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Visual Velcro and Interpretation in the Museum

January 20th, 2008

In an article in the November/December 2007 issue of Museum News published by the American Association of Museums (p 57-62, 68-73) entitled “Visual Velcro: Hooking the Visitor”, Peter Samis, associate curator of interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) develops a very interesting metaphor to describe the way visitors to museums engage with art. The article contains an excellent summary of the latest thinking about interpretation, especially the use of electronic devices such as audio guides, PDA’s and mobile phones.

A Velcro patch (originally inspired by a burr caught in dog fur or velvet’s fuzzy surface) consists of a strip of tiny loops. Samis asks us to imagine that the visual impression an artwork creates is like Velcro. Unless “it has a hook that can fit into one of the loops on your specific Long Term Memory (LTM) “patch,” it will glide right by and be forever forgotten. If there is something in the artwork, however, that strikes you—a figure, a vivid color, a bodily sensation resulting from the artwork’s massive or minuscule scale, a memory trigger or implied narrative connection—then we can say that artwork has “Visual Velcro.” It has hooked into your cognitive structure and stands a chance of remaining in your memory.”

Samis goes on to summarize how technologies can help the hooks of artworks engage with the loops of our LTM. It is well understood that interpretive plans have to acknowledge not just who the visitors are – their identity – in terms of background and entrance narratives. In using the increasingly common analog and digital devices it is essential to understand what each kind of device delivers and what the visitor expects. (As he says in his concluding comments, this does not mean that text on the wall is not useful.)

Samis sets out to answer the questions about state-of –the-art interpretation, to what end various devices would be used, how visitors respond and how the visiting experience can be augmented most meaningfully and at the same time least intrusively. Very interesting examples are given from many different art museums. According to Samis, the watchword in planning would be “Design for Experience, Not for Hardware”.

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