Fear of criticism

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a discussion about when and how to criticise another museum’s curatorial practice, and the impacts of doing so on one’s career. Although I’ve previously had discussions about how museums have a somewhat criticism-averse culture (more on that in a bit), I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of damaging career prospects before. I found this idea alarming, so I weighed in:

An excerpt from this morning's Twitter discussion
An excerpt from this morning’s Twitter discussion

Could being (constructively) critical really be damaging to the careers of emerging museum professionals? And if so, what does that say about how well the museum sector handles criticism?

Unlike other areas of creative endeavour such as literature or theatre, museum exhibitions are not routinely reviewed in the mainstream media (with the possible exception being art exhibitions). Even within the realm of industry publications, relatively few regularly publish exhibition reviews (the main exceptions I can think of are Museums Journal in the UK and AAM’s Exhibitionist magazine in the US). It means there is not a reviewing culture around exhibitions. Critique happens more informally, perhaps behind closed doors. I’ve found many museum professionals (myself included) have been reluctant to openly criticise another museum’s work. Likely reasons include:

  • We’re “too nice”: we appreciate how much blood, sweat and tears goes into putting together an exhibition, and the compromises that get made along the way. We know all too well what it’s like to be on the other side, and how hard it is to get everything right. Consequently, when we see an exhibition that misses the mark, our instinct is to cut the developers some slack as we’re sure there’s a back story as to why things are the way they are.
  • It’s a tight-knit community: chances are, we know (or know of) someone who worked on that exhibition. It’s one thing to be critical about an exhibition in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to feel like you’re criticising the work of a respected colleague.

Whatever the reason, the lack of a culture of giving criticism might make us even more fearful of receiving it. Rather than being philosophical, dusting ourselves off after a dud review, learning from it and moving on, criticism becomes something to dread. What if we get negative PR? A backlash from funders? Fear of criticism might be enough to stop ambitious projects from even getting off the drawing board.

In such a culture, people will make conservative choices because they fear being criticised, and existing practices will never be challenged or fully held up to the light.

As well as entrenching a sense of “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done”, it creates a perfect storm for emerging museum professionals – we want (need) to make our mark but also worry about the consequences. Unless you live in a large city, you can’t afford to burn any bridges: there will be few other employment options unless you’re in a position to move. It means we could end up silencing ourselves just when we’re starting to find our voice.

 

 

 

 

The language of objects

Objects may not be silent, but what difference does that make if you don’t speak their language?

I’ve been doing a bit more musing on some of the anecdotes Stephanie Weaver shared during her keynote at the recent Interpretation Australia conference (first instalment here). She mentioned the often-heard claim that objects “speak for themselves” (a view that appears especially prevalent in art circles), thus rendering interpretation irrelevant at best, interfering at worst. In response, one time she challenged some “speak for themselves-ists” with an image of a carburettor, similar to this one:

Did the object speak to them about what it was? Was it a particularly fine or noteworthy example? In the absence of any relevant mechanical or technical knowledge, Stephanie’s interlocutors were stumped. They accepted that this object was mute in the absence of interpretation (at least to them).

But Stephanie also told the story of the object that spoke to her immedately, profoundly, and so powerfully it moved her to tears – no interpretation required:

In this case, the painting was the trigger for an avalanche of meaning that lay within Stephanie’s own life experience. It was in the Musee d’Orsay, during a much-anticipated and long-awaited trip to Paris. The painting was beatifully presented in a gallery context. The content resonated with Stephanie’s childhood as a dance student. And of course there is an aesthetic appeal that needs no overt explanation*.

This made me think that the “objects are mute” vs “objects speak for themselves” debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.

Some communication transcends language: in another conference session, Pamela Harmon-Price described how a Japanese tour guide used timing, gesture and body language to convey considerable meaning, despite Pamela not understanding a word of what was said. Drawing analogy to objects, there may be some aspects of an object: form, colour, positioning, and so on, that can speak to us on some level.

But then there is the Tower of Babel of other languages any given object may speak. And of course the same object may speak multiple languages (the languages of technology, or art, or social history). And that is where interpretation can step in – conveying that meaning to those who don’t know enough of the language enough to understand it.

