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In Response to Nina Simon: Bait and Switch

RobHead_casualI’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years and have a real appreciation for a diversity of opinions.  I have always worked hard in my role at the IMA to encourage and draw out folks who think differently than I do.  That’s why I was not very bothered by Nina Simon’s initial comments about the IMA during last year’s plenary session of the Museums and the Web conference held here in Indianapolis.  Nor was I particularly inclined to answer what seemed to be a rather snarky blog article that Nina wrote entitled Avoiding the Participatory Ghetto which was featured on her Museum 2.0 blog. I was glad that Linda Duke, our Director of Education, answered some of the charges in the comments to that post, but again decided to hold my tongue.  With essentially a reprint of that blog article appearing in the most recent issue of AAM’s Museum Magazine under the title “Bait and Switch”, I feel that not responding at this point would communicate that I don’t care about what Nina is saying when in fact, I really do.


What most disturbs me about Nina’s argument is the clear lack of background work she put into crafting what amounts to a pretty scathing opinion of the IMA.  It seems from Nina’s comments that she is basing her views on a single visit to our galleries during a conference reception. I have no way of knowing how many of those 3 hours Nina spent in our exhibitions and galleries, but it seems that she didn’t bother to ask any staff members of the IMA about efforts we might be making to engage our visitors on-site and around the city.  Aside from a brief two minute encounter in the conference hall after her comments, Nina failed to probe in any depth about what (if any) strategy their might be behind our efforts on-site.

Experience and Engagement

In case you haven’t noticed, Art Museums are frequently considered to be the “stuffier”, less “engaging” older brothers to our sibling science, technology, and “experience” museums.  Nina draws at least some of her professional experience from this field, so perhaps we should cut her a little slack for missing a crucial challenge faced by art museums.


Here's one kiosk I'd love to see in our Museum

Many experiences in art museums can tend to be more subjective… more personal… deeply moving but indeed sometimes less factual than in other types of museums.  This isn’t denying that an understanding of the underlying contexts and histories of these works is important.  Just that this knowledge is a means to an end. Facilitating and encouraging these types of experiences is a primary challenge in creating engaging experiences inside art museums.  Balancing engaging exhibits with a gallery aesthetic which still supports and encourages individual interpretation is not an easy problem to solve.

Perhaps the lack of 10 year old kiosks and flashy interpretive signage makes it appear that we are not attempting to engage our audiences?

There still remains an outstanding debate in my mind regarding whether or not even well designed “experiences” in art museums offer an appreciably better connection to works of art than more unobtrusive offerings of information which allow audiences to pick-and-choose their own experiences with works of art.  Apart from leading audiences by a nose-ring through what they should think/experience there must be a place for a clean, open and personal interpretation of our collections.  These are questions we’re wrestling with here at the IMA as I’m sure many of you are in your own institutions.  Why rush to an answer before we’ve studied our own audiences and local needs?

Missing the Mark

Maybe Nina missed the chance to talk to Tiffany Leason – who was also at the conference reception – about the Viewing Project .  A three year grant funded initiative, the Viewing Project is designed to experiment with ways of engaging visitors with works from the IMA’s permanent collection.  In addition, this project seeks to measure and evaluate this visitor engagement in ways that can lead to concrete answers about these issues.  Rather than guessing haphazardly about what kinds of exhibits might make a difference, we’re attempting to really study our particular circumstance and unique audience here in Indianapolis.


The Viewing Project in-gallery interface

I would have loved to point Nina towards some of our New Media team (most of whom are named Daniel) who could share about some pretty innovative ways we are engaging audiences in ways that allow them to self select their participation.

One of the Dans could have shared about project we did in association with an Egyptian Art exhibit which made use of Flickr both in the galleries and on the streets of Indy.  The project, called “Your Afterlife”, asked scads of people from around the museum and city about what they would take with them into the happily-ever-after which resulted in some really funny, interesting, and touching results.

What would you take with you into the Afterlife?

What would you take with you into the Afterlife?

Or Dan might have shared some of the work we did creating visualizations from CAT scan data of one of the mummies in the show. Visitors could take a peak under the wraps both in the galleries near the display or online at home.

