Sunday, February 24, 2019

You Don’t Have to Build the Whole Taj Mahal

ArtZeum! Telfair Museum, Savannah GA
When I wrote about children, the world of things, and museums in a recent post, I looked at the role physical context serves in how children experience and engage with objects. While only one part of a larger exploration, I have found myself thinking more about contextual approaches museums use for their audiences, what these approaches accomplish, and how.

Everything Exists Within a Context
At a small or large scale, context surrounds us and influences how we experience something, even though we may be unaware of the role context is playing. Just as context gives helpful clues to a word’s meaning in a sentence, physical context provides clues about a space, its purpose, and possibilities. When we come upon an object, the context casts light on what we are experiencing. A piece of broken pottery or some bones are understood very differently if they are found in the garden, in an archeological site, or in a discovery room at a museum. 

In interpreting contextual clues—spatial dimensions, light, color, sound, material qualities, and large and small objects—we filter information and make sense of our experience of a space, its contents, activities, and even of those sharing a space with us. We blend our immediate experience of the features and qualities of a space or place with ones we have experienced previously.

One way context is understood in museums is illustrated in Falk and Dierking’s “contextual model” of learning (1992 and 2000). A visitor’s physical, socio-cultural, and personal backgrounds, or contexts, are factors influencing their experience of and learning in a museum.

Because the potential of physical context in museums—both indoor and outdoor spaces—is so great for shaping, enriching, and deepening the visitor experience, it receives significant attention in many phases of planning. Architects and designers plan, design, and adjust dimensions of the physical environment to express intentions for the space at both large and small scales. While not fully determining what will or won’t occur there, these choices open up some possibilities and reduce others. Will the room hold many people? Is there room for movement or views? Is it planned for a single function or many? What spaces are adjacent?

Physical contexts vary widely across museums and even within a single museum. A large black box exhibition hall and a small pristine white gallery both provide context for experiences, but of a very different nature. Across a museum, particular contextual approaches are selected to advance the goals of a particular exhibition, installation, studio, or social space, or to differentiate an area from adjacent spaces. Whether simple or elaborate, subtle or dramatic, contextual approaches convey mood and meaning and establish focus. Design context contributes what is essential to an experience but is otherwise difficult to express.

Creating Context
Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway (Photo credit: mia)
The contextual set-up for experiences can be an elaborate reconstruction like the Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway at mia in Minneapolis or the deep immersion into changing light, darkness, and color of a James Turrell installation. While meaningful context in an exhibition doesn’t require building the whole Taj Mahal, a forest primeval or an entire food market, generally the gesture involves more than a backdrop to an object and a label.

Often experienced visually and physically, designed context is visitor centered. Creating contexts consider who will use a space, how they will occupy it, and how they might be engaged. Selected cues tap into an individual’s funds of experience, personal knowledge, likely affiliations, and capabilities as active agents in constructing their museum experience. For novice audiences like children who draw on their senses and relatively limited previous experiences for getting to know objects or explore ideas, material qualities and spatial dimensions carry valuable information and clues about a space and what it is about. Reading environmental cues can be easier for visitors who are not inclined or able to read text. And for visitors of any age who are typically grounded in the present time and place, changes in context can move them into a different time or a distant place.

In creating rich visitor experiences, indoors or out, context fosters interactions, directs movement, challenges sensory perceptions, and shifts perspectives, temporal, cultural, and physical. In advancing a topic or a theme, contextual clues can create emotional connections to an object, artwork, animal, or place or make the connections between ideas visible. Passing through an arch or crossing a threshold into a space might elicit memories, evoke feelings of surprise or delight, or imbue a place with a sense of the sacred or sublime.

Not just a design element, nor a gimmick, a contextual approach addresses the question, how can a museum use the physical context to engage visitors, advance its goals, and connect content? Spatial dimensions, materials, and objects interact with one another to inform and support the relationship between the visitor and the experience, often allowing a more personal and immediate experience. Treatment of floor, wall, and ceiling surfaces; defining edges; placement of iconic elements; scale manipulation; dramatic views; and, often, a slight twist on the ordinary work together to create a new space within a space, a distinct moment in or out of time.

The designed context in museums defines and distinguishes spaces physically and experientially for the visitor and serves one or more of six broad roles in the visitor experience.

Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK (Photo credit: Vergeront)
Creating focus, supporting connections. Contextual choices related to sight lines, the placement and juxtaposition of objects, or unusual use of a space’s full volume can focus visitor attention on a main idea, object, or message. Defining a more intimate space and limiting distractions can invite visitors to notice details, find connections, reflect, talk, and extend engagement, helping to strengthen the relationship between a visitor and an object or between an idea and an object. Repeated use of an object or shape makes a point about what’s important here.

Defining space, moving beyond the ordinary. Just as play is understood to take place outside of an ordinary frame of life, so too are transformative moments that occur in the presence of beauty and amazement. Contextual choices help separate the ordinary and mundane from the extraordinary and exceptional, often making room for fantasy and imagination. Light, color, unusual quantities of objects or materials, enclosure, or progressions in a space invite visitors to conjure up and inhabit a new or imaginary space.
Umbrella Sky Project, Agueda Portugal
Do-Seum, San Antonio TX (Photo credit: Vergeront)

Changing perspectives. Contextual choices can place visitors in a bigger picture, in the frame of a larger narrative, or place them in an unlikely situation. Contextual cues—a giant map, walking through a frame—can shift the visitor’s experience from being a spectator outside to being a player inside of an experience. A visitor’s point of view or sense of where their body is in space might also change.
SnowBall, Minensota Children's Museum
Photo credit: Vergeront

Science North, Sudbury ON.
Photo credit: Vergeront

Challenging perceptions. Because context always surrounds us, and influences how we encounter our world, manipulating contextual clues can change visitors’ perceptions, their bearings, and their experiences. Playing with scale, proportion, perspective, or distance can create distortions and illusions, heighten senses, and even send confusing or ambiguous cues. Selected materials and contradictory cues can create unusual effects and disrupt someone’s orientation in space.   
Distorted Room
(Photo credit: The Exploratorium)

Walk-in Kaleidoscope

Voyage to Vietnam (Photo credit: Vergeront)

Stepping into another time and place. Structural elements that physically define a space along with materials and objects from other eras or cultures work together to create a sense of being in a different time and place. A beaver pelt on a rough wooden counter suggests a fur post in Northern Minnesota. A scooter anchors a slice-of-life vignette exploring the Tet Festival in modern day Vietnam. Maps, props and loose parts, and signs in another language provide multiple clues the visitor is somewhere else.  

Sand Quarry, Children's Museum of
Southern Minnesota (Photo credit: Vergeront)
Grounding in place. Sometimes, just a relatively small gesture establishes a strong connection, to a particular place, time, or event. Materials, an emblematic image, iconic piece of furniture, or a particular view is an easily recognized reference. Giant quarried stone blocks not only create a boundary around the large sand area at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, but they also are a specific reference to the quarries in the region.
National World War I Museum and memorial
Kansas City (Photo Credit: New York Times)