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Visitor Centered Museums in Practice and its Future

MuseumNext speakers Lath Carlson and Seema Rao have both been in the museum field for a total of 30 years.  Lath has a broad range of experiences, most notably in hands-on museum of all scales. Seema has deep experience at large-scale art museums. Despite their divergent career paths, the pair has come to find strong resonance in their conversations about museum practice. After multiple conversations on twitter and in person conversations, Lath and Seema sat down to discuss their ideas about the current state of visitor-centered museums in practice and its future.

Seema: One of the things that has struck me from our previous conversations was that museum senior staff members rarely interact with visitors in appreciable ways. While some sectors of museums work with the audience, and learn from them, many get this information second-hand. And, as a whole, we don’t do a good job of exposing our processes.

Lath: I agree.  I think this is where there is an advantage to working your way up from the “bottom” in museums. Twenty-six years ago, I started at a small anthropology museum when I was an 18 year old undergrad.  I had grown up in a rural area without any museums, so it was actually my first experience going to a museum, working in one. I joined the field almost by accident. In that job I designed and built exhibits, worked in the gift shop, and even did security from time to time.

Seema: Again, here is a difference. I grew up in Cleveland, where we have numerous museums.  My family and I went regularly.  I took art classes in the program I eventually ran as an adult. But, most of the museums in Cleveland did not have the sort of grass roots feel that you are mentioning.

Lath: My next job was at another museum that had that grass roots feel.  At the original The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia when it was in a small space across from the Franklin Institute.  We did everything ourselves; we had our own exhibit fabrication shop and made really approachable, almost humble, exhibits.

Seema: I loved the Please Touch Museum. I loved the feeling that as a visitor you are part of the grassroots culture. You can feel the authenticity the institution. And, you can see that someone has created this.

Lath: Exactly! Museums are not objective. They are not outside society. Science museums, for example, are making choices, for example, depicting climate change. So, they should take stands, like to participate in the Science March. If you can’t even take that small step, how credible are you? Museums really don’t show our process. We don’t show that people are making decisions.  Museums don’t use citations, for example. Of course, people are making the decisions; we just don’t show it!

Seema:  In many ways, this is part of the problem. We have internal norms for our museums, and we don’t want to change our norms. We can’t let go of these sacred cows, like labels.  Subtle signage is another one. We just feel like, “that just isn’t done.” As a result we bring in visitors who are already comfortable withour norms. The norms that we project in the spaces are one of the reasons that many visitors are from a certain class. They grew up coming to museums and know how to do engage with the spaces. People who are making the decision don’t often see the reaction of visitors who are unfamiliar with museums. They aren’t on the front line.

Lath: There is research that says that visitor’s experience is most heavily influenced by front line staff. Their behavior is one of the big factors in visitor’s reactions to the museum.  Another factor is the cleanliness of museums.  For me, it is important to put basic human needs at the center of your planning with clean restrooms, comfortable seating, visible water fountains, good wayfinding, and safe sightlines for people.  For me, this is going back to my roots in anthropology. I try to think about what makes someone safe and welcome in a space. You need to be intentional about this.  I often say that science museums don’t use enough science in planning museums.  There is good research on this, like from retail design, on how these choices effect visitor actions.

Seema: This is something I am passionate about as well.  There is little artfulness in Art museums. We create “clean” spaces to exhibit art, but they are often clinical.  We don’t make the art feel connected to the artist or the act of making art.  When you strip down all of that, you lose something.  The museums are preferencing the collection over the visitors, and the visitors can feel that.

Lath: This is why I spend a lot of time looking at adjacent fields to think about space and user reactions.  I look at retail and casinos.  There is more innovation in interior design in casinos than about anywhere else, not that I endorse its ends, but they think really intentionally about this.

Seema:  And realistically, going back to our conversation about museum’s being social situated, there is also no way to ignore aesthetics. Even if you create a spare aesthetic, you are still making choices.  You are choosing to make a space that feels a certain way, even if you don’t think about the feeling that is projected.