Meet Demetrious the Mummy

Meet Demetrious the Mummy

Yet another Dan might have talk to Nina about “Project IMA” a project we hosted featuring 16 local designers, which engaged the designers and the community in fashion designs presented in conjunction with an exhibition called “Breaking The Mode”.  The project culminated in a runway show inside the museum and some awesome video which is still really popular on ArtBabble.

Our last Dan may have taken Nina over to the Davis LAB where for over three years now we’ve been experimenting with bringing our online-efforts into the galleries for guests to experience and engage with.  Sponsored by several donors who really care about how technology can be used to enhance the museum experience, the Davis LAB has hosted a wide array of experiences.  In 2006, I built a multi-user physical interface for visitors to explore the IMA’s collection using camera tracking and advanced computer graphics algorithms.  This experience ran in the space for over two years and we tracked hundreds of thousands of users using  the interface to explore art from our collection.


ETX - Multi-User Collection Browsing with Physical User Interface

The LAB has also hosted virtual reality displays, a variety of interactive kiosks, a recreation of ancient Rome which allowed users to navigate through a unique system of interlinked panoramas in addition to many other efforts.  All of these experiences are always available to visitors in the museum and online and are designed to leverage their experiences here at the IMA.


Explore Virtual Rome through Linked Panoramas

Now the Davis LAB plays host to ArtBabble and encourages connections with the IMA’s blogs and online communities.  We find that users engage with the content in new and different ways in the galleries and that we receive a large number of comments from physical visitors from within the space.  Mind you, we are encouraging this online/onsite engagement while preserving – for the moment – an open, clean interpretive experience in many of the galleries.

Stand still!

Visitor Experiences in the Davis LAB

TAP into Sacred Spain iPhone TourI do think that mobile content deployments offer some intriguing options for user experiences in our galleries.  These platforms can preserve an aesthetic which supports personal connection, while offering unobtrusive ways for visitors to explore deeper connections to works of art on their own devices and at their own pace.  As such, we’ve started work on a new software system for mobile tours which can connect to our back-end content management practices and drive experiences on multiple content platforms including kiosks, phones, and web-browsers.

The project is called TAP and you can expect to see it “in the wild” sometime this fall in connection with our Sacred Spain exhibition.  Beyond serving just ourselves in this endeavor, we’ve been working with a collaboration of like-minded folks on some possible meta-data standards for mobile tours and platform architectures that can work for lots of different museums.  An early version of this spec (TourML – pronounced turmoil) can be seen in action in the Dallas Museum of Art’s new mobile tour.  You can read more about our progress on the Museum Mobile Wiki,  follow the effort on twitter (#mtogo) or watch this space for more info.


It’s worth taking a bit of time to talk about how innovation happens within museums.  This is a question I get asked a lot these days and, as such, I’ve thought a good bit about it.  I think it’s fair to say that we all seek after innovation in what we do.  At times it seems to be ephemeral… a gossamer to be grasped at.  Other times, you find yourself standing right in the middle of it without knowing how you arrived.  I can honestly say that during the last three years, the IMA has truly been the most innovative organization I’ve ever been a part of.  (This includes several major research universities, and the supercomputing center that invented the first web browser.)  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about innovation, it’s that it never occurs in a vacuum.  Certainly Max Anderson’s strong leadership and risk-tolerant style play a significant role here, and I’d like to think that our web team has had some pretty interesting ideas over the years.  The truth, however, is that the innovation others have identified in the IMA’s technology and online efforts is only a leading indicator of true institutional innovation and change happening just under the surface.

Those of you working in larger organizations know how difficult it is to push forward initiatives without comprehensive and wide ranging support from your colleagues.  Likewise, almost everything you see online has its roots in the support, efforts and beliefs of dozens of professionals from every department around the IMA.  Who is it, do you think, that populates the Dashboard with statistics?  Who’s responsible for the underpinnings of deaccessioning on the web?  Who is it that co-creates, consults, connects and supports the videos on ArtBabble?  Many of these folks have worked in art museums for decades and have devoted significant portions of their careers to advancing the arts in a non-profit setting.  To have their support and collaboration has truly been one of the great honors of coming to the IMA.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that the first-fruits of innovation can most easily be seen online.  Bricks, mortar and people’s opinions take significantly longer to change than our websites do.  We plan our exhibitions years into the future. Planning for a building expansion can approach the decade mark. Even our educational programs are planned at least a year out.

budThere are very few efforts in museums which move at the pace and timescale of the internet and social media. But like the buds on a tree, the innovation you see online is propped up by an ecosystem of support throughout the IMA which allows it to succeed at all.  I wish each of you could take the time to understand the institutional change we have been experiencing here at the IMA.  As it stands however, the most evident and easily accessible proof of this transformation is visible online.  Over the coming years, I’m extremely confident that this change will pay ongoing dividends for our visitors.