On a radio interview held with Stephanie, Pamela and John Pastorelli during the conference, they reflected on the fact that people outside the cultural sector tend to assume “interpretation” has something to do with languages. Perhaps on some level they’re right: it’s just that it’s intepreting the languages of objects and places rather than other people.

So next time you see an object that you think “speaks for itself” – ask yourself: can you only hear it because you already know the language?

 

*At least to people enculturated into a Western perspective of aesthetics. Although there are some aspects of aesthetics that may be ‘hard wired’, so to speak, yet others will be a product of the culture we live in, and we deem those as “universal” at our peril!

Museum Life Interview

I’m currently on my way back from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the Visitor Studies Association annual conference. It’s been a very thought provoking conference and has been a chance for me to present some of the results from my PhD research (more on the conference later, once I’ve had a chance to digest it all).

Sometimes when you’re in a different time zone, interesting opportunities present themselves – this time, while in Albuquerque, I was a guest on Carol Bossert’s online radio program Museum Life. It streamed live but also is available online:

It’s an in-depth interview: the whole show goes for a little under an hour (so go grab a coffee now if you plan to listen. . .). I talk a little bit about how I came to museums, what led to me pursuing a PhD, an overview of some of my research findings, and how I think these might be able to be applied to museum practice. I hope you find it interesting!

Beyond “warm impulses”

I’ve been catching up on the Museopunks podcast series, and a section of March’s installment, the Economics of Free, particularly caught my attention. In an interview, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Maxwell L. Anderson compares the data that shopping malls collect about their customers to the relative paucity of data that is collected about visitors to the typical art museum. I think it’s worth repeating (from about 18min into the podcast):

[Malls] know all this basic information about their visitors. Then you go to an art museum. What do we know? How many warm impulses cross a threshold? That’s what we count! And then we’re done! And we have no idea what people are doing, once they come inside, what they’re experiencing, what they’re learning, what they’re leaving with, who they are, where they live, what interests and motivates them . . . so apart from that we’re doing great, you know. We’re like that mall that has no idea of sales per square foot, sales per customer. . . so we’re really not doing anything in respect to knowing our visitors. And learning about our visitors seems to me the most basic thing we can do after hanging the art. You know, you hang the art, and then you open the doors and all we have been doing is “hey look there are more people in the doors”.  And the Art Newspaper dedicates an annual ‘statistical porn’ edition of how many bodies crossed thresholds. Nobody’s asking how important the shows were, or what scholarly advances were realised as a function of them, or what people learned, how they affected grades in school. Nobody knows any of that. Nobody knows who the visitors were. So I consider it a baseline. We’re just at the primordial ooze of starting to understand what museums should be doing with this other part of our mission which is not the collection but the public.

I’d argue that we’re a little bit beyond the ‘primordial ooze’ stage of understanding*, although Anderson’s right in that many museums don’t go much beyond counting ‘warm impulses’ (those infra-red people counters). He goes on to describe how the DMA’s Friends program is giving the museum more data about what their visitors do while inside the museum, and how this can inform their engagement strategies (22:45):

This is just another form of research, you know . . . we do research on our collections without blinking an eye, we think nothing of it. We spend copious amounts of time sending curators overseas to look at archives to study works of art but we’ve never studied our visitors. The only time museums typically study their visitors is when they have a big show, and they’re outperforming their last three years, everybody’s excited, and there’s a fever, and you measure that moment, which is measuring a fever. The fever subsides, the data’s no longer relevant but that’s what you hold on to and point to as economic impact. And largely, it’s an illusion.

I find it interesting that Anderson puts visitor research on a par with collection-based research. Often, I get the sense that collection research is seen as ‘core’ museological business, but visitor research is only a ‘nice to have’ if there is the budget. But perhaps this is a sign of shifting priorities?

 

*Historically, most visitor experience research has taken place in science centres, children’s museums, zoos and aquariums rather than museums of fine art. Although there are of course exceptions.

2013: a (crowdsourced) digest

Yikes! Just a week before Christmas! Time for the obligatory “year in review” reflection pieces. What are the things that got everyone talking in 2013?

Rather than rely on just my own recollections, I put a call out over social media for people to nominate their blog posts or articles of the year – either their favourites or the most-read posts on their own blogs. As well as helping to jog my own memory, it’s a chance to get different perspectives on what caught the zeitgeist this year, as well as to catch up on things I might have missed the first time around.* It also makes a good holiday reading list.

