Thursday, September 25, 2008

Touch, Don't Touch!

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums This quote comes courtesy of the Linda Moore, curator at the Fort Collins History Museum. It was overheard at the "Poor of Me, Good of Dog" May Wilkins exhibit, where they put out typewriters for visitor use. After I stopped feeling old (and laughing) it reminded me of a dilemma I sometimes saw at the Exploratorium. A new parent would come in and tell their children "don't touch" but figure out about 1/4 of the way through that it was all about touch. I once worked on a project where I agonized about what type of barrier to use. It was a natural history exhibit that had numerous taxidermied animals and delicate artifacts. Like most designers, I didn't want to put up a visual barrier. The director said that we only needed to put up a simple cable. His argument was that the psychology of crossing the line would be so great that visitors wouldn't need more than that. In the final build however, they made the sides of the exhibit so steep, no one could reach the artifacts, cable or not. At Gyroscope, we addressed this problem at Exploration Place in Wichita by putting dried wheat grass as a no-touch barrier slightly above the rail. It has been very effective, yet makes the visitor feel that they can have some contact with the objects since they're not "under glass". It's wonderful to leave objects out- it helps visitors feel closer to them. But what happens when you're in a history museum context and you reverse the expectation as visitors move from gallery to gallery. Some cases where you want visitors to touch, and most others where you don't? I know that I get into a "mode" when I'm at certain museums- where I almost feel reluctant to move from passive to active. At the recent Bay Area Now 5 show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I noticed a number of the artists were using "takeaways" as part of their pieces. They gave large prints and questionnaires (ala Felix Gonzales-Torres). This is not always clear to visitors, and the guards have to sometimes tell folks it's Ok. This got me to wondering about how to make it clear and inviting as people shift from gallery to gallery with an ever-changing set of expectations? One thought I have is to be a little more deliberate. For example, create a "interactivity ramp" between elements when a visitor is in an environment where they don't expect to interact. That model might look like this:
I'm going to try this out in a future project, and I will let you know how it goes. What methods have you used to foster interaction in unexpected places?


Nina Simon said...

I think this model is interesting--I like you created "ramps" into and out of physical engagement. In highly interactive museums, the ramp often starts with high physical engagement (kids running up, banging buttons) and exhibits rarely do a good job "ramping down" into a meaningful, non-physical experience. Whether your exhibit is highly physical or not, it tends to offer just one mode of interaction--and therefore, no ramp.

How can we create entry points to exhibits that slowly usher people into and out of physicality? I think of this happening successfully in game environments where you may start with a simple suggestion and move deeper into the story/action/etc. Maybe the question is: how can exhibits be suggestive and flirt you into a different mode of interaction?

Maria Mortati said...

I like the "flirting" idea. That's a great way to pose the question. With interactives, it's good to be mindful of what the visitor's expectations are when you're not in a science center environment. There's a different paradigm at play for history centers (right now, anyway- we're hoping to revise that).

When I worked on the Outdoor Exploratorium, we noticed pretty quickly by putting exhibits out in the public space (on the sidewalk) people were much more hestitant to engage. The different environment introduced a performative aspect to their experience.

The take-away for me is that a lot of exhibit development, planning, and curating is about something fundamental. Being hospitable- consider where your visitors are coming from, and anticipate their needs.