In Conclusion

Finally, I don’t mean to be overly harsh with Nina.  She is a brilliant professional who brings a lot of value to our profession in her writing and contributions to the field.  I do take exception, in this case, to a poorly informed series of articles.

Nina says on her blog that, “I believe that every museum can grow its audience as long as it is willing to grow with that audience by taking risks, trying new things, and communicating openly.”  In my opinion, I think that the IMA has been an example of these very things over the past few years and has contributed significantly to the community of museums.  I’m not asking for any special treatment or exemption from criticism.  On the contrary, what I’d like most is the chance for a little conversation on the topic.  So… if something we’re doing strikes you wrong or seems out of place…  all you’ve got to do is ask a few questions.  You can find me most easily here on the blog, or on twitter (@rjstein)



Or they might have shared some of the work we did creating visualizations of CAT scan data from one of the mummies in the show.

Filed under: Education, New Media, Technology

20 Responses to “In Response to Nina Simon: Bait and Switch”

  • avatar

    You know, when Nina’s post was first published, I too wanted to send off the rallying cry – “wait, look at all the great stuff we’ve done!” but that post has been like a ghost continually haunting me. While I can’t speak for IMA and its own mission and goals, at Brooklyn, I think we can be doing better. What I started to recognize is that while we often work hard to ensure some interactive components for exhibitions where our educators and curators feel is appropriate and can speak to the nature of a show, this often does not extend to our permanent collection galleries. Temporary exhibitions are a good start and, in general, we work hard to ensure a good floor experience with friendly staff, helpful guards, clearly suggested admission, human-readable didactics and object chat labels and decent wayfinding. We genuinely offer a way people can give us feedback throughout the building and listen to our visitors when they leave it, adapt when we can and strive to make the visitor experience better, but I can’t help but think back to a recent visit to the Denver Art Museum which haunts me as one of the best visitor experiences of any museum I’ve ever been in. Educational interactives where appropriate, scholarly rest w/ comfy seating throughout the galleries with solid reading materials about the very works you are near, and a artwork right in the heart of the building that so clearly says “welcome” and “your voice here” when you get there. As I walked through DAM, I realized this is an institution that has fully integrated the visitor experience into everything they do physically and it continues to blow me away as an example of, perhaps, what we should be striving for. Let’s look back at Nina’s post for a second: this comment killed me to see. Why? Well, Ira is 100% right about the situation in the lobby and while we can’t afford to staff a cafe in that space – something we’ve talked about in the past – maybe we should re-think it and at least try the scrappy-doo-honor-system-farm-stand-thingy and that’s a question we were not asking and should be – always.

  • avatar

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for this thoughtful response. I did return to the IMA on my last day in Indianapolis for a couple of hours and based much the post on that experience. I did visit the Davis Lab (with you, I think) during the reception, and spent about 45 minutes wandering the museum. Not a lifetime, but enough to have an impression.

    I am in no way suggesting that the IMA needs more technology–ten years old or brand new–in the galleries. I wish I had seen the Viewing Project-it sounds incredible. And just the fact that IMA is free is a wonderful marker of openness.

    I was not trying to diminish the IMA, only to highlight a disconnect that I felt as a visitor to your website and physical site. What you call “open and clean interpretation” feels isolating and confusing to me (and this is true for me at many art museums). In two short visits over the same week, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with the same institution that IMA is on the web. I had very poor staff interactions–not with the people you describe in your article, but with guards and food service folks.

    I’ve been in your position before, frustrated that a visitor didn’t “see” all the great things you are doing. It’s true. I didn’t. Maybe I’m so unrepresentative of your local audience that this doesn’t matter, but I would guess that many people with low art education (like me) would not have seen “more” than I did.