Although I put out requests on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the most responses by far were from the Twitter community (make of that what you will). So, in no particular order:

Nominated by @SebChan:

– Cooper Hewitt labs “B” is for Beta on the beta version of their collections website

Planetary: the collection of code as a living object

– Embracing human imperfections and incompleteness through “institutional wabi sabi”

Nominated by @alli_burnie:

Reacting to Objects: Mindfulness, Tech and Emotion

The Value of the Local or Does Size Matter?

Flip Flopping Art History

Nominated by @NateLandon:

– Cathy Bell on The View from Behind the Locked Gate: The Government Shutdown and the National Parks

Destroying a place does not create a desert from the Slow Water Movement

Nominated by @ERodley:

– This excellent response to the debate triggered by the New York Times article “High Culture Goes Hands On” (which seemed to dominate online discussion through the month of August while I was in the US).

– Review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One

– 2013 was also the year that Drinking About Museums seemed to gather more momentum (I was lucky to attend two while in the US – one in Boston and one in DC, and I know a few more Australian ones started out this year)

Nominated by Nigel Briggs (via LinkedIn)

– The BubblePlan exhibition design Tumblr blog.

A confession – I’ve had a Tumblr account for over three years, but I’ve never used it. I find the format of it confusing – at first I tried to use it as a blogging platform and gave up in exasperation. But just over the past few days I’ve started to look at it again and am considering giving it another go. Any suggestions for getting the most out of Tumblr would be welcome!

Nominated by @Mia_out:

Open objects: new challenges in digital history was her most-read post this year.

– Mia also offered a general commentary on 2013 trends:

crowdsourcing, huge increase in tablet use on collections sites, and the on-going clash between museums’ established ways of producing exhibitions, galleries, and webby ways of working. And of course people are still obsessed with digital strategy/everything else strategy and games in museums.

Nominated by Cobi Smith (via Facebook):

Cobi reminded me of this “saw this and thought of you” link she tweeted me on informed consent issues associated with visitor research. A fitting one to include for this 2013, as the first half of this year is when I collected the lion’s share of my visitor data for my PhD.

Nominated by @Gretchjenn:

There was a lot of discussion around empathy this year. It was something that Gretchen and I both wrote about from a museum and interpretation perspective, and then started to see in all sorts of other places.

Empathetic museum pop-up

Empathy and institutional body language

Seeing empathy in other places

In the same vein, my posts interpretive empathy and empathic design were among the most popular pages on my blog this year.

In closing, I’ll share this video that @MuseumsAskew forwarded about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Good food for thought for anyone who finds themselves needing to provide emotional support to friends and relatives over the holiday season.

Merry Christmas everyone and see you in 2014!

*I should confess: this is also a lazy way to get at least one blog post out this month when most of my time and energies have been consumed with either thesis writing or home renovations (More of the latter than the former, to be honest). Nonetheless, finishing the thesis will be the main goal for me in 2014. (Oh, and I’ll also be getting married. But that doesn’t require anywhere near as much preparation!)

Mediation or interference?

When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?

A presentation I went to a few weeks ago challenged me to think about these questions. A curator from an art gallery background was sharing some findings from a study tour to the US and the UK. One of the images was from an exhibit familiar to me as one I’d seen at the (then) newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow:

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow
A photo I took of the exhibit in question when I visited Kelvingrove in 2006.

Now back in 2006 when I saw this exhibit, I thought it was a pretty neat idea. Superimposed over the 19th century painting “The Marriage of Convenience” by William Orchardson are three small screens inside thought bubbles. A touchscreen interface allows visitors to fill in the bubbles emanating from the three protagonists in answer to the question “What are they thinking?”.

Over the years I’ve seen this exhibit put forward by interpreters as a way of engaging family visitors with art. As an example of “best practice”. Now here I was, listening to someone someone going beyond critique and essentially presenting it as an object of ridicule. I decided to explore this further in the Q&A afterwards. What was it about this exhibit that so attracted her ire?

Essentially it boiled down to the fact that it was visually intrusive [1] and unnecessary to interpret a painting whose Victorian-era morality tale was “not rocket science” to comprehend. She considered it an insult to visitors’ intelligence. Furthermore (and more to the point in my opinion), apparently visitor feedback hadn’t been positive. However, no data was presented to support this claim so it’s hard to know if it’s based on an exhibit evaluation or just the criticisms of a more vocal minority.

