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.