    As Shelley commented vis-a-vis Denver, this is about visitor comfort, making people feel welcome, making the art accessible through low- and high-tech interpretation. You are excellent at that on the Web. And while “There are very few efforts in museums which move at the pace and timescale of the internet and social media” may be the reality, it doesn’t have to be. Labels can be written and chairs rearranged incredibly quickly. I’m concerned that many institutions still treat their physical space in a fixed and venerated way, even as they become more dynamic and flexible on the web.

    When I talked to the Museum magazine editor about this article (we always pick a blog post to edit and publish), I was on the fence about using this one because I DO admire lots of the innovation happening at IMA (and Brooklyn, and Powerhouse). But we agreed that it was a useful article, especially for those who may have no idea about MW or the struggle that technologists face who want to innovate entire institutions. I hope you are right about the change to come, at IMA and other institutions, across bricks and mortar as well as online. I hope we can all keep inspiring and pushing and frustrating each other and get there together.

  • avatar

    Oh, and one more thing. I didn’t title the Museum article. The editor does that.

  • avatar

    The IMA’s conservation department has been actively involved in engaging with visitors in “traditional” and innovative web-based ways. Though we don’t have anyone in the department named Dan, we do occasionally engage with the folks in Rob’s department to help amplify the content we create both in and for the galleries and for the web.

    We’re always looking for new ways to help visitors participate in what we do.

    If you would have asked me I would have told you about all the interesting things that the IMA Conservation Department has done to leave the participatory ghetto in the rear view mirror.

    1) Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion is currently on view in the Clowes Gallery and features computer stations that show this web page, and also a technical discussion of how Bellini and his workshop made these paintings (with a variety of hand-made pigments). An important catalog was also published in 2005 about this work.

    2) For nearly 5 months in 2007 – 2008, the conservation department treated an early 16th century altarpiece by Sebastiano Mainardi in the gallery. Just under 30,000 visitors stopped into watch conservators treat this painting. Each day they made time to interact with visitors and answer questions (sans computers, real life participation).

    3) Early this year the exhibit Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals explained the conservation process of these important Indiana paintings.

    4) The IMA Conservation Department has also worked very hard to engage and interact with a broader audience through its efforts with social media applications, including the IMA’s Blog, its Flickr site, to some extant Wikipedia and Twitter, and other places. Take for example, these posts on the IMA’s Blog:

    Wikipedia entries – It’s just lunch


    New IMA Conservation Content on Flickr

    Preserving a Legacy: See it while you can

    Beyond these posts, recently I’ve been working to engage colleagues about conservation related topics through the blog medium. For example, we hosted Alaska-based conservator Ellen Carrlee on the IMA’s blog in a week-long discussion about AIC: Elitism, AIC, and Blogs: Where is the Love? This month on Art21’s blog I engaged Dia conservator Francesca Esmay in a discussion about taking care of site-specific artworks. And just last Friday Professor Charles Falco wrote about Seeing into the Infra Red: On Cameras, Connections and Conservation Documentation Part II.

    There are lots and lots of blog posts, videos, and images related to the IMA Conservation Department on the web. I believe by creating this content we have allowed the visitor a unique entry into artworks.

    While I’m the first one to argue for the importance of the one on one experience of looking at an artwork, I’m personally interested in finding ways for visitors to participate in what conservators do. Clearly just making content for the web is not a replacement for the direct experience of an artwork, but I believe that the Conservation Department has proven that the web is an interesting new arena in which to experiment with new audiences.

    As I’ve mentioned before, if you really want a new way for the visitor to “participate” beyond just looking at art (and in some cases, walking, touching, smelling, etc) how about designing ways that also encourage visitors to document artworks while they are on view. That’s part of my secret plot to take over the world and make all visitors part-time art conservators. Mu ha, ha, ha. More on that later.

  • avatar

    Rob, this is a very interesting discussion. And like most dialogues on emerging cultural shifts, there are lots of shades of gray, tangents, and underlying currents.

    When Nina spoke at the Smithsonian a couple months ago she made the comment that science museums tend to be much more participatory than art museums. You make an interesting comment about the contemplative nature of art that might color direct participation.

