(Another post that has sat as an unfinished thought for months – so rather than finish it, here it is)
As some readers know, I’m buried in an avalanche of work trying to make a formerly historic house/decorative arts museum into something that feels and operates like part of the 21st century. Inevitably this means turning a museum often described as a ‘sleepy hidden treasure’ into something that is visibly more interactive, welcoming, and playful.
However a small group of influential people want museums to be their sanctuary from the outside world, its noise, its people, and its relentlessness.
I can understand this.
Living and working in New York, even the idea of silence is seductive. This isn’t a new desire – but it has gotten more air than usual with concerns about technology, interactivity and participation in museums getting uncomfortably caught up with discussions about ‘new audiences’.
In the tradition of design ideation – let’s reverse the problem.
So for the small group of the museum public who want museums to be their quiet sanctuary, we provide The Contemplator – in the vein of Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Isolator’. A helmet that fits comfortably and provides a focussed field of vision limiting the visual interference of ‘other visitors’. Instead of the audio of an audio guide, a calming white noise generator is provided with noise cancelling headphones to return the sensation of silence to the museum visit.
What would it feel like for those who wish museums to be quiet and empty to be the ones who are forced to adapt?
The best dystopian science fiction often presents the future as dirty, noisy, and crowded. Perhaps the ‘contemplative museum visit’ is not yet the equivalent of the ‘disruptive’ upper crust car rental Ian Bogost rails against – “it’s not car rental that sucks, but dealing with the everyman, being in his presence, even knowing he exists” – so let’s try to keep our increasingly diverse audiences happily co-existing.
Maybe this is already being prototyped in a museum lab near you? Now that’d be fun.