There is an interesting discussion about linearity of exhibitions over at Nina Simon’s Museum2.0. Ed Rodley (*wave back*) has added his own take on this discussion on his blog “Thinking about Museums“. Ed highlights the relationship and between on the one hand the physical or geographical organization of exhibitions and on the other hand the narrative organization of the content of exhibitions. He kindly refers to my own post from a couple of week’s ago where I was trying to explicate some of the advantages of exhibitions that physically organize their exhibits in a linear way. Such an organization suggests to visitors where the next exhibit is and by glancing over to people standing there, can assess when it is opportune to move on without pushing or nudging the others to leave that piece.
In a way, my studies highlight the delicateness of people’s exploration of these spaces and how polite and respectful they conduct themselves when moving through these spaces that are in Lyn Lofland’s Words “A World of Strangers“. Yet, what I implied to say as well was that whilst we may not know the other people who explore the museum at the same time they are not ‘strange’ in the sense that we couldn’t make assumptions about the trajectory of their actions. By monitoring, maybe only from the corner of the eye, what others are doing, we can assess their engagement with an exhibit and align our actions with their state of engagement; for example, when the person at the ‘next’ exhibit takes their glasses off and makes a step backward we can presume that possibly they will withdraw from the piece. Moreover, by having observed where they have come from we can also assume where they may go next and thereupon prepare our next action. Thus, in museums with a linear organisation of exhibits that we often find in art galleries and in history (of art, science or culture) museums, an “organized walking” can emerge that Tony Bennett refers to in his “The Birth of the Museum” and that some have described as “museum discipline”; Stefan Hirschauer, for instance” talks about the silent shuffling through galleries in his study of the famous (or infamous) “Body Worlds” exhibitions.
Many exhibitions these days however lack such a visible linearity. For example, for years now exhibitions have been organized in thematic clusters. These clusters contain a number of exhibits that somehow make up the theme of the cluster. We find these clustered themes in particular in science centres. They are predominantly made up of hands-on and computer-based interactives that engage visitors for considerable time. These interactives are designed in different ways; some are configured like a challenge encouraging visitors to interact with them multiple time to see whether they can improve on their previous attempt, or to compete in the challenge with others. It therefore is never quite clear for others when a visitor or a group of visitors engaging with an exhibit bring a challenge to an end and move on, vacating the space at the interactive. This leads to curious forms of conduct in these clusters:
– Visitors standing behind others who interact with an exhibit can be seen as ‘waiting’ and therefore as applying some pressure on those engaged in an activity. Challenges therefore are brought to an end prematurely because of the pressure of others waiting behind
– Visitors may continue to interact with an interactive or display an involvement with an interactive because neighbouring exhibits are occupied by others and they do not know where to go next; they do not want to end up waiting without being occupied themselves.
– Visitors who are with somebody who interacts with an exhibit look over their shoulder and alert the ‘user’ to a neighbouring exhibit becoming available.
In these exhibitions therefore it is not obvious where to go next but the onward movement is often influenced by the ‘becoming-available’ of neighbouring exhibits. When Ed points to the difference between the geographical and narrative organization of exhibits, we can see that an organization of exhibits in a non-linear way might obscure the narrative relationship between exhibits. Visitors do not know anymore why they become involved with an exhibit now, other than that this exhibit has now become available. It would seem that the narrative gap arising from the non-linear organization of exhibits requires tools that make up for the deficit. Some exhibitions try to achieve coherence by providing visitors with information on text-panels or in other ways.
Some related research can be found here.