“Completion”, participation, and purpose

A couple of things circulating at the moment that perhaps interrelate.

Ed Rodley’s suggestion that art museums are paying the price of being the new “temples in our secular society” is certainly worth considering. The current wave of agitation against the notion of ‘participation’ might just be coincidence but it might also be a timely call for museums to better articulate who they really are for (or want to be for). Art museums seem to have a tougher time of this – especially with the rapidly changing demographics of the USA.

Designer Khoi Vinh makes a good critique of the latest piece of Snowfall-style rich multimedia journalism from The Guardian.

Also, there’s the fact that both “NSA Files Decoded” and “Snowfall” so clearly take the form of what I like to call “The Editor’s Prerogative.” What is The Editor’s Prerogative? It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.

And Newsbound’s Josh Kalven comments,

This gets at a question that’s rarely talked about in journalism circles: “Did people read it?” We often talk about how many people arrived on the page and how many people shared it. But the industry doesn’t seem to care about “completion” as a metric.

My former teammate Renae Mason (About NSW, The 80s Are Back etc) recently built one of these Snowfall-style projects for Penguin before she moved to Triple J. I’m know she has a lot to say about the real cost and effort that goes into making these pieces.

(Digital teams in museums are already being badgered about “when is my exhibition mirosite/catalogue” going to look like that online, so we better figure this out soon. There’s a growing Google Doc of all these sorts of multimedia pieces if you haven’t seen many of them)

I wonder how much museums – participatory or not – really care about ‘completion’ as a metric in their exhibitions, publications or digital projects? Audience tracking studies have, for years, shown that visitors rarely take the ‘right path’ through an exhibit even when one is clearly articulated.

3 replies on ““Completion”, participation, and purpose”

As someone who has been in the sector for many years… it kind of amazes me that we are still talking about audiences not following ‘right paths’ or even getting to the ‘end of the path’ in exhibitions. Ed Rodley and co have been having a go at ‘best practice’ recently. Well I would say that best practice in exhibition design has for years proposed that exhibitions should deliver regardless of the way the audience chooses to interact with it – whether they turn left or right, or start a the ‘beginning’ or the ‘end’… and whether the audience wants mediation or intrusion. Best practice in exhibition design has also been talking about layered experiences for years – and now with digital innovation we actually have the opportunity to really deliver on this ie give people a device or BYOD and let the user decide how much or little they want to incorporate it in to their viewing experience….
I wonder too if it seems this approach is not happening in exhibition – maybe we need to look more closely at the constraints imposed at management level – the need for the big bang brand, conservatism…OR is it because commentators only look at high profile institutions rather than smaller and less well known organisations which might be more flexible and prepared to take a risk?

You’re right that we’ve been talking about this – but we’re still very poor at articulating what ‘completion’ looks like (what, and importantly, who, defines a ‘successful visit’?)

I’m not convinced that completion is a good metric or even desirable. But as we also think about museums as media, or exhibit narratives, it is clear that we can’t not discuss this with our visitors/patrons anymore. I’m thinking here of the plethora of leisure studies work (and of course Falk etc) on intention and choice etc.

Hereabouts we have been thinking quite hard about the idea of ‘snowfalls’ as a way of delivering a certain kind of experience to our audiences beyond a glitzed-up version of a catalogue or microsite.

In the digital context (if we’re allowed to talk about ‘digital’ as something separate any more) the advantage that they seem to offer is a kind of immersion. Where our efforts at making our stuff available through permissive licensing etc are focused on putting our content where other people can use it in pursuit of their own goals, the ‘snowfall’ offers a (complementary) opportunity to enter ‘our’ space and explore, learn and reflect.

Some questions occurring to us about using these in a ‘museum’ context are:

Is a single path inherent in the idea of a ‘snowfall’? That is, could the idea of exploration (as opposed to ‘completion’) be supported, or is the ‘scroll’ structure so inherently journalistic that multiple pathways through it are never going to work?

Following on from that, could you make a ‘fall that depended much less on text, that was image, video or interactive-led?

Are the individual components of a ‘fall meaningfully addressable and shareable? One of the innovations of the Guardian’s NSA piece is the ability to jump into an individual segment of text or talking head (like so — does this make the ‘fall more accessible as a whole?

Can a ‘fall grow with user contribution? From something simple like an inline poll that also displays the results, to a photo gallery made by users, does that take us too far from the concept of a ‘fall to be usefully talking about the same thing.

I’d be very interested indeed to talk to anyone in a museum who’s been considering anything like these issues.

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