    At the time of Nina’s talk I tweeted that perhaps the reason science museums are more participatory is that curators are often scientists who are familiar with the “process” of scientific inquiry. Whereas art museum curators, more often than not, come from art history which is much more reflective.

    I do agree with Nina’s assessment that in most museums “technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers.” Until curators see the value of building participation into their exhibitions this aspect will remained siloed.

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Hey Shelley,

    Great comment… thanks for the post. While I haven’t yet had the chance to visit Denver’s Art Museum in person (you made me want to go and buy my plane ticket), I have spoken in depth with Bruce Wyman about many of the interactive initiatives he has tackled there.

    I could imagine that Bruce would testify to the really tricky balance at play between too much of a directed experience and on the flip-side an experience that fails to offer enough opportunities for engagement. I know that Bruce spends a lot of effort designing the user experience separately from any particular implementation and I think this probably bears a good deal of fruit in his museum. Maybe Bruce will chime in and tell us more about how this works at DAM and what kinds of involvement this takes from staff there.

    As I pointed out in my post… I suspect, that to pull it off effectively it takes the support of a reasonably broad cross-section of staff from a variety of departments.

    I continue to question, however, what that measure of “effectiveness” might be, and how (if at all) museums are measuring that. I don’t contest that there are some simple techniques museums can use to improve overall visitor experience, but more often than not, I see art museums either eschewing too much interpretive heavy handedness in a way that is disruptive to the individual experience… or completely giving up the venture all together and missing important educational opportunities.

    In my experience, I’ve seen museums do a better job at the evaluation of educational take-aways or pure user-experience statistics… but I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do a convincing evaluation about whether our interpretive efforts actually positively impacted the visitors’ ability to form deep and lasting connections to works of art in our care.

    Ultimately we won’t want to sacrifice one for the other… and can’t abandon or forget about the simultaneous educational mandate of our institutions as well as an advocacy for the visitors own unique interpretive experiences.

    I’m reminded of several focus groups we did with users when I first arrived at the museum. We were re-designing our website at the time, and asked these groups what aspects of the museum they most connected with. Far and away the most frequent response was that they came to the IMA for “Inspiration”… Followed closely by words like: reflection, calm, contemplation, escapism, intellectual growth…

    How can we ensure that we are not loosing these important assets in pursuit of engagement? I’m still looking for a good way to measure “Inspiration”.


  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:


    On the contrary… I’m really quite happy with the number and quality of interactions we are having with our visitors. They “See” plenty of what we are doing… this would not otherwise be a strategy we would continue pursuing.

    I continue to maintain, however that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to museum engagement. Certainly this does not exist between art, science, history, experience museums… and likely does not exist even between similar art institutions.

    I would guess, for instance, that the community that Shelley reaches in Brooklyn with all of their great social media efforts is significantly different than the community we reach here in Indy using many of the same social media tools. And different is some really important ways which can color their experiences and responses to our museum… socially, racially, culturally, technical savvy, income level, etc…

    Ultimately, its the responsibility of the local institution to understand our audiences better. To often, we just guess at what we think, might possibly, make a bit of difference for our website traffic. WHAT A COP OUT! We can do better than this when it comes to understanding the needs of our communities. This is indeed an area that the IMA could stand to improve in as I’m sure almost every museum in America could as well.


    So, let’s talk about audience for a second. Nina points out that her experience online was different and distinct from her experience with our museum in the galleries. I’m going to hypothesize that this is exactly what I want to be true. I know for instance by spending waaaay to much time looking through our analytics data on our website, and correlating it to user surveys we’ve taken online, that approximately 60% of the unique visitors to our website are looking for information about visiting our museum physically. My job, in that case, is to get them the information they are looking for as quickly, clearly, and easily as possible so that we can bring them through the doors of our museum.

    In addition, we’ve seen that the percentage of people visiting our site to consume content about art (blogs, videos, social media, etc…) has risen from 18% to about 30% in the last year. A large portion of these visitors are not from central Indiana let along the Midwest and they may never actually set foot inside the physical IMA.