I think a couple of points of context need to be raised here. This exhibit was displayed in what was intended as a family gallery. It wasn’t targeted at arts officionados who may be instantly aware of Victorian symbolism in art. I saw (and appreciated) the exhibit as something that was intended to be a hook for visitors who may otherwise not give the piece a second glance. It seems I’m not the only person who saw it that way, as this piece vividly describes:

One of the most amusing interactivities–I could have stood there all day–focused on William Orchardson’s “The Marriage of Convenience.” Most visitors would give this painting–wherein a rich old man dines with his young, beautiful and profoundly bored wife as a dubious butler attends–a quick glance and walk on, dismissing it as a dreary 19th century remnant. But Kelvingrove (which by this point seems to be staffed by Monty Python) had placed thought bubbles next to the painting’s three figures’ respective heads. “What are they thinking?” we were asked, and as passersby typed away, the thought bubbles changed…”This isn’t working out the way I planned.”…”I thought he’d be dead by now “… “The master appears to have made a big mistake.”…. A “dull, boring” relic suddenly sprang to life–and became as contemporary as today’s trophy wives.

So at this point it might be easy to dismiss the art curator’s critique as missing the point of the exhibit and reinforcing the myth that art can somehow “speak for itself” even to those who don’t speak the language. That would be a convenient way of dismissing the criticism, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. As Nicole Deufel pointed out recently, we often accept interpretive “best practice” on the basis of flimsy evidence. That’s why I’d be keen to see if there was any evaluation of this exhibit and what it said. Perhaps this exhibit doesn’t do what it set out to. For me the visitor is the ultimate arbiter and arguing amongst ourselves is going to generate more heat than light.

Having said that, there are some points about subject matter and learning styles that warrant some further thought and discussion. Firstly the issue of interpreting art. I’ve heard art curators use the term “over-interpretation”, but interestingly I’ve never heard anyone lay the same accusation at the feet of science exhibits. Coming from a science background, I get the sense that there is an implicit assumption among “art” people that art is inherently understandable, you just need to take the time to look and think for long enough. And all that pesky interpretation is just “shouty” paraphernalia that gets in the way.

Another point of difference is how much interpretive “mediation” different kinds of visitors feel they need. Again revealing my science training, I tend to like knowing “the answer”. So I can feel cast adrift with art, because I don’t feel “the answer” is being made available to me. Now sometimes I know there is no answer, and that’s kind of the point. I can appreciate that. But other times I do wonder if there *is* some point that I’m supposed to get but I’m missing. And that just makes me feel stupid.

Bottom line is that our needs as visitors are not all the same. As exhibit planners we need to understand, respect and accommodate these differences, which might sometimes mean doing things that satisfy our target audiences but drive us personally nuts.

[1] In the discussion it also emerged that there may be conservation issues with the way the exhibit is installed in relation to the painting, and also the hardware now looks clunky and dated some 7 years (and an app revolution) later. These critiques, while legitimate, are tangential to the debate here.

Parrawa, Parrawa! Go Away!

On my recent trip to Hobart I took in the recently refurbished Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Overall I was impressed, but now it’s a couple of months later I think the thing that sticks in my mind the most is an exhibit on the top floor of the refurbished Bond Store building – the Parrawa, Parrawa! exhibition. This deals with the European invasion of lutruwita (Tasmania) and the resulting war between 1823 and 1831.

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The space is fairly understated in its design and is reasonably sparse with respect to density of exhibits (I mean this in a good, less is more sort of way).

The exhibit I spent the most time at was a set of paired projections – on opposite sides of the gallery from one another – one telling stories of battles from a European perspective and the other from an Aboriginal perspective. It’s hard to capture in images but here’s a few examples:

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This short video clip (15 secs) might give a better idea of the juxtapostion of the screens within the gallery. I took the video from a bench that was positioned offset from but between the two screens. I sat there for a while alongside a fellow visitor, while we periodically turned our heads from side to side to see the two screens, as they are both screening simultaneously (I mused that we might have looked like spectators at a tennis match, although we weren’t always moving in sync with one another!).

