wringing and lamenting what might be lost might make for comforting reading to an older, affluent audience, worried about the future, but it doesn’t help us as museum professionals figure out ways to meet our audiences, including the ones we do a terrible job of currently reaching.

On the London School of Economics blog, Andy Martin wrote Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story which offers up insights into theories of change and how they might apply to the cultural sector.  He proposes three questions he thinks any non-profit trying to change the world needs to ask itself. 1.) How does change happen? 2.) Where does change happen? and 3.) What is my role in making change happen? They may seem trite, but answering them fully and honestly is a daunting challenge because the answers might take your institution out of the safe “culture” bubble museums exist in, and call into question the status quo of how we do our business. As anyone who has worked in a museum knows, a lot of our business practices are and structures are holdovers of bygones eras.

The how question is about aligning programs to strategic goals, and making those goals realistic and achievable. The where question is really all about audiences and the environment you’re working in. Is it a tough economic climate? Is there a lot of competition in your sector for attention and resources? My favorite quote from this part is “Haphazard work can have an impact in favourable conditions and impeccable work can fail due to tough circumstances. Separating how much of your impact is environmental is highly subjective, but essential to learning.” Word. With the What question he basically asks us to think about what we can do to cause the change we want to see in the world, and then do that and not anything else.

Change that occurs just as a response to prevailing fashion is worth calling into question, regardless of what direction the change moves towards. But mindful, strategic reshaping of goals is necessary for survival. Just doing the same old thing is clearly not going to be a viable proposition for most museums. And articles like Dobrzynski’s don’t really help clarify the way forward.

Participation vs appreciation: how many times do we need to say it’s not an “either/or” proposition?

Life class, Nat’l Academy of Design LOC Call Number: LC-B2- 3475-9

One part of Dobrzynski’s article that steamed me most was her willingness to go along with the proposition that museums can only be passive, or interactive. Chuck E. Cheese’s, Build-A-Bear Workshops, Niketown all get trotted out as examples designed to provoke the disdain of the Times readers.  I especially like her throaway line about Las Vegas’ art museum closing, as though Chuck E. Cheese and Co. personally put the museum out of business.

Do we need to be all one or the other? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the profession is abandoning one mode in favor of another as much as its including other ways alongside the more traditional. The most cutting-edge installation I can think of is David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, which has no wall texts, and is hung according to its owners wishes – not a twentieth or nineteenth century aesthetic, but more like an eighteenth century one. With mobile devices. Which I loved. Contemplation and participation can co-exist, if thoughtfully done. Read Koven Smith’s paper from Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation. It’s specifically about mobile, but like most of Koven’s writing, is much more broadly applicable, and a great example of a structure for gracefully incorporating new modes of interpretation in a traditional art museum framework.  Read any of the Tate’s recent digital strategy papers. There are ways to appropriately mix approaches that cater to audiences from the passive to the active and many in between.

So, rant rant ranty rant rant! Critics! Shallow thinking! Outrage! Resolve!

There, I’m done.


Judith H. Dobrzynski, Sunday New York Times “High Culture Goes Hands-On”

The Medical Museion, Copenhagen  Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions.

- Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality

Andy Martin, London School of Economics blog, Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story

Koven Smith, Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation.

The Tate Tate Online Strategy 2010–12

- Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything

P.S. all images surfaced courtesy of Serendip-o-matic. Give it a whirl!

On getting lost

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

I’ve been silent of late.  A bad flu and general busy-ness have conspired to keep me away from the blog. Which is a shame, because I seemed to have touched a nerve when I wrote about my experience at Sleep No More in December. On immersion, theatre, and museums engendered a fair bit of comment and as I dug around, I found a lot of people starting to ask similar questions. I had hoped to host a Google Hangout of a bunch of museum folks who’d seen Sleep No More and then write about the conversation as the setup for this piece. The damned flu got in the way, though, so this’ll have to precede any more digging around inside the Sleep No More experience.

I haven’t reached any clarity yet, but it seemed worth surfacing the kinds of questions that others have been raising.  I’m not sure yet how to reconcile my desire to leave visitors room for exploration, wonder, and surprise with the competing drive to tell a compelling story. One leads towards free exploration, the other towards a defined sequence of events in a plot. Here are some of the competing inspirations banging around in my head at the moment.

