Monday, May 5, 2014

Framing Experiences

Held Within What Hung Open and Made to Lie Without Escape (Gregory Euclide)

Exhibitions are the primary way in which museums fulfill their educational purpose. Increasingly, more museums are developing exhibitions that provide experiences: senses-on, minds-on, and hands-on engagement with people, spaces, situations, and objects. Captivating, absorbing, and memorable for visitors, exhibition experiences leverage the object and material rich environments of museums and their social settings that engage interests and invite choice,  extending even to the impressions we take away and incorporate into our lives daily.

Experience-based exhibitions are familiar in science centers and children’s museums. Increasingly they have a presence in research- and collections-based museums as well. With greater attention to the public’s interests along with a growing body of research on learning in museums, museums are gradually shifting from a focus on subject matter and objects to a focus on visitors and to experiences that interpret content through the senses, emotions, physical engagement, and conversation rather than through text.

No simple definition categorically differentiates experience-based exhibitions from those that are not. They are, however, less likely to be flat, static, didactic, and predictable. As some of the following examples illustrate, exhibitions with a high experience quotient tend to insert the visitor into a moment or a different space, reducing the membrane between being outside and inside something intriguing. Experiences immerse visitors in phenomena, technologies, or stories; create a sense of the past in the present moment; take the visitor on a journey; challenge assumptions and perceptions. Often experience emerges from physical sensations of being up high, glimpsing dramatic views, sensing motion or being in motion, being swathed in light. Experiences have spirit or a spirit and often are memorable in their beauty.

Thermon Statom's Untitled at the Telfair
 • Light, glass, color, and shape create an airy, buoyant sensation in Therman Statom’s Untitled intriguing glass house installation at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah. The enclosures, openings, flow of spaces, and transparency of materials allow the visitor to see images overlap and float almost magically.

Open House: If These Walls Could Talk at Minnesota History Museum uses a powerful organizer–a single St. Paul address and the lives of 50 families who lived there over 118 years–to draw visitors into exploring stories of new immigrants becoming citizens in a changing city.

• Temple statues at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena mounted on a long run of parallel pillars create a sense of being in a temple. By referencing their original location, this striking installation creates context, maintains relationships of scale, and interprets content through experience rather than, or in addition to, text.

• Perched at an unimaginably high position far above the Mississippi River flowing below is the Charles E., a full-size Mississippi River towboat in the Mississippi River gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Visitors stepping up to the controls in the pilothouse, have a remarkably expansive view of the River and valley below.

Noah's Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center
• In the giant Anthill in Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Earth World, visitors enter the Anthill as their normal size compared to tiny ants covering the walls. Spiraling into the anthill, the size of the ants grows and grows until deep in the tunnels, a 6-year old is the size of the giant queen ant. 

• Extraordinary pairs of animals populating the massive boat in Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center are captivating. Made of coiled rope, fly swatters, chopsticks, purses, and oilcans, these whimsical, full sized, approachable creatures invite play, wonder, and interaction. Both strange and recognizable, they add a modern twist to an ancient and familiar story. 

Countless more examples could be cited, from the simple delight of standing inside of a giant bubble; to being in the elements–water, rain, wind or fog; to feeling re-embodied by green screen technology; to feeling favored by the butterflies in a butterfly pavilion. As varied as they are, these exhibition experiences share similarities. They offer visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in a distinct feeling of place or time, change their perspective, and connect through their senses and sensibilities. Very likely the teams for these exhibitions set out on their tasks somewhat differently, took some side trips along the way, and made choices that transformed the exhibitions themselves. 

Planning for Experiences
Developing exhibitions that are strong experientially requires a shift from exhibitions-as-usual. This is true regardless of the nature of the experience a museum is interested in offering for its visitors. Essential to a successful move is a museum backing its exhibition team in taking risks. In parallel, an exhibition team needs to modify perspectives, planning approaches and tools. This new territory requires new words, more verbs, shared definitions, expanded visual vocabularies, and more experiential strategies. Team members must find new space in which they can throw out wild guesses, become friendly provocateurs to colleagues, and look for new sources of design precedence. As a team, they must develop fluency in questions such as, “how could this be more of an experience?”

An experience is for someone, while an exhibition is about some thing. This change in perspective ripples in small and large ways through planning, throughout the exhibition itself, and even through the value visitors take away. Two significant shifts occur. First, the visitor moves to the center of planning. The focus becomes serving a person or people rather than an idea or abstract concepts. While subtle, an image of a person who is engaged and capable replaces a view of someone in need of help or waiting to be taught something. Clearly, every visitor brings abilities, interests, relationships, and a bank of life experiences to an exhibition. These are resources along with curiosity, feelings, and recollections that a team can build on in shaping experiences.

