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Unexpected lessons with technology in museums #1


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Early in June I was back in Sydney presenting one of the keynotes [slides] at Remix, a cross-sector/cross-industry event I also spoke at last year when it passed through New York. The keynote was based on a very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April (a much shorter ‘clean 7″ radio edit’ is forthcoming in Curator too!).

There’s a couple of key bits that seem to have resonated particularly well and bear elaboration. So this is one of a series of posts that will do that elaboration.

#1 Have an opinion about the visitor behaviour that you want, then design explicitly for it

It sounds so benign and obvious – of course your museum has an opinion about how visitors should behave when they visit. Usually this is couched in “no this, no that” – or subtly in the social cues emanating from the architecture, the dress and attitudes of staff, and the behaviour of other visitors. There’s a whole slew of problems with ‘museum-going culture’ – and it is important to acknowledge the bountiful existing literature on who is already excluded or included in the ‘traditional museum’.

Writing about the ‘omg, those new museum visitors are doing what? photography! selfies!’ moral panic of 2013, Ed Rodley’s summary and discussion is worth re-reading;

“The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.”

When we were thinking about Cooper Hewitt in the early days, the MONA experience was very much top of mind. The lack of object labels, the O – it all expressed a firm opinion about how owner, David Walsh, wanted you to experience his museum. As it turns out, even if you found this annoying, you admired the bravado – and it has and continues to be a huge, popular success.

Before the galleries were tackled, Cooper Hewitt’s online collection began to develop a very particular style – an opinion that carried through to the architecture of the website, and the linguistic choices on the front-end. That ended up influencing the entire ‘voice’ of the museum online – some of which you can see in the 2014 website redesign.

In the galleries and exhibitions we knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want people staring at their own devices – they made the choice to come to the museum, so we wanted them to be ‘present’ – after all, everything they saw they could easily get access to later on online, and museum going should be a full body experience, right?

Amy Liprot writes about a visit to legendary Berghain club in Berlin;

On the way in, the door staff put stickers over the camera on my phone. There is an open minded attitude here to nudity, drugs and sex, yet taking a photo will get you thrown out. It’s highly refreshing that everyone’s not filming stuff. It’s hard for internet kids, by which I mean it’s hard for me, to have an unphotographed experience but I am really here, more than ever. This is not a place for observers but for active participants.

Whilst we did want active participants, we wouldn’t go that far – but we did think, and this is important, about the impact of everybody engaging in whatever it was we came up with.

Everyone’s usage (or non-usage) would impact the overall atmosphere of the gallery. If it was a mobile App, then how would it feel to have everyone in the museum using it at once? If it wasn’t an App but something else, then what would that feel like for visitors as a collective mass.

We knew – from the experience of MONA and of audio/media guides at other museums – that it was likely a choice between 90% take-up or <10% take-up with a chasm of un-met user frustrations in-between. So thinking about maximal usage was an important design consideration once we aimed for ubiquity. As it turned out, The Pen has had some interesting impacts. Usage has been pretty much ubiquitous with over 90% of visitors using it, and using it a lot [details over at Cooper Hewitt Labs]. There’s several years’ worth of research topics for enterprising museum studies and audience researchers in the data too!

Because it is very visible to others – a large-ish un-pocketable size, but has no screen – visitors seem willing to help each other when they see people having difficulties or using it ‘wrongly’. People don’t tend to do this sort of ‘social helping’ with mobile Apps because there’s nothing to indicate that the other person is actually using the ‘official App’ or just texting their friends.

As for photography, yes, that’s very much welcomed at Cooper Hewitt but you don’t see cameras out anywhere near as much as in nearby museums.

And once a behaviour becomes normalised, it starts to change expectations elsewhere.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about some lessons around ‘internal literacy’.

Don’t forget, these are ‘riffs’ based on the very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April. If you’ve got a spare half hour then there is a lot of detail in that paper.

6 replies on “Unexpected lessons with technology in museums #1”

I am a trifle conflicted over this post. I understand where you are coming from having seen your (excellent) presentation at State Library (NSW, Australia, the world my friends). Interestingly the Herald (aka Sydney again) today ran an article about cafe owners restricting wifi as they wanted their cafes to be more social (and I suspect to stop them being used as subsidized office space). See Yes using technology to lead the behavior they want…YET

I disliked the old science communicators approach to their practice which was essentially to reward the behaviour they prescribed. It was also underpinned by content that went “I know a secret and if you are very good I’ll let you know it too”. The dog training method of visitor engagement. Well you get my drift. It was both disrespectful and also ineffective. Visitors subverted the expected. They are such rogues. The other thing is that the technology are also rogues. You never know where it may lead.

Which does lead to my point. I don’t entirely subscribe to ‘we shape our technology, therefore they shape us’ rather I think we should be considering encounters between technology and visitors to see where that leads. The selfies anecdote being a case in point. If we had decided we wanted the visitor ONLY to look at the art we would have stopped selfies and yet selfies have evolved into creative ways that visitors he purpose and engage with the works.

So the wifi thing never really seemed to be properly thought through by cafe owners and was just seen as ‘if we provide this utility people will come to us’ rather than ‘what happens when wifi gets treated like a utility’. And once it goes in, it is hard to take away. [episode 4 of Do Not Track shows some of the ‘other business incentives’ for public wifi –

For me its about intentionality. It feels like too often museums (and plenty of other organisations too) aren’t ‘intentional’ about their design decisions and that’s a big problem. That’s, in part, an ‘internal literacy’ issue . . . [next blog post]

What percentage of Cooper Hewitt visitors are “new” to museums? I wonder how much of the tech effects you note are due to experienced museum goers willing to try something new versus new museum goers finding comfort in a clearly defined behavior.

Museums have always had rules, sometimes very explicit–I’ve written more than my share of signs that say, ” No, no, no.” “Don’t touch the artwork, it leaves oils that can destroy the painting” type labels. But we don’t go on to explain why we need to keep the artwork forever. The no-selfie-sticks-because-you-can-poke-out-your-eye-or-trash-a-painting rule is just another rule. As museum professionals, we may believe it is a necessary rule because we are inviting people into our place and letting them know how to behave. But there is an underlying assumption in this argument that some people in our community need to be invited AND instructed, like children on their first day of school. It perpetuates an elitism that we can ill afford.

Hi Carol, its definitely too early to know at Cooper Hewitt, but I do agree that museums need to be renegotiating the social contract they have with their communities [actually vice versa – communities renegotiating the social contract they have with their institutions!] and that that social contract is always visible. Explaining why rules exist is a key part of transparency, and explaining those reasons also makes them able to be more effectively challenged.

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