Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completing the Experience

Imagine a museum that has as its purpose: To serve, produce, and co-produce…people, food, art, and ideas. Visitors to this museum find not only a maker faire, but also an annual mending party where they fix, repair, and upgrade valued possessions, their own and others’. Families build and share their stories. Self-forming groups create their own pop-up exhibits to take out into neighborhoods. What if visitors not only loved the mosaics like those in the City Museum in St. Louis, but were able to contribute to those environments and add details? Everywhere in this museum could be experiences with choices that bring people one-step closer to being the authors of their own experience, not just consumers of others’ creativity. These ideas are not just mine. They come from museum thinkers and linkers like Kathy McLean, Nina Simon, and Reggio thinker, Lani Shapiro.

In her recent post Press Here, Nina Simon describes two ingenious children’s books, Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures. Reflecting on how the authors cleverly use the basic elements of the page and words to break the fourth wall of book reading, she wonders, "How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?" 

Trying to answer this question by analyzing it too thoroughly becomes problematic. Too many rules and qualities constrain the potential seismic shift the question invites. Breaking the fourth wall of museums by using museum-ness comes, perhaps, when users complete the experience museums offer, by filling in with their imaginations, questions, creativity, experiments, and previous experiences.

Museums are inclined to plan a little too thoroughly to assure they serve their visitors well. Consequently, the user fits into a designed experience others have determined for them. To be fair, users implicitly agree to experiences that others have planned for them by virtue of visiting the museum. But would visitors like something that they might direct or control more? Why not give them the opportunity? Do we have the confidence and courage to let users struggle, wrestle, spin, and delight in their accomplishments? Do we have the restraint to step back and give the visitor a greater hand in an experience intended for them? 

How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? Below are four shifts in constructing museum experiences I have been chewing on that might significantly rechannel museum thinking and energies to disrupt the current museum experience paradigm.

One big, bold idea, solid and true. An idea capable of creating a major shift in a museum wholeheartedly takes the visitor into account. Starting with a strong image and high regard for the visitor, the museum values and plans around possibilities meaningful to the end user–the visitor. A roomy and compelling idea is one that resonates intensely with the user. It is a generous host for the curiosity of many and diverse visitors and connects with their interests and passions rather than through our subject matter areas. Meaningful and relevant but not necessarily serious, a bold idea actually becomes bigger through engagement, capturing the visitor’s imagination, leading to new questions, and opening up possibilities. The museum certainly has a critical role to fulfill in this new dynamic. Its focus, however, shifts to locating and understanding an idea worthy of visitors investing in it.

An experience that can’t be completed without the user. More goals, outcomes, square footage, objects, components, design, and graphics can't substitute for what is essential that each person brings to the exhibit experience. Even expansive, interactive, immersive, dramatic spaces are static without the visitor’s curiosity, imagination, engagement, conversation, meaning making and physicality. When experiences are too complete, the visitor becomes irrelevant; there is no room for their voice, choice, or control. Central to completing the experience is the visitor easily seeing herself as a competent agent that can impact the course of the experience in a significant and relevant way. Physical or metaphorical, there must be ways to leave behind a physical trace or expression; make an imprint for others to engage with; or carry a mark of the experience forward.

Play with form. The stage and the book Press Here express a kind of play with their forms that allow the user to bring something significant to the experience. By removing the imaginary front wall of the stage, the audience enters the world of a play. In Press Here, the reader shakes the book. This gesture, unusual in the page turning conventions of reading, seemingly moves the dots on the next page. In museums, maker-based experiences may be compelling because the museum visitor becomes the maker of objects in a setting where they typically observe objects others have made. By selectively rethinking and applying rules and sidestepping expectations, a museum may create an experience that, not only surprises and delights, but also extends unexpected invitations, provokes novel responses, or just stops visitors in their tracks. 

Curating Opportunities. Shifts beget shifts. When a museum focuses on creating experiences the visitor completes, its thinking and energy is redirected. The roles of curator, exhibit developer, and designer, for instance, shift from helping visitors understand content to being able to curate opportunities. By exploring the big bold idea; making room for the user; and playing with form, exhibit planners set a course to make very different decisions about what goes in and, more important, what is left out of exhibitions to allow users to step into the role of creator and change agent. Rubbing away rough edges of a design might also eliminate what is essential to an unscripted but valued exploration. More opportunities do not require more space, more objects, more activities, or more money. They do, however, mean more openings to the possible directions an experience might lead; more ways to see, assign meaning, and layer, unlayer, and relayer experience.

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