Jumping from Exhibit to Exhibit

exhibitions, interaction, interactivity, museums, visitors

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.

Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits

exhibitions, interaction, museums, public places, visitors

There are long-standing debates in sociology and museum studies as well as amongst museum practitioners as to the layout of exhibitions, i.e. the organisation of exhibits in a given gallery space. For long, exhibits were organised in a linear order, often reflecting the history or evolution of human kind, art, science and culture. Tony Bennett famously discussed the political debates about the history of museums. He mentions that at the time it was thought that people would acquire knowledge about ‘progress’ by slowly walking along gallery walls, from exhibit to exhibit like “waking brains”. Thus, it was assumed people would see and learn about humankind’s progress as they see the advancement of culture and technology at each next exhibit.

In the recent past the linear organisation of exhibitions has come under sustained criticism. Most recently a post by Nina Simon on her Museum 2.0 blog takes up the controversy about the linear organisation of exhibits by looking at online exhibitions. Nina Simon makes a number of interesting points and towards the end wonders: “I’d love to see research on how open and closed exhibition layouts impact visitor dwell time, satisfaction, and engagement. What have you observed?” When looking at the existing body of research on visitor behaviour in museums it is noteworthy that studies  largely focus on visitors’ experience rather than on the organisation of their visit. That is, in the centre of her interest is the outcome of people’s engagement with exhibits, not the practices through which people make the engagement with exhibits happen. There are of course notable exceptions like Stephen Bitgood‘s studies of circulation in museums and his research on the “economy of movement” (with Stephany Dukes) in malls.

In a related way research at the Bartlett School of Architecture conducted by Kali Tzortzi explores the relationship between the choices of curators and the architecture of museums. Amongst others this research suggests that the visibility of exhibits from various locations in museums influences where visitors go when they navigate museums.


Space Syntax (Bartlett School)

Surprisingly perhaps none of this research shows an interest in the ways in which visitors organise the navigation of exhibitions and the examination of exhibits in social interaction with others. However there is a growing body of studies that explores the social organisation of mobility in public places. These studies include research on car driving by Barry BrownEric Laurier, Pentti Haddington and Lorenza Mondada, guided tours by Mathias Broth, and my own research on mobility in museums. My studies investigate how people orient to the material and visible environment while practically organising their exploration of a gallery. For example, the studies I have conductd with my colleagues at the Work, Interaction & Technology Research Centre (King’s College London) explore how visitors to an art museum bring the looking at a Rembrandt painting to a close and jointly move on without disturbing companions or others who happen to be nearby. Or they examine how visitors arrive and come to stop at paintings and begin to look at them together while standing-side-by-side. Whilst the activities like the withdrawing from and moving to a next exhibit or the approach of a next exhibit may seem mundane and uninteresting they are critical for the way in which visitors orient to the layout of exhibits in a gallery.

0070401111001 (from vom Lehn 2006)

In particular with regard to the linear organisation of exhibits in museums it is worthwhile highlighting here that for visitors to be able to see the next exhibit and to already know what (kind of) exhibit that next exhibit is, helps them to organise their visit with others. They use the visibility of (the content of) the next exhibit, e.g. “another self-portrait”, to draw their companion’s attention to that exhibit and away from the exhibit they have been looking at previously. Thus, visitors are able to organise not only their own individual museum visit but also to influence the organisation of the museum visit of their companions. It is worthwhile stressing here that visitors are able to organise their visit in this way not only because the exhibits are organised in a linear way but because of the visibility of what (kind of) exhibit the next one is.

Furthermore, visitors can see whether that possible next exhibit is occupied by other visitors. They glance to the side and notice others looking at it. Thereby, they use the visual and bodily orientation of others at the next exhibit to gauge their state of involvement with this next piece. If visitors notice that the others are about to move on they prepare their departure from the current exhibit and orient to that next one.

In light of these observations it might be worthwhile reconsidering the critique of the linear organisation of exhibits:

– The linearity of the organisation of exhibits in the gallery coupled with a visibility of information about next exhibits can support visitors in aligning their organisation of the navigation of a gallery with that of other people.

– It is not only the visibility of next exhibits that people use to navigate museums but also they use the visibility of exhibits coupled with the visibility of other people’s actions at these exhibits to fashion their own action at the current exhibit.

– A practical viewpoint of research in museums highlights how the organisation of exhibits can help people with little or no preconception of the detailed layout of the exhibition to (practically) organise their museum visit.

for more on the research go here