How do you make the difficult subject of contemporary art accessible for people who have never encountered it before? This question keeps many museum educators, curators and editors awake at night and is somewhat a holy grail in gallery interpretation. Last week I was in Vilnius, Lithuania for a hackathon which posed the challenge of creating digital tools for audiences to find a way in to getting meaning from contemporary art. Working with Login Festival and the soon to be opened, although it has existed online for a while, MO Museum, a hack was set up to try and solve the problem of encountering opaque art, audience engagement and innovative approaches to interpretation and digital media. I’ll be writing up a report on this soon but I thought my slides might be of use to anyone else setting up an art/visitor hack or thinking about how they communicate their own work or exhibitions to their viewers.
So this was the big question – how are you going to get your visitors to find a way in to the art that is in your galleries if they are coming with little prior experience? Art is there to be challenging, to be entertaining and to be enlightening but even those of us who encounter and work with it still need frameworks to begin to pull meaning from it. Once you are familiar with the processes, it becomes subconcious but as learning professionals within museums, we need to communicate what this is and to be able to provide prompts for visitors so they can begin to ask questions about art.
When creating the interpretive tool I wanted this to be at the forefront of the participants’ minds – design space for your users, not an already written book of information for the gallery. Aiming to have active visitors rather than passive ones on a path through your galleries creates a mindset where you are always thinking about what questioning we can begin and what of our yourself you can bring to the art you are seeing.
I’m going to share two frameworks which I find useful when approaching interpreting a piece of art, one for thinking about looking and questioning, the other about the behaviours you can idenitify to focus your mind on who you are actually trying to reach. Above is one way of encoutering a piece of work and the lenses you can peer through to try and create a reading of it. Moving from the self, to the object, to its content and finally to its widest context, you can identify details and information that build up into a clearer picture.
Let’s take the object itself, whether it is a painting, sculpture or drawing, and take a formal approach. By looking at its formal elements we can get a sense of what it is and an insight into the process of its making. What is it made of? Is this a traditional material to make art from and if not why was it chosen? Then take a look at its form and try to describe it in both simple and then poetic language – is it geometric, what kind of textures can you see and how is colour used? Try then to direct it back to the creator of the piece – how do you think it was made? Was it made with other people and what kind of skills were needed?
You can also start to look at it in relation to yourself and think about your personal experience. George Hein wrote about how museum visitors require frameworks for learning to crwawl before they can walk ad that often, novice visitors often have reactive interpretations to art, usually those of an emotive nature. These reactions are important to harness and a valid expression of lived experiences shaping an understaning of culture. Visitors will bring with them their own interpretations, world views and emotions to the galleries and although curators can shape that experience, the interpretation you develop will provide that structure and those jumping off points for going deeper.
Tate Britain’s collection tours have stuck in my mind even though they appeared a few years ago. They were very much traditional pick -up-a-map from the front desk and follow it types of wayfinding but the variety of them for you to choose from as you entered helped set a mood for how your visit panned out. Some were particularly good for solo visitors coming to get away from the world (“I’ve just split up” / “I have a big meeting”) while others were directed towards groups of friends or families (“I’m an animal freak”/”The kids only collection”).
Tate Britain’s collection is wonderfully ecletic, ranging from the 1500’s to newly commisioned performace works, so finding a way through can be tricky, especially if you haven’t got a list in your mind. The light hearted subjects for the tours encourage wandering, provide you with a focus but also give you with agency over the type of experience you want to have. Immediately your visit there is personal, it is about experiences, not things.
We often divide the people who visit our sites into audience types for planning work. in museums and exhibitions. Internal structures of museum learning often reflect this with individuals taking on specific groups, such as schools, families or adults, and reporting to funders usually asks for breakdowns of who, in census style, is coming to you. How useful is this when you are creating interpretation especially when you are creating tools for such broad groups like adults or tourists? By instead thinking about how people behave in your galleries and their motivations we can support, negotiate and mould what they are doing in order to give them an experience that fulfils their needs.
So rather than this…could we start to arrange people differently when we think about who we are aiming to enage…
…and arrange them into why they visit and the types of things they do? Can we instead design for “Savvy Networkers” who may only be visiting once as they are looking to share what they are doing via social networks and looking for exclusive and temporary moments? What about “Art Lovers”, visitors who have a deep knowledge of culture, will pay for your temporary shows and for whom, your venue is just one of many they will be visiting?
The V&A understood thise when they put out the iconic Saatchi & Saatchi campaign in 1988 causing a furore. By flipping the notion of going to a museum to see “serious” art, they identified that a majority of their audience came to enjoy the beautiful tea room at the heart of the museum. People came for a social experience and the fact that they could enjoy time with friends in beautiful surroundings rather than any old coffee shop was a huge draw to them coming through the doors. At the time the marketing manager of the museum said,” …you didn’t have to tell the whole truth about the V&A; you just had to get people curious enough to test it for the first time. That would ensure that they would come back.”
Some types of behaviour you identify will be harder to reach and create sustainable relationships with like those on a day out, visiting your site as part of a holiday. They want to relax, be with the group they are travelling with and have the chance to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and slice of cake. Some like “The Persuaders” will be visiting for the first time and for them your site is one of many options of entertainment. They might go to zoos, sports or food market but going to a museum or gallery is not a regular thing.
All of these behaviours need different approaches and all of them want something which can’t be found in another grouping. You might be able to identify other types and every place will have their own subcategories so go out and observe your visitors, ask them and start to collect evidence you can use when designing.
SFMoMA closed for a while as it began on a redevelopment of its galleries. During its closure they began to use the opportunity to develop the interpretation and the digital experiences for audiences inside the galleries. Their audio guide has become a touch mark for other places considering who to reach everyone who comes through their doors, provide them with unique and personal experiences and ways in to thinking about the art they have on display. The tours are delivered through an app on your device and use location positioning to deliver the right content to you at the right time. For example, as you cut through a gallery, stopping to look at a sculpture, it will provide you with the correct commentrary for the space but likewise, if you turn off route and start heading towards the bathrooms, you’ll still be able to pick up where you were as well as recive directions to facilties as they are needed.
When exploring you will hear that tours are delivered by a variety of presenters, from sports teams to comedians. You choose your preferred host for the visit and recieve a 15 – 45 minute audio experience as you visit and get to hear those personalities give you their thoughts. The freedom in being able to choose your host and tailor your time with support around a favourite subject allows you to set the type of energy you want while you are there, from philosophical to hyped up. And they really work, in this article one of the developers from the studio that made it looks through the stats – it was incredibly successful at reaching those first time visitors and keeping them engaged. There was a desire from them to have a genuine go at learning about and engaging with the art and by providing it in a more accessible and personlised format, they repayed that by keeping on listening.
So that’s how we set the scene for the hack – think about how you can think about thinking and why do your visitors choose towalk through your doors and what do they want to do? Simple right? As most of the participants in the hack were from tech and dev backgrounds it was useful to rpovide two frameworks for getting them into the mindset of those of us who work in the cultural sector. They brought with them a whole breadth of knowledge on designing and UX which created some really fresh feeling approaches to gallery experiences but much less understanding of the content and use of museums. If you are running a hack, set the context, provide some checklists to frame it all and just go with the flow!