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
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?
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.
The New York Times – Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek
Regan Forrest – Interactivate – Free Choice and the “Forced March”
Seb Chan – Fresh and New(er) – On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling | Fresh & New(er)
Jonathan Gottschall – Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon