What makes a museum space good? For Nina Simon, the author of Museum 2.0 blog, the answer is simple: the more people use the exhibit spaces to interact with each other the better. Nina was giving an excellent talk recently at the BayCHI March meeting in the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). She discussed issues of museum space design that engage visitors more by applying concepts from Web 2.0.
Museums are more and more looking for ways to break up with the image of being traditional and authoritative. In fact, most modern institutions shift towards a more participatory approach, where visitors are active part of the exhibits. Nina takes her examples from the social web (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) where the 3 core challenges are (1) participation inequality, (2) amateur content, and (3) limited tool for social interaction.
Social participation in a museum context refers to the use of the exhibited objects to facilitate interaction between the visitors. One simple example was The Art of Participation exhibition in the SFMOMA that opened in Winter 2008. What it did was to provide a social proxy (i.e., the use of different random objects) that allowed interaction. The key concept here is ‘scaffolding‘ or making the visitors feel safe about whatever they’re planning to do. Nina met a stranger at this exhibit, George, who went so far with participatory interaction that he took off his shirts for a photo (see half naked guy on her lecture slides with oranges in his hat).
Visitor feedback is another issue in museum spaces. A simple notebook where people can write their amateur thoughts is often turned into meaningless. The way to look at this problem for Nina is to take the Web 2.0 approach and allow the concept (i.e., notebook) to evolve into something better. In Worcester City Gallery and Museum, UK the weekly order of painting exhibits were determined by the votes of the visitors. It became so popular that people of the town queued every Saturday evening to see what the new order was. This is a great example of how to change ‘feedback 1.0′ into ‘feedback 2.0′
Asking a good question is another key to interaction. At the Ontario Science Centre, the turnstile was a voting mechanism to answer the simple question: “Would you go to Mars?” Needless to say, at the entrance, 2/3 of the visitors answer yes. It’s a personal (i.e., you), social (i.e., counting #) and fully participatory spatial design. As people learnt about the harsh physical conditions on Mars, and re-answered the question when exited the exhibition, 2/3 of the visitors didn’t anymore want to go to Mars. This is an objective and interactive way to assess visitors’ knowledge increase.
Exhibited objects themselves are perfect transitional spaces even for complete strangers to meet. Museum design needs to provide a scaffolding space that encourages social engagements. On the web, social profiling is a way to go about this. By giving visitors ‘social objects’ (e.g., a personality character badge — see Athena on Nina’s slide), it becomes acceptable to share experiences even if they don’t know each other. In social psychology, this is explained by the social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The key is giving social scaffolding to people that makes them feel comfortable. Human-Library.org project is another great example of how this can happen in a very simple but powerful way.
An audience question targeted the actionable implications of Nina’s work. She said that when she teams up with architects to design social museum spaces, she talks about how to create an exhibit space where people feel good together. Museums are just not optimal when there’s nobody inside, but they get better when a good deal of visitors are there. She paraphrased a quote by Tim O’Reilly saying that “web 2.0 is a software that gets better the more people use it.”