    I would argue that the two experiences (online vs onsite) are DISTINCTLY different and should be. There should be no disconnect here… we are simply matching the user experience with the user expectations and makeup of two distinctly different audiences. I see no problem in tailoring experiences different based on where they are encountered.


  • avatar

    Just to be clear, for me it’s not about “measurement” or “success” or “failure” or “testing” or blah, boo! – it’s about *attitude*. As a visitor, I felt at home in DAM …I wanted to explore, I felt welcome to sit. I never felt talked down to – it just felt welcoming and, at the same time, like they were not making compromises. I should note, at the time of my visit there was very little “technology” in the gallery – again, I stress, it was an “attitude” – from my perspective they were designing… everything…including my interaction with staff…to be with the visitor in mind and it really shows.

  • avatar
    Bruce Says:

    Wow, of all days for me to be not near a computer for most of the day…

    Let me be the first to point out that what seems to work for DAM doesn’t mean that it’s the right formula for anyone else. I think you need to break some eggs at each place and see what things feel right or wrong — we all have deep cultural history at our individual organizations that mean things will manifest differently.

    I usually describe myself as having an exhibit designer’s background, I just happen to also know a bit about technology. I’ve done a lot of different exhibit work — as a writer, graphic designer, and a technologist — that I almost always think about the experience first and what I want that to feel like before we get to the tech itself. I’ve also been lucky in Denver. The museum had spent the 15-20 years before I got there trying to reinvent what interpretation meant for visitors and we’ve long had a reputation of being family friendly. Without that groundwork having already been prepared, it would have been much harder to bring in thoughtful tech where we have. But it also means that the attitude runs pretty deep about engaging with visitors and making them feel comfortable.

    It’s funny, I have the opposite problem as IMA. We’ve been able to do good stuff in the galleries (because the payoff is immediate) and I have some progressive peers that have been willing to share interpretation responsibilities, but our online efforts lag pretty far behind the rest of you. It’s not for lack of desire and ideas, but more a reflection that we’re a regional museum that hasn’t been willing to yet invest in our web infrastructure. That’s starting to change, but it’s still going to take a lot of effort.

    Shelley, you mentioned the flickr cascade in our lobby, That was really a couple of happy bits coming together at the right time. Aubrey and I had been doing some digital signage experiments with some new capabilities of OS X and our Director of Design needed a convenient way to cover up a freight elevator entrance. Flickr was an easy source of content and it fit nicely into a long-standing tech theme I’d had about incorporating the visitor’s voice. I think you touch on the key part about why it happened in the first place, the attitude was already there and it neatly solved a couple of other problems we had at the same time. For us to get stuff done in our galleries really only takes 2-3 of us at the senior level to make it happen, and this had no committee review or drawn out process. We got lucky by being ready at the right moment.

    But that’s just it, our goal is really to create environments where these things are possible at each of our respective institutions. I don’t think *any* of us have found the perfect balance, especially in art museums yet, because the desire to engage with the public isn’t always sincere. We’re often still elitist at the end of the day (one of our curatorial staff equated our just-closed incredibly-popular-with-visitors psychedelic side trip to a ‘petting zoo’) and that’s not nearly as pervasive at science + tech centers, zoos, aquariua, etc. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where the change *starts* within an org, as long as it’s being made. The rest will eventually follow, although never quite as fast as the pace should be — after all, we’re still mostly museums. 😉

  • avatar

    Hey Bruce,

    It’s actually not the Flickr cascade that I was so taken with – it was the artwork commissioned for the new space – those spheres that run up the stairwell (which is the heart of the new building). I remember there were these panels telling you which voice from the community was somehow integrated into that larger work…that the numbers are based on dates or something? Obviously, I’m fuzzy on the details and couldn’t seem to find information on it online.

  • avatar
    Bruce Says:

    Actually, I should add to my ramblings above (really, I’m trying to achieve through volume at this point).

    There’s incredibly *deep* value in everyone getting outside of their traditional work affiliations. Art museum folk should work at other kinds of museums and vice versa.

