Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Makes a Museum Exhibit Sociable?

The vast majority of us visit museums with other people--but many museums are just beginning to consider that sociability within the exhibit development and design process.  Maria Mingalone of the Berkshire Museum and I are presenting a session this week at the New England Museum Association conference where we hope to talk with participants about designing exhibits for social experiences.  Is it the concept?  the design?  do we think too much about just interactions for families and not enough for adult visitors?   Are there exhibit elements that automatically make an exhibit sociable or unsociable?   (For an important take on this,  take a look at Kathy McLean's new book, The Convivial Museum.)
But for our session, we'd love to hear from you in advance of our presentation about what you think.  Please share your stories (or pictures) of exhibits that encouraged or discouraged social interactions.  What works for your organization?  What pitfalls have you overcome?  and are there unwritten rules about social interactions at your museum.  Do tell!

Sociable museum activities happen anywhere. 
Top to bottom:  MassMoca, photo by Drew Harty;  American Museum of Natural History, and the Rijksmuseum.


Anna Leshchenko said...


This comment might not be exactly the answer to your post... but when reading it, I've thought of a human factor, not an exhibit as an unsociable element.

The women (usually aged women in Russia) who are guarding the rooms are prohibited to talk to visitors about the musealia in that room... There are some visitors who ask them questions, and very few answer. Some days ago I heard my students complaining about the fact they asked a question and a museum woman remained serious and unsociable... When I was preparing a guided tour in one of Moscow museums, it was quite late and these women were not afraid of being caught talking to me (or may be they thought I was working in the same museum), and in every room I asked questions about the exhibits that had no comment and these ladies told me everything they heard from other guides while sitting there.

I understand they are prohibited to talk because they are not trained to show these exhibits and museums are afraid of misinterpretations... but these guards could become part of museum communication channel...

Jamie said...

In my experience, exhibits people can (and are welcome to) touch create much stronger sociable situations than things they must view only.

Our aviation museum has decommissioned helicopters visitors can sit in, a kid-friendly mock up of a Curtiss Pusher and a motorized model C-130 cargo plane that visitors can try their hand at taking off and landing on the exhibit runway. If you walk into the museum on any given day, these are the places you're more likely to find people gravitating to, talking about and visibly enjoying.

I also strongly recall attending an exhibit at another local museum based on the Underground Railroad. They recreated environments such as hollow trees, false walls and hidden closets within which escaped slaves hid. Being able to get a feel for the dark, tight quarters and the vast differences in circumstances between people who shared the same ideals drew visitors in and them plenty to think/talk about.

I would also have to say that the previous commenter made an excellent point: how welcoming the staff is and how user-friendly a facility feels definitely play a large role in whether or not people return to a museum.

The more people can interact with something up close, the more impact it makes.

Linda said...

Anna--your comment about the guards made me laugh. At one museum visit in Kyiv, the guard told two of us to stop talking, because we couldn't appreciate the art if we talked! A museum in Odessa did a lovely project (which I can't find at the moment) in which an artist photographed those guards lit like Renaissance portraits and then installed them at a huge scale in the museum. Totally different aspect of each of them was revealed!
Jamie--I think people often think of touchable elements as something for kids--but you make a great point--they're really for visitors of all ages and interests.