Getting lost versus getting herded

As a developer, I spend a lot of time trying ensure that the content we are trying to present to visitors actually gets to them. In the non-linear, chaotic flow of interactive science museum exhibitions, this can be no mean feat.  You spend a lot of time on message hierarchies and trying to make sure the Big Idea gets reiterated as many times and in as many ways as possible. And I’ve been wondering whether by pursuing complete non-linearity have we given up other ways of telling our stories that might actually be more engaging, less repetitive, and more emotional?

So, along comes Nina Simon’s post on “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments” which details her own journey from rigid, “forced march” style exhibitions, to self-directed non-linear ones, and now to wondering if linearity might not be as much of a restriction as she (and I) think it. The line that stopped me was, “Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format.”

It’s a nice short post. You should read it. She spends some time looking at examples in both physical and digital experiences where linear storytelling is used to great advantage. Everybody’s been raving about the New York Times’ piece, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek and it lives up to all the praise. It’s a beautifully rendered story that unfolds as you scroll.  In the end, in good mentor fashion, she asks the community whether linear is better than non-linear, and whether they have any data to support their claim.

Space syntax and museums

Luckily for us, Regan Forrest has shared some of her PhD research. Her response to Nina, Free Choice and the “Forced March”, provides some data on visitor perceptions of navigating around gallery spaces and suggests that space syntax studies might have some light to shed on the issue.  Her alternatives to the forced march include “layouts that incorporate a common ‘home base’ – for instance a central spine off which galleries radiate (like a lot of ‘traditional’ museums) or a hub-and-spoke or cloverleaf arrangement where all galleries open off a central hub or atrium.” Nice stuff, particularly her reference to Hillier and Tzortzi’s work in space syntax studies. Their article she references is well worth the read. Go ask your librarian to get you a copy.

One idea that I found very useful was there are two key themes embedded in the spatial layout of the modern museum: organized walking and the congregation of visitors. By organizing the space into a sequence of visitable galleries, visitors can build a knowledge map as they navigate the space.  The creation of gathering spaces, what the author calls the integration core – the lobbies, atria, and other big central spaces where visitors can gather – serve to anchor visitors’ mental map of the museum.  Hillier and Tzortzi also provide a number of museum-wide studies of visitors making their way through space and propose two main models for ordering space; “the deterministic model, according to which movement is forced as circulation choices are restricted; and the probabilistic model, according to which movement is allowed to be more random…” Sound familiar?

Interestingly, many of the examples are not at the exhibition scale, but rather the whole building scale, so it’s a little hard to see how much it’ll prove relevant to the questions that interest Nina and me. But it’s grist for the mill, so to speak. Luckily, there are studies that focus on visitor navigation through exhibitions at a smaller scale.

Linearity and visibility

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Dirk vom Lehn is sociologist at King’s College London at the Work, Interaction and Technology Research Centre (Hi, Dirk!) who has done really interesting research concerned with social interaction in museums, from how people in a group influence each other’s decisions about where to go in a gallery, to studying the dance that visitors in front of a painting do as they try to both share that space and leave space for each other. Good stuff! You should follow him. Dirk weighs in to the linearity debate and provides a bunch of references that address Nina’s question about what the evidence says. His post, Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits comes out pretty strongly in favor of linearity over random-access, with some important distinctions.

He makes the point that visibility is as important as linearity.  He says, “It is worthwhile stressing here that visitors are able to organise their visit in this way not only because the exhibits are organised in a linear way but because of the visibility of what (kind of) exhibit the next one is. Furthermore, visitors can see whether that possible next exhibit is occupied by other visitors.” He lists three points at the end that are worth repeating.

  • * The linearity of the organisation of exhibits in the gallery coupled with a visibility of information about next exhibits can support visitors in aligning their organisation of the navigation of a gallery with that of other people.

  • * It is not only the visibility of next exhibits that people use to navigate museums but also they use the visibility of exhibits coupled with the visibility of other people’s actions at these exhibits to fashion their own action at the current exhibit.

  • * A practical viewpoint of research in museums highlights how the organisation of exhibits can help people with little or no preconception of the detailed layout of the exhibition to (practically) organise their museum visit.

