The Former Audience in Meatspace

I love museums, and I'd like to see them become more like the Web. After "living" on the Web day in and day out for years, any space that isn't as interactive, customizable, and "deep" as the Web is a bit frustrating to me.

This realization occurred to me a few months ago at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. It's a fantastic museum that has exhibits about the local art, history, and culture of the Bend area, Oregon, and the West in general. I'd been to the museum several times before, so I'm fairly familiar with their permanent exhibits. One is called Spirit of the West and includes recreations of pioneer camps, mines, ranches, and towns. These life-size dioramas are filled with antique equipment, and enhanced with audio and lighting. And there's quite a bit of text along the way printed on plaques to explain each of the scenes. It's all very well done.

On this particular trip, we were just about to enter the Spirit of the West when a tour guide stopped us to let us know he was about to lead a group through. So we waited and joined the tour. The guide brought another level of detail to the exhibit. So even though I'd been through the exhibit before, I was learning all sorts of new things. The tour guide could point to a specific item within the exhibit and riff on that for a bit. (Did you know that early trappers used bricks of tea instead of tea leaves like we use today?) The tour guide relayed stuff that wouldn't make it onto the official wall text describing the exhibits, but the extra layer of information helped bring the scene to life.

The tour included a stop at a recreation of an 1800's store run by Chinese immigrants. As you step inside you see lots of stuff that would have been for sale at a store like this, Chinese newspapers and inventory lists from the period, and an audio track playing with people speaking Chinese. Someone in the group asked what the people were saying on the audio track, and the tour guide launched into a story. It turns out he'd had several Chinese speakers on previous tours, and he'd started to piece together what the audio was. Apparently, the museum curators had recorded a mahjong game in progress, and audio in the store was simply some people sitting around playing a game and having a conversation. Most museum-goers in Bend, Oregon would never know what exactly the conversation was about, so it didn't matter that the audio didn't faithfully recreate an 1800's Chinese store.

I was struck by this little exchange, because the tour guide had gone from adding a layer about the exhibit to a little behind-the-scenes information about the construction of the exhibit. And the information hadn't come from the museum curators, it had come from fellow museum-goers.

Along the way, I noticed other types of information the guide was relating such as trends. He'd say, "everyone always asks about this piece of equipment right here." And then he'd explain what that was. He was using audience patterns to tune his presentation.

So the tour guide had three different types of knowledge he was passing on: 1.) extended information about exhibits from the museum, museum-goers, and his own scholarship. 2.) Behind-the-scenes information about the construction of exhibits. 3.) Trends that he's noticed in the behavior of museum-goers. And I thought that the tragedy of this is that all of this knowledge vanishes when he's not around. In fact, I'd been to the museum several times and hadn't hit this vein of information. With this info, the museum was a completely different experience.

Another great exhibit at the High Desert Museum gives a history of the U.S. Forest Service from its earliest days to the present. It delves into the changes in technology over the years, their achievements, and even the personal lives of the people serving. I know that members of the U.S. Forest Service must love this exhibit and visit frequently, and each of them must have their own information they could add about specific artifacts or events depicted.

Ever since this visit I've been wondering how museums (and other offline spaces) can move from a broadcast model to an "information hub" model. Why not set up kiosks to let visitors record their memories, opinions, and observations via video, audio, and text? All of this information gathering can be done in a browser now, so a kiosk wouldn't need to be expensive custom hardware with custom software. Why not let the museum curators filter through the audience submissions and highlight the best? Why not give interested visitors information about the "making of" certain exhibits. And there must be a way to expose which exhibits are most popular, and which are most popular among certain demographics. How about "best of" lists by other museum-goers?

I'm used to being in spaces that want to hear my take on things. Companies are competing for user-generated content, and those sites that give voices to their users are some of the most visited online. Journalists are starting to realize that their audience collectively knows more about a topic than they do. Sites want to personalize experience so that people get the most out of their visits. People turn to their online social networks to find/sort/filter data on a regular basis. I hope these trends move out to museums, and into meatspace in general.

Comments

Great ideas and insights. Thank you so much for sharing these views.