It’s interesting for me to reflect on this experience from both the perspective of a visitor and a former exhibition designer. Had I been on the design team for this exhibition, I can imagine that I may well have argued against this positioning of the screens such that you had to keep turning your head to follow them both. However, I would have been proven wrong as I think in this instance it actually works.

For a start, it positions the two opposing views as more clearly “facing off” against one another. It’s hard to see both perspectives at once (which mirrors the intellectual concept of the exhibit nicely – war is often about ‘taking sides’ whether you want to or not). Also, the provision of a bench makes all the difference – it signals a vantage point from which you can view both screens without obstructing others. And viewing them seated also allows a more reflective engagement with the content. I overheard one visitor say to her companion that “it’s hard to look at*, but that’s good because it makes you want to watch it again.” 

This would be an fascinating exhibit to observe visitors at – once visitors did engage with it, they did seem to spend a fair bit of time at it. But if you breezed past, you may not necessarily have “got” what the exhibit was all about – it could have looked like two disconnected screens depending on what was going on when you walked past. I wonder how these different levels of engagement would look over an extended period of time – over to you, TMAG!

 

* From the context it was clear she meant physically difficult, not ‘hard’ as in the ‘hot’ nature of the subject matter – although that may also apply in this instance.

More on the Guest-Host Relationship in Museums

In a previous post, Interpretive Empathy, I started to explore the issue of treating visitors as “guests”, and what assumptions underlie such a definition. Alli Burness has posted a piece in response, in which she discusses the role of a feeling of belonging in the context of a guest-host relationship. This has made me think a little more about the guest-host dynamic and what it means for museums.

I should place this guest-host discussion in some sociocultural context, as the way we perceive being guests or hosts will depend on our cultural attitudes. Despite our reputation for being laid back and welcoming, studies have shown that compared to some countries, Australians are quite reluctant to invite guests into their homes – particularly people they don’t know well. I remember it being drummed into me during my during my childhood that when visiting friends I had to be a “good” guest – which, among other things, meant that I should not “wear out my welcome”. This shows how in Australian culture, being a guest can be fraught with trepidation. Hosts are assumed to be hosting you under sufferance.  Thus, as a guest you must tread carefully, avoiding inadvertently flouting unspoken rules or norms of behaviour. This anxiety of being in unfamiliar territory can be amplified if you perceive your host to be one of your social “betters” in some way shape or form (and despite what they say, Australia isn’t a classless society and there is an unspoken social hierarchy).

Compare this trepidation surrounding visiting someone new to visiting a family member or close friend. The anxiety about unspoken rules is not there, the “welcome” is sufficiently robust to be never “worn out”, and you don’t feel like anyone’s going to judge you on the basis of any behavioural faux pas.

And this brings me back to Alli’s idea of belonging – there are obviously different flavours of guest-host relationship. Familiarity is a big factor – if you’ve visited hundreds of museums before, then you’re likely to feel more comfortable irrespective of how well that museum does their “welcome”. But what if you’re less familiar? Creating that sense of belonging – coupled with a willingness to share – might be the key ingredient to a guest-host relationship that really works.

Interpretive Empathy

A recent posting by Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog has got me thinking about empathy, and the role it plays in interpretation. Gretchen was writing mostly in the context of how museums (can fail to) respond empathetically to traumatic events in the local community. But I want to broaden the concept out and assert that empathy is essential for good interpretive practice full stop.

Back in 1999 Zahava Doering identified three main ways that museums could relate to their audiences:

  • As strangers: the museum’s primary responsibility is to the collection; any public obligation is fulfilled grudgingly:  “The public, while admitted, is viewed as strangers (at best) and intruders (at worst). The public is expected to acknowledge that by virtue of being admitted, it has been granted a special privilege” (Doering, 1999, p.75). They might be a dying breed these days, but we all know those museum professionals who think the museum would be a whole lot better than all those visitors messing up the place.
  • As guests: museums take responsibility for their visitors and want to provide them with beneficial experiences.  “This “doing good” is usually expressed as “educational” activities and institutionally defined objectives. The visitor-guests are assumed to be eager for this assistance and receptive to this approach” (ibid, p.75). It could be argued that these museums have well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic views towards their visitors. The implicit assumption is that we know best and are smarter than the average visitor.
  • As clients: the museum’s primary responsibility is to be accountable to the visitor. “The visitor is no longer subordinate to the museum. The museum no longer seeks to impose the visit experience that it deems most appropriate” (ibid, p. 75).