    Dan Kohl (our Director of Design) and I have both worked across a broad range of museums and seen their different perspectives in exhibit design and experience — I think that, coupled with a desire to be family friendly through our Education Department has gotten us of on the right foot with our visitors. The alternate experience puts us in a position about focusing on how to engage a visitor as opposed to creating another art museum exhibit. It’s not that they’re exclusive, it’s that you see parallels and different solutions to solve similar problems. And, it’s applying a different solution to the same problem that really helps me learn about how engage with our visitors.

  • avatar
    Beth Harris Says:

    Hey Rob, I was wondering precisely what you had in mind when you wrote:

    There still remains an outstanding debate in my mind regarding whether or not even well designed “experiences” in art museums offer an appreciably better connection to works of art than more unobtrusive offerings of information which allow audiences to pick-and-choose their own experiences with works of art. Apart from leading audiences by a nose-ring through what they should think/experience there must be a place for a clean, open and personal interpretation of our collections.

    What did you mean by well designed experiences versus unobtrusive offerings of information? Can you clarify? This is an interesting discussion!

    I think most museum educators feel that the best interpretive materials help the visitor to connect to the objects (Peter Samis’s visual velcro) on their own terms – and offer multiple points of entry and never tell the viewer what to think!

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Hi Beth,

    Great point, and thanks for bringing Peter’s excellent article and work into the mix. There are some great reasons why Peter’s work continues to endure the test of time! For the reader, links to Peter’s work on visual velcro can be found here:

    In the article, Peter points out the same types of questions I was attempting to point out as well (although perhaps less elegantly). He’s exploring what the right balance is between analog and digital, between experience and information, and specifically what elements impact our visitors the most.

    Peter makes the point that “chunks” of information must hook themselves, or make connections with other experiences or information already in our long-term memories. If I can summarize some of Peter’s points crudely… presenting “chunks” of information in multiple modes increases the chances that these will “hook on” or help our visitors make connections.

    Later in the article, Peter advocates for learning lounges that can combine experiences together. This is an approach we’ve obviously tried to emulate in the Davis LAB and inside of exhibits. I like what Peter has to say about the diversity of our audiences and how they respond to interpretive resources.

    “There is clearly no single magic bullet. People are inherently diverse in their learning styles, generational inclinations, entrance narratives and comfort levels with the objects we present—but zones like these that combine analog and digital resources help to weave a cognitive-emotive tapestry around the artworks that invites and structures engaged inquiry. Through such environments we welcome and meet our visitors where they are”


  • avatar
    lotusmoss Says:

    I’m enjoying reading this discussion very much. Bruce brings up a good point about the presence of autonomy, especially at smaller museums. While no one should be let off the hook, it’s important to remember that even when staff (and senior staff!) are gung-ho for changes within a museum, the complicated structure of large institutions (such as the Smithsonian or the Met), make it almost impossible to implement new and innovative material in a quick manner. By the time 500 committees look at something, it’s no longer fresh-feeling or new. And that’s a real problem…

  • avatar
    Claire Says:

    I don’t work in this field and offer my thoughts as simply a visitor. Whilst I do look for interaction in most museums, in art galleries in particular I first and foremost wanted to experience the art in front of me. Whilst Nina’s suggestions of panels sharing why exhibits were set up in such-and-such a way would be fascinating, it would be very important not to crowd the visitor with information. I’m all for far more use being made of mobile technology, as Rob says. That way, I can experience the art without distraction but if I come across a piece that is particularly beauitful or intriguing, I can choose of my own free will to delve into more content through my iPhone. A great way to bring the physical museum with the virtual one together on the visitor’s own terms, without forcing information onto them . It’s interesting to know the background to art sometimes but, at others, I just want to look at something beautiful/thought-provoking on its own terms, without an information overload, and in that case, I couldn’t think of anything worse than Nina’s idea of a price tag shown, forcing me to think of the ‘worth’ of this painting and how this compared to the one over there and the other one in the previous room. Let me seek that information out if I wish on my phone.
    Good luck with the Spanish exhibtion – sounds great!

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Thanks for the comments Claire!

    It’s definitely tricky to strike the correct balance between providing information and preserving a personal encounter. I think Nina and I would both agree that this is possible, and that the design of that experience is crucial.

    In my opinion, this is just one of those challenges that will continue to make it interesting to work in museums for quite some time!

    Thanks for reading this lengthy blog! and for taking the time to offer your viewpoint too!


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