Oh boy… So what does this mean? I’ve always resented being stuck in linear exhibitions. How to integrate this with my desire to be more immersive , more magical and to do more showing and less telling? One thing that seems clear (at least right now) is that this idea of being able to orient in a space and know where to go next is important. When I think back to my least favorite linear exhibitions, the thing I really resented was not the linearity as much as the inability to know how far into my “forced march” I was. Were there two rooms left or seven? Was I almost done or did I need to husband my strength for more marching. Maybe my idea of “linear” needs some adjusting…

The other interesting thing to me is that all the preceding studies look at the physical process of getting through museum spaces and basically ignore what visitors are thinking and learning.  The content equivalent of this spatial navigating is narrative. What is the role of the story, and how can it lead visitors through space and interactions?

Connecting with the story

Steve Almond wrote an intriguing opinion piece in the New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’ where he posits that in our shift from an oral to a visual culture, we have lost an essential wayfinding aid – a narrator who guides us through their storyworld. “In evolving from readers to viewers, we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us.” The piece is a bit overly-dramatic in its dire warnings of the existential threats we face as a result of this shift, and the increasing ease with which we can distract ourselves. However, his lament that “we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes.” rings true on some level for me, particularly in regards to my experience of Sleep No More. I felt both intense sensation *and* complete emotional detachment. I had little moments of discovery while feeling completely adrift when it came to the larger story unfolding around me.

Jonathan Gottschall, author of the Storytelling Animal, has an interesting essay in Fast Company called, Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon. He specifically addresses how businesses can use story to sell products, but the museum implications are also pretty clear.  Humans use narrative to make sense of the world and one of our challenges, particularly in communicating science is that people aren’t moved by data. As Eric Siegel said at MCN 2012, we live our lives anecdotally, not statistically, so translating data into narratives is an essential requirement for reaching visitors. The evidence for our impact on the natural world is vast, but it seems to take a focused narrative like the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71, which retraces the life of a single bear in the Canadian wilderness using data from its tracking collar and remote wildlife cameras to provide us with a story with which we can emotionally link.

Gottschall runs down some of the recent scientific literature and concludes that,  “fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” The money quote for me is this,

“[T]here is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

So, this is a challenge, because I want visitors to be critical and skeptical *and* emotionally invested.

The exhibition as a campfire?

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Paul Rissen, a BBC User Experience Architect has the first part of a series of articles which ask the question whether we should be aiming to recreate the classic campfire experience. “Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience”  is a great example of how experimental even big, old institutions can be.  Rissen highlights one aspect of campfire storytelling that is ripe for more exploitation, personalization. He is particularly interested in the way digital technologies could help us return to the days when “the storyteller could adapt their work to suit the audience ‘on-the-fly’, as it were. We all know this is nothing new – live performance[s]… thrive on the interplay between audience and performer – but they all rely on spatial proximity and community. How might technology step in, when physical geography is still a barrier? Indeed, with the full gamut of software engineering skills at our disposal, what opportunities does technology afford us?”

Rissen is talking about the BBC’s particular challenge, but I think you could substitute the physical distance of his radio audience with the temporal distance of the developer or curator who has constructed a narrative before the audience has arrived in the museum or at their website or app, and ask the same questions.

So, do you see any deep order here? Let me know. I’ll try to get that Sleep No More hangout to happen again, so I can add some different viewpoints on the event to the conversation. 

Related Posts:

Nina Simon – Museum 2.0 -  “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

The New York Times - Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

Regan Forrest  – Interactivate - Free Choice and the “Forced March”

Dirk vom Lehn - Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits

Seb Chan – Fresh and New(er) - On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling | Fresh & New(er)

Steve Almond - Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’

Jonathan Gottschall - Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon

Paul Rissen - Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience

Natural’s Not In It

Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.

1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.

3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.

4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?

5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…

This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?


Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:

exhibition (n.) 
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

inhibition (n.) 
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.

Or as Gang of Four put it,

“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”

Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four

Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.

If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.

  • Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
  • Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
  • Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
  • Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
  • Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
  • Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition

So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?

Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?

The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.

The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..

This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.

A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.

A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.

Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.

There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.


For More:

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284