When Doering wrote this in 1999, she suggested that most museums were in a “guest”- style relationship with their audiences. While social and technological developments have changed the nature of the museum-visitor relationship since, the “guest” mode probably still prevails. So what does this have to do with empathy?

Well, I think it boils down to relating to visitors as fellow human beings. Unless we are genuinely interested in our visitors as people – their backstories, their worldviews, their life experiences, then how can we expect them to become engaged with us? Engagement is a two-way street and we should want to connect to visitors as much as we want them to connect with us.  I enjoy talking to visitors. It’s one of the things that attracted me to visitor research, and I love going to presentations by other researchers who clearly share this empathy for the audiences they interact with.

If there is a barrier to engagement, perhaps it’s because we’re being too clever for our own good. Those of us who work in museums are part of the community, not apart from it. If we see ourselves as somehow separate, then that’s inevitably going to translate into how we go about doing our job – we’ll default to “guest-mode” thinking.

When I’m thinking about interpretive empathy, I’m not sure if the “client” model that Doering described is quite what I’m getting at. I’m wondering if it’s more of a “compatriot” mode, but I’m not entirely happy with that term either. What do you think?

Doering, Z. D. (1999). Strangers, Guests, or Clients? Visitor Experiences in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 42(2), 74–87. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1999.tb01132.x

Reflections on a visit to MONA

Visiting MONA was my birthday present. An odd choice maybe, but when I clocked up another year back in February I couldn’t think of anything I wanted. But a chance to visit (arguably) Australia’s most talked about museum? I couldn’t pass that up. So in lieu of a gift, my family helped fund a trip to Hobart, which I finally got around to doing earlier this month (I also saw the recently refurbished Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, more on which in a future post). 

So . . . what is there write about a place that has already attracted hundreds of column inches already (including some penned by yours truly)?

MONA’s owner/founder David Walsh on the cover of the February 2013 issue of The Monthly.

The problem with visiting such a well-known place is that the answer to the question “so what did you think of it??” is so often “pretty much as I was expecting”. You’ve heard so much, there’s not much room for surprises. That’s still better than when you visit a place and don’t think it lives up to the hype. For me this wasn’t the case, although what I saw vindicated my decision to visit solo (my partner is less than impressed by most contemporary art and I think the whole thing would have just infuriated him).

The other thing is that I think I’m getting really bad at being just a visitor and experiencing museums for what they are. My visits have become “meta-visits”: rather than being able to just be in the moment, part of me is always mentally standing back – observing how things are laid out, watching what others were doing, deconstructing my own responses. Occupational hazard I suppose.

To get to MONA I took the ferry, which I think is the usual way for tourists to get there. And this is where the MONA experience starts. There is a dedicated terminal and ferry, the MONA Roma, which is decked out in the sort of irreverent fashion you’d expect given MONA’s “brand”:

On board the MONA ferry. Graffiti art adorns the stairs while model cows and sheep (which double as seating) adorn the deck.
On board the MONA ferry. Graffiti art adorns the stairs while model cows and sheep (which double as seating) adorn the deck.

So the ferry doubles as a mode of transport and a (pre-) entrance statement – something akin to what Falk and Dierking would call an “advance organiser”. And while I didn’t realise it at the time, I think this pre-experience had an impact on how I approached the museum visit itself. But more on that later.

Upon arrival we were escorted up the stairs from the dock and into the museum, heading back down again to start the visit at B3 level (three levels underground). Here we were given our “O” devices to guide us on our visit (more on those below). In the distance I could hear some periodic pumping and hissing which added to a sense of anticipation / apprehension (it turned out to be Julius Popp’s Bit.Fall which spells out words in falling water droplets). I turned a corner and found myself heading down a long corridor, lined with red velvet drapes that made me feel like I was walking into a scene from Twin Peaks. Heading out of this area I went up some industrial-type steel stairs that intersect at odd angles across the void, exhibits in view in semi-darkness above and below. Here the feel is more like the video game Half-Life (pop-culture references came to mind readily for some reason!).

Mid-way along this level the corridor narrows, with small galleries off to each side. One of these works is Brigita Ozolins’ Kryptos – an eerie-feeling room-within-a-room-within-a room that you meander into like a labyrinth.