Lath:  Absolutely. On my most recent museum, Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle, we really focused on the voice of the museum. This voice is like a persona and it helps us make design decisions. We took that voice through everything, even the fonts and colors of text. The seed of this approach started when I was working to re-imagine The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. It’s a museum of an idea, not a collection. And after the idea, we needed to have a voice and a perspective.

Seema: Every museum is about an idea, if you think about it. It might have a collection, but those objects are there because of an idea, like Art. By making a persona for a museum, you are anthropomorphizing the museum.  This is useful. After all, humans communicate with each other. That is the challenge with people connecting to collections. They aren’t animate; they’re a thing.

Lath: Right! Exactly, every museum is about an idea.  Paul Allen founded our museum based on an idea.  He was inspired by taking the idea of a living history museum into a new field. It’s a fairly new museum. Our founder started the collection of computers about 15 years ago and restored them to run again. Unlike most museums, we started digital with and then slowly become a physical museum. We finally opened four years ago, but this was after people kept contacting us to see the computers they had accounts on. Our goal is to connect people with the real technology–the real stuff. We do this now through remote user accounts on our vintage computers, as well as in person at the museum.

Seema: Well, in some ways you are back to the beginning of the history of museums. Early collectors would get requests to see objects. Then those collections became museums.

Lath: Absolutely. Let people lead. Your constituents will tell you what is important to them. People are the lens to help us understand what is working in museums and what needs to be changed.

Seema: Part of it is that we don’t help our visitors. Museums are constructs. But, then we often don’t show people how to behave in museums.

Lath: Exactly. People don’t know how to use museums. Think of an ATM machine.  Now imagine if you never used one before? We fill our museums with the equivalent of ATM’s that people have never used before.  At our museum we have a sheet that draws commonalities between design features and common real-world objects like street signs or retail store elements. This gives people a familiar context to work in rather than asking them to learn a new paradigm.

Seema:  And, with ATMs, people want the money. Our visitors don’t want the info or the experience as much as they want the money in the ATM. So, they are much more likely to stop if they can’t figure it out.  Also, I have this issue with text in museums. Often, we are as a field super literate people, who love to dig into a book.  And, we use these paradigms for our text, but visitors read our labels standing up. They don’t think of them as books; they see them as signs. This is why puns don’t work. And, instead of thinking of our audience we are driven by in-group bias.

Lath: We don’t use any puns.  We are not nearly as funny as we think we are.  Think of your audiences, like teenagers. They won’t think we are funny. We try to be direct. We think of our audience as someone who is new to the subject matter but interested in new info.  Our written text uses modest vocabulary in a clean, pun-free manner. We don’t use metaphor. We even use hand-written notes on graphics to annotate parts of labels when some elements seem unexpected. But, it has to be hand-written. We also use post-it notes labels. Our research shows people are almost hard-wired to read hand-drawn post-it notes. We test these texts with real visitors. As I tell my staff, we are not normal, so don’t test ideas on each other!

Seema: Being purposeful about the text is great.  I have done a lot of work trying to help people understand the tone/ voice that visitors feel from text.  I don’t think we spend enough time talking about tone, or modulating our tone.  Tone testing is a great way to do this.  But, part of our challenge is that we think in specialized ways about content but we think in generalized ways about our visitors.  This is important because collection info is often layers of ideas that feel far away from the actual object. The text has to get you back to the ideas.

Lath: It’s really is hard to have authentic experience without real, authentic objects.  I once read that most people would rather see the ashes of the Mona Lisa [La Jaconde] than a complete, perfect replica. People want to be with the real thing, even if has been destroyed.

Seema: This is not something that you might expect, if you think that the Mona Lisa is just about the image.  In many ways, it goes back to where we started.  You can’t guess what visitors want.  You have to interact with them to understand. The bottom line is that staff, on all levels, need to interact with visitors more. Visitors and staff need to interact more

Lath: Absolutely I have been thinking about Museums 3.0, the user-centered museum. Rather than have visitors or participants, thinking of people coming as “users”.  They are in a position of using our places rather than just visiting, more like a park or library.

Seema: And, in many ways, that takes us back our roots, where people collecting things, and others came to use them to learn. So, Museum 3.0 might be about going back to Museums 0.0.

Seema and Lath spoke at MuseumNext USA in Portland in 2017.

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