The Bubble Building (Dezeen)
Here is the second shift. With the visitor in mind, an exhibition’s value to the visitor is not just through the mind. Well-constructed experiences offer something that is not possible to learn through verbal messages and written text. Exhibitions that are strong as experience move from delivering content to engaging visitors in exploring, co-constructing, and consolidating ideas and information. The varied ways a visitor is present in an exhibition–physical, social and emotional as well as intellectual–are ways they actively engage with and connect experience ideas and concepts. Understanding that learning is a broader, more varied set of processes directed by the visitor plays a far greater role in planning an experience-based exhibition. Both thread through experience goals.

Experience Goals
Just as nothing categorically differentiates experience-based exhibitions from those that are not, experience goals are not dramatically different from typical exhibition goals. They are, however, different in some respects. Differences become apparent in looking into a working definition of experience goals, unpacking its parts, and highlighting how the parts lay the groundwork for robust exhibition experiences.

Experience goals focus on the visitors’ direct engagement with a set of varied opportunities present in the immediate environment, related to a chosen topic, story, or theme, and support the visitor in making multiple connections.

The visitor: The visitor is the subject of experience goals. As agents, visitors activate the experiences, setting in motion what is static without them. In bringing skills, dispositions, interests, previous experiences, questions, imagination, and their own perspectives into the exhibitions, they are co-constructors of experience. Visitors complete the experiences sketched out by the exhibition team.
• A team can reinforce the visitor’s critical role in shaping experiences by characterizing the visitor as driver of the experience. Goals might start with: Concerned citizens will…; Inquisitive children and families will…; or Art lovers will

Direct engagement: Active verbs are called for in experience goals. Reflecting the first-person engagement of experience, verbs replace the relatively formulaic, noun-heavy, and passive language typical of education goals. Action verbs assure the visitor of having a role in shaping the experience. Doing rather than watching; engaging rather than understanding.
• Verbs expressing how visitors become co-creators of value include: activate, animate, appreciate, connect, direct, discover, empathize, explore, expand awareness, follow, immerse, interpret, invent, investigate, navigate, reflect on, stretch, transform.

A set of varied opportunities: Robust, actionable goals set the stage for wide-ranging experience strategies that support active engagement across many fronts: personalizing the experience, adjusting the pace, and following interests; initiating conversations or finding solitude; making choices or anticipating what might happen; using the body to measure distance and experience proportion.
• Varied opportunities engage multiple senses, domains, and modalities, venturing beyond the cognitive realm to embrace beauty, joy and delight, compassion, even reverence. Naturally, varied opportunities include full body experiences of being in a crowd, balancing, feeling the wind, or even feeling uncomfortable.

Present in the immediate environment:  Experience goals help concentrate exhibition planning on optimizing what visitors can engage with directly. Physical, social, emotional as well as cognitive engagement allows them to observe, move, talk, touch, construct, draw information, and make meaning.
• Immediate opportunities lay in navigating the site, spaces, structures and their features; glimpsing views; hearing sounds; moving around objects and changing positions; exploring materials; operating tools and mechanisms; completing tasks; being part of something bigger than one person can make happen. 

Related to a chosen topic, story, or theme: Experience goals frame 3-5 significant aspects of an exhibition topic or story casting them as roomy aspirations for the visitor. While stated broadly, experience goals give direction to (and are supported by) objectives that sharpen the focus on relevant forms and formats for engagement. These are, in turn, supported by experience strategies and design, messages, and text.
• A first crack at three goals might be: 
1) Investigate the arroyo as a place and an ecosystem; 
2) Engage in physical exploration and challenges across the site and its natural and built features: and 3) Reimagine the environment through creative expression.

Support the visitor in making multiple connections: Experience goals lay the groundwork for encouraging visitors to make connections they value. Connections, a basic way of capturing, if not defining, learning include connecting lived experiences with others’ stories; physical sensation with a natural phenomena; smaller ideas with a bigger concept; actions with consequences.
• Experience strategies for exhibitions are responsive to and supportive of how visitors make choices, explore ideas, and engage with others, follow possible paths, determine what might happen next.

Museums excel as places for experience; they are powerful sources for wholehearted engagement, for wondering, reflecting, connecting, and making meaning. Most museums ground some part of their exhibitions in experiences at least some of the time. Very likely, if asked about a powerful moment in a museum, visitors would share an experience: a view, a dramatic shift in perspective, a found connection with another person or a distant time. Experience goals help accomplish this important work in framing a team’s intentions and aspirations on behalf of its visitors, opening the possibility of extraordinary and durable experiences for visitors and for the museum.

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  1. For great insights into experiences in exhibitions, I encourage you to check out the interview of Peggy Monahan of the New York Science Center by Robin Meisner of Providence Children's Museum in the Fall 2013 issue of Hand To Hand: Peggy is so articulate on so many significant aspects of experiences in exhibitions. The interview is full of clear, straightforward, and useful examples from exhibits. Thank you Peggy and Robin!

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