Regards,

Keith Knutsson
A great mind-opening post, Paul, with great ideas. I'd love to experience the museum of your dreams.
Great post, but the problem lies with editing. Your tour guide had no doubt had lots of questions, lots of suggestions, and lots of feedback over the years, but what he chooses to recount to his visitors is up to him. He's edited the information based on his knowledge of the facts and his own judgement of what *seems* to be right. You, the visitor, benefit from this experience as an edited and informative tour. No automated system available today can provide that. Perhaps if the text next to each exhibit were displayed on changeable screens, and people could add comments and suggest further info for possible inclusion, we'd have museums closer to what you suggest. Kiosks would be ignored as they would be full of informational 'noise'.
Great point Aegir, and I mentioned that curators would have to select and highlight. But at the same time, why do weblogs work? Aren't they filled with what experts would deem informational "noise"? Yet somehow there is value in this mess. And somehow we select and filter and find information that has value for us. I think capturing as much information as possible should be the first goal of any information hub, and then they can worry about distributing that information to its proper audiences. It's not easy, but there are ways to find/sort/filter massive amounts of data.
Hi Paul, reading your blog for the first time via a link from Kottke.org. I'm a former museum exhibit developer now working in IT, mostly on websites. Many exhibits have "talk back" sections - many art museums leave out books where people can write their comments, and many exhibits, especially on social/history topics, includes a section with index cards and a glass-enclosed bulletin board where museum staff post the best responses.

These methods are well used by a segment of visitors, but the comments are pretty generic usually, because by the time people get to the comments station they've usually forgotten specific information they thought of as they saw a particular artifact or gizmo.

I wonder if new handheld units for audio tours could be developed that include a voice record function. They'd need some kind of docking station at the exit so any audio files could be saved before the unit goes back out again.
Great post. I work in an art museum and we are always looking at ways to make things more interactive. Unfortunately the biggest obstacle to this... money. Audio, video, everything costs so much and because funding for the arts is so poor, there are very few places who can afford the technology.
you might like this idea

http://www.dgen.net/music/audiograffiti.php
Great idea! I've been working on a similar idea for my dissertation work. But instead of filtering user-generated data through an expert, I cast the users as experts - we are all knowledge brokers and one visitor's experience of a work can really influence someone else's experience. This user-interpretation can track how works have been understood - a kind of interaction history. I developed a web-based interface, called Wayfinder (http://www.wayfinder.webarchivist.org/ ), that provides access to a Web archive. Wayfinder enables this kind of user-interpretation and sharing. I'm also publishing my dissertation writing as it is happening - http://www.archivefilter.net/dissertiddler.html
I'd love to hear what you think.
You might be interested in the work of Local Projects (http://www.localprojects.net/). I have its principal, Jake Barton, speaking at IDEA (http://ideaconference.org/program.html), and he's talked a lot about user-generated content in museum (and other physical) spaces. We talked a little about this on the blog (http://www.ideaconference.org/blog/?p=25), though, sadly, our conversation did not end up continuing.
Paul, you might like to know that we have a group in Second Life devoted to museums and their potential in a virtual world. I have built a Maya exhibit, presenting Maya vases inside a model of the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque. As I am often there, I find myself touring visitors through and commenting on the exhibit and on 3D construction methods, to avatars representing people thousands of miles away. We are just starting up in Second Life - you are welcome to join us. I am Usu Ventura in-world. You can IM me there and if I am absent I'll get an email in real life. Or email dave dot pentecost at g mail dot com.
Thanks everyone for the links. I wish I could be at IDEA right now--sounds like an excellent conference.

I bet Second Life would be a good place to model some of these ideas. There, every wall plaque really could be a touch-screen with web access (if I understand my virtual worlds correctly).
Hi everyone,
I'm a museum planner and designer http://www.4274design.com and also co-founded a startup http://www.ncontextmobilemedia.com which is a vertically integrated product that does a lot of what you have suggested. I am very interest in context aware information, produced professionally or by peers and would be interested in hearing reactions to our work and other ideas centered around the idea of allowing cell phone users to record stories, geotag them and develop a family and or group website around the results...I even registered the url mobilememoirs.com to advance the oidea. Hope this isn;t too commercial a post but there's alot going on in new interpretive technologies.