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Design Interpretation for Experience

Peter Samis of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) makes many important points in his article on museum interpretation in this age of new technology and social media.

Samis points out that all interpretive devices, from wall texts to audiotours to personal digital assistants are used by some visitors. Each visitor has different preferences and choice can depend on cost and attitude to technology such as using a computer can be reminiscent of a work situation and therefore avoided.

Some findings from studies of these issues are as follows:

Some visitors want information regarding the artworks in advance of their visit to the galleries and will get this off the web before and/or afterwards.

Pythagorio, Samos, Aegean islands of Greece (More)

The vast majority of visitors, however, want information “just in time”, when they’re standing in front of the work.

Once a single “chunk” of information enters Short-Term Memory (STM), “[it] has between 3 and 20 seconds to reach Long-Term Memory [LTM],” our window of opportunity to hook into this new sensation is assuredly small. However, “Nothing enters LTM from STM (accordig to cognitive psychologists) unless it can be related, however tangentially, to something already in LTM.”

Once a visitor has some “scaffolding”, the very pieces that seemed to merit no attention can become fascinating sensory experiences.

“The work of interpretation, then, is to give cognitive hooks to the hookless, and assure that these hooks are sufficiently varied so that they can successfully land in the mental fabric of a broad array of visitors. Once visitors have a framework, all kinds of sensory impressions, emotions and reflections can weave themselves into the fabric of perception.”

Research repeatedly shows that most people prefer not to take audiotours, once believed to be popular (except in some blockbuster exhibitions), even though they do deliver information “just in time”, are lightweight and hands free. Price is a barrier and some museums offer them free.

Age of vistiors and form type of technology are other discriminating factors. Younger visitors are less likely to take an audio tour but more likely to download a tour as a podcast even if the content was the same as the audioguide (according to SFMOMA research): ability to access information on demand, familiarity and comfort with the device and low or free cost influence the choice.

The PDA format generally has not been found to be sustainable though it extends the standard audio tour through the “Touch and Listen” feature. “The PDA is simply an intuitive, indexical form of visual menu: when the voice talks, nothing happens onscreen”¦ PDAs, which once enjoyed an aura of manifest destiny as the next museum interpretive device, are not long for this world””destined instead to give way to iPods, smartphones and, as of June 2007, that new synthesis, the iPhone. So the watchword in planning would be “Design for Experience, Not for Hardware.””

Pilot multimedia tours were originally free of charge and focused specifically on the permanent collection but now accompany special exhibitions as well and are offered for a fee. Samis says visitors who actually take the tours give them enthusiastic reviews.

Samis asserts “the surest way to hew true to that adage is to develop content that is hardware-independent, and not beholden to any one vendor or particular technology. In fact, the more that a museum’s content obeys Web standards, the more likely it will play on visitors’ own constantly evolving hardware, relieving museums of the headache of stocking, sustaining or leasing a fleet of aging players for their visitors.” What people really need is a series of available resources all along their route.

Samis goes on to review “Fixed-Position Gallery Interactives” such as “Smart tables” like the upturned touch screen kiosks used by SFMOMA in its “Points of Departure: Connecting with Contemporary Art” exhibition a few years ago. These “aimed to augment static wall texts with living, breathing personalities that connected visitors just in time with artists and curators, and, through them, with distinctive perspectives concerning the art on display”. The tables’ content comprised three levels, corresponding to three sets of voices (curators, artists and visitors) and kinds of questions each would ask.

Other museums such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London have deployed far more technologically ambitious interactive tables, to serve as a catalyst for group or collective experience. The IMA’s “etx Perceptable,” situated in what was then called its “X-Room,” allowed visitors to place one of three paddle-like tools over a changing array of artworks projected on a tabletop to trigger either associated artworks, interpretive information or maps displaying the artwork’s location.

The Churchill Museum’s “Lifeline Table” creates a 19-foot-long visual interface to a database of documents, photos, journals and letters that chronicle Winston Churchill’s 90-year life. Certain dates, often unknown in advance to users, trigger rewards or “Easter eggs,” light and sound animations that spread across the table.

“Learning Lounges and InfoCafés have been integrated into two exhibitions by SFMOMA since 2006. Integrating the benefits of just-in-time context provided by educational technologies within the social spaces of the museum leads to what may be the next frontier: the design of interactive spaces where both analog and digital resources are available to enhance visitor experience.”

SFMOMA integrated “Learning Lounges” in two exhibitions since 2006. Samis reports that “visitor observation, surveys and interviews reliably indicate that these learning spaces work: they make the whole exhibition more meaningful. While exploring an exhibition, many cognitive threads open up; a learning lounge gives visitors the opportunity to reflect and review, to augment their emergent understandings while still in an art space, before they have to resume the hectic pace of the outside world. This is the point of maximum “wanting to know”””and the opportunity to hook the artworks into the fabric of viewers’ lives.

“Interestingly SFMOMA’s research shows that use of analog resources trumps the digital in these hybrid lounges. People are far more likely to watch the artist video and read the illustrated FAQs on the walls than to sit down at a computer kiosk.”

Video, text, graphics and seating all come together at Paris’s new Musee du Quai Branly. There, a freestanding, leather-covered interpretive wall snakes like a spine through the heart of the permanent collection galleries, blending analog and digital resources with raised, texture-mapped graphics and commentaries in Braille for the visually impaired.

In London, Tate Modern routinely posts exhibition-related wall graphics””and sometimes videos””to the wall of its upstairs café. The museum recently developed a “Learning Zone” on the fifth-floor landing adjacent to the permanent collection galleries which has become a magnet for younger audiences who go there to play free association games with artworks, brief themselves on artists and movements through witty multimedia kiosks and catch a revolving selection of video screenings.

Samis concludes “a hybrid palette of complementary resources””both analog and digital””seems to offer the best chance of giving our visitors a cognitive scaffolding that hones their confidence and builds their capacity to experience even the most unfamiliar and challenging art.”

Note: If you are an AAM member you can access the full text of this excellent article on the web (You may find that the site is accessible best through Internet Explorer.)