Saturday, April 19, 2014

Experience Goals for Exhibitions

Photo credit: Wind Portal (Dezeen)

“Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!”  That was the first line delivered in a booming voice in a Science Museum of Minnesota theater production at the Midwest Museums conference years ago. The actor was referring to museum trustees, but I think the statement captures how many feel about goals for exhibitions, galleries, programs, and initiatives.

In museums, goals are a way of establishing what we hope to accomplish with major opportunities such as a gallery or an exhibition. Robust, aligned goals grounded in high-level master plans or learning frameworks are invaluable at every step of creating an exhibition. Types of goals are numerous in exhibition planning: a broad statement of purpose, benefit to visitors or the museum, and communicating a theme or concept. Different types of museums lean towards different types of planning and goals, as do individual museums. In general goals set direction and express intention. They establish priorities for how objects, design, media, structures, interactive elements, labels, space, and staff will deliver an exhibition’s topic or story and engage visitors in a memorable way.

As critical as goals are, the right kind of goals makes a great difference in whether an exhibition hits the mark with its own intentions and with the visitors it engages. After coaching several museums recently in developing goals for new galleries, I am convinced even more of the advantage of framing experience goals for exhibitions, galleries, and initiatives.

Goal Troubles
On too many projects to count, I have seen teams struggle to develop robust, productive goals. Visitor experience goals that consider the entire museum experience can overwhelm a focus on what happens for visitors in an exhibition. Project goals, partner goals, audience goals, and budget goals become entangled priorities. Educational goals inevitably cast the museum setting as a classroom. Confused or flabby goals plague a project to its end and beyond.

Educational goals often begin with, “Visitors will learn” or “visitors will understand.” This is followed by content, concepts, and sometimes highly abstract ideas related to the topic. With heavy overtones of the classroom and curriculum, education goals tend to confer a formal, intensive learning approach on an exhibition. Invisibly they push exhibition design, activities, and text towards delivering content that can be difficult even through structured, lengthy classroom presentations with limited distractions.

While valued for inviting observation, reading, and thinking, museum exhibitions are not suited to be the educational settings schools are. Museums’ lively, sensory rich, and social settings distract and interrupt learning that needs concentration. At the same time, these very qualities engage our senses, minds, bodies, imaginations, emotions, and recollections. They allow us to follow interests, make choices, and connect with people, places and past happenings. Responsive to physical, social and emotional, as well as cognitive needs, exhibitions are quite capable of crossing domains. Limiting exhibitions to a single domain constrains their richness and narrows their impact.

Replacing education goals with experience goals does not remove content or ignore visitor knowledge and expectations about a topic. Content is critical to visitor engagement and a project’s value. Exhibitions must have relevant, well-researched content, that is clearly communicated using the best methods and media. While necessary, solid content is only a piece of an exhibition.

On Experience
It is hard not to have an experience in or out of a museum. At the car wash or museum; by design or by happenstance, memorable or miserable, we are always having an experience. Experience is what happens through senses-on, minds-on, and hands-on encounters with people, spaces, situations, and objects. Through our choices, interactions, and active engagement, we more or less inhabit even daily experiences. Experiences extend to the impressions we take away, some of which we are aware of and many we are not. At some level, we change with and through experiences.

Museums use exhibitions to create memorable experiences for visitors to engage with phenomena, stories, issues, and collections. Connecting deeply with art in a sculpture garden or exploring dioramas with others is an experience. Playful exploration or focused problem solving in a maker space is also an experience. Engaging with complex concepts about the future or walking through a trail of time is an experience too.

Experience goals help museums deliver stronger experiences better. Centered on the potential of the experience, these goals are attuned to opportunities for engagement, cross domains, and expose the richness of objects and materials. They also recognize that experiences begin before visitors arrive at the museum and continue beyond.

Experience Goals and Planning for Museum Experiences
The nature of experiences as first-hand, direct, and immediate engagement readily builds on key museum attributes: being visitor centered, encouraging active engagement, and valuing the benefits of wide-ranging possibilities. Although a promising start, to make an exhibition experience durable and compelling is complex. Fortunately setting the right goals helps. 

When teams frame goals for the experiences they hope visitors will have, their focus shifts for the visitor, engagement, content, and design. First, the people who will have the experience move to the center of the team’s and the exhibition’s vision. An emphasis on specific content recedes. An image of the visitor as inquisitive and competent advances and replaces an image of someone needing direction, knowledge, and help. Furthermore, a visitor immersed in the experience is less of a passive recipient of exhibition plans. As a more active agent, the visitor can help shape and co-construct what might happen in the moment in the exhibition.

Second, a focus on experience broadens the view of learning. It accommodates the rich, fluid territory of thinking, imagining, and revising knowledge. Skills and dispositions as well as knowledge are relevant; beauty, joy, delight, and reverence are as valued as concepts. Finally, planning for experiences shines a new light on design. More and more, physical surroundings support the experience in particular ways. Design decisions focus on conditions that encourage a particular experience and mitigate obstacles.

Experience goals recognize that exhibitions are experiences, rippling through planning, design, engagement, and beyond. More on how this plays out and the goals that guide experience planning in the next Museum Notes post: Framing Experience Goals.

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