Brigita Ozolins work Kryptos

This work brought out the environmental psychologist in me – the darkness, confined space and the lighting effects creating the sense of a floating floor all worked together to give me a real sense of trepidation about walking in (even as my rational side was telling me there was no real reason to fear). It was interesting to see how this environment was able to elicit such a visceral response in me (there I go, meta-visiting again . . .) Shortly after leaving this space, the corridor opened out into a wide open space covering two levels. After such a sense of confinement, this sense of openness an relative light (it was still pretty dark) provided a sense of welcome relief. I wonder if it’s just me, or if this orchestration of emotion was a deliberate move on the part of the architect.

The open space featuring Sidney Nolan’s “snake” along the wall

From Driver to Passenger – going along for the ride

I’ve written a couple of times this year about how some visitors like to know where they are at in a museum’s spatial and content narrative, whereas others are happy to go with the flow. I’m usually in the former but at MONA, I was happy to surrender myself to the experience more than I usually do. That raises the question – why?

I had a chance to give this a bit of thought during a workshop held as part of the Museums Australia conference in Canberra last week. I’ll flesh this out in more detail in a later post, but I started to think about how we “cast” ourselves in a visitor experience – do we like to be in control (a driver) or surrender to the experience (a passenger)?*

Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve decided that in most cases I like to drive. But in this instance, I decided to be a passenger. I think that was partly because of some specific circumstances, and partly because my expectations of MONA were different from those of a “typical” museum.

Although they have visitor maps, I didn’t actually pick one up upon entry (they escorted us, the first ferry arrivals of the day, in a way that we bypassed the main ticket desk which is where they are located). So I only had the “O” device to guide me, and while this does have a map function, I didn’t feel overly worried about using it. I only picked up a map towards the end of my visit, just to double-check there wasn’t anything I had inadvertently missed.

As I said before, I’m also wondering if the ferry ride had a role to play in all this, by providing a temporal separation between the first sense of arrival (embarking on the ferry) and getting into the museum experience proper. Once you were on the ferry, all the logistics of worrying about whether you were in the right place, had the right ticket, etc. etc were behind you and you were – literally – cast in the role of passenger. Did this make it easier for me to be a passenger during the visit itself?

The “O”

Anyone who has read anything about MONA will know that they have no labels. Instead, you are given a device called the “O”, which is essentially an ipod touch made location-aware by wifi transmitters installed around the museum. I already knew a bit about how this worked (having researched it for an article I wrote back in 2011), so it was interesting to have a go and see how it worked in practice. Generally speaking it worked quite well, and it does offer quite a different experience to that with standard labels.

As you move around the museum, the O lists works which are near to you and you can select them to read a standard label (these are titled “artwank”) or more atypical musings  (titled “gonzo” or “ideas”). You are also invited to “love” or “hate” works and when you do so, you find out how many other visitors felt the same way. Not all labels are accompanied by audio but some works were pieced with music which I thought was an interesting idea, and one which had me lingering longer at some works than I otherwise would have.

A couple of things about using the O though – while each work had an identifying thumbnail image, sometimes it took a while to find the corresponding piece of work because of scale – the work you were looking for might be a tiny thing in a peephole, or a giant installation hanging overhead. Also (and this might just be me) I found the O gave me an obsession with “collecting” all the works in a particular area before moving on – I wanted to mark everything as “seen” in a way I wouldn’t have worried about with just regular labels.

If you enter your email address, you get sent a summary of your visit as recorded by the O. This is what I was sent.
If you enter your email address, you get sent a summary of your visit as recorded by the O. This is a screengrab of mine, which shows my visit in impressive detail. It’s also interesting to see how the visit unfolded over time. Oh how I would love to get hold of all of MONA’s visitor data!!

Technically speaking, the O worked well overall – in some instances the location got a little confused, but this was easily fixed by pressing a reset button. The only thing is, I think my device didn’t record all of my visit. Going through the summary, I noticed a number of works that the website says I “missed”, when I know I did in fact visit it. Looking at what’s been missed, I wonder if I accidentally reset something when I nipped into the loo because it doesn’t seem to have recorded anything I visited after that. Oh well.

*Extending the metaphor, you might end up being a “backseat driver” when an experience affords you less control than you’d like.