Immersion and Museums

In early September, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts called Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?. Here are some reflections from the day.  

Waning attendance has museum professionals seeking novel ways to increase audiences. Many institutions are looking to immersive technology as salvation for their visitation woes. Technology alone, however, will not ensure the future of museum attendance. Museums need to develop engaging, immersive experiences to buoy to transform their attendance.

Museums, Technology, and Immersion Now

Technology appeals to museum executives hoping to counteract criticism of being stodgy or old-fashioned. While a decade ago museums often placed technology in sequestered spaces creating an immersive environment by virtue of their physical installation, the most successful recent technology projects are informational rather than immersive. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gained wide notoriety for their SendMe SFMOMA project, where users could text words to receive corresponding objects. The millions of users increased their awareness of SFMOMAs collection through short, transactional moments. SendMeSFMOMA’s success was predicated on employing mainstream tools to deliver surprising content. Akron Art Museum’s Dot Chatbot is like a virtual educator, answering questions in real time.

At the same time, museums are in the midst of a non-technology immersion trend. Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition, Infinite Mirrors, invites people to walk into transformative spaces, many employing mirrors to heighten the effect. The exhibition sold out in venues across the country, with second-party sellers asking hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. While Kusuma’s earliest rooms date to the 1960s, her work’s popularity increased exponentially, thanks to cell phones and social media. Celebrities like Beyonce and Ivanka Trump proudly posted pictures of themselves in her Infinite Mirrors exhibition on their Instagram. The success of the exhibition can be seen as due to the popular zeitgeist rather than the immersive qualities of the works. Visitors want to visit the rooms to photograph themselves in the space.

However, Kusuma’s recent spike in popularity has spawned many immersive museum experiences. The Museum of Ice Cream, the Museum of Selfies, and the Color Factory are examples of immersive spaces. Rather than looking at collections, visitors play in installations. The most successful built immersive experience is not a museum at all, but the artist-made space, MeowWolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists Golda Blaise and Vince Kadlubek, in collaboration with a larger team, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an interactive artwork. Speaking in Detroit, Kadlubek noted that immersive experiences allow people the agency to drive their engagement. In the MeowWolf experience, visitors are awarded for their curiosity with sensory excess and pleasure. Immersion is a positive feedback loop that drives the enjoyment.

Low-tech immersion has a long history in museums. Specimens and artworks from the world over flooded into Western collections displayed to quell the voracious European intellectual interests. Beginning in 1812, John Soane, an early prophet of museums, filled his London home with his collection of 45,000 objects.  Visitors today, like those of Soane’s time, can be awed, inspired, and even overwhelmed by Soane’s collecting prowess. Public museums in the 19th century continued Soane’s practice of displaying objects in dense groupings. Salon hanging, or hanging works in multiple stacked tiers, was common practice for most major art collections well into the 20th century. The sheer volume of art in one space inspired delight and wonder in visitors. Everyone could find something that appealed.

The physical space of the early museums were also immersive environments. Most early museums included fine details throughout from detailed floors, vaulted ceilings, and adorned exterior architecture. This attention to detail was meant to elicit specific feelings in visitors. Consider the fine exterior courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its extraordinary mosaic tile scenes depicting artisans in action. Visitors, then and now, feel the transformative effect of spending a few minutes cosseted from the hubbub of London street, seated on the cool grass, surrounded by the awe-inspiring built environment.

Museum practices have moved away from chock-a-block installations and baroque spaces in the two hundred years since Soane’s time. American museums particularly have moved towards thinned out galleries surrounded by empty wall space. Museum professionals often suggest sparse installations allow visitors the chance to examine collections closely.

Immersion in Society

As museum practice has become more rarified, everyday life has become more immersive. Most visitors walking into museums have experienced some form of brand immersion. Most stores have a music playlist carefully chosen to project their company culture. Walking through the aisles, the shopper is unconsciously being immersed into the feel of their brand.

Explicitly immersive experiences are big business, as well. Disney makes billions annually on visitors hoping to escape into a different reality. Disney draws on decades of immersive education to deliver seamless experiences to visitors by blending built space with technology. Most visitors notice the attention to detail in the built space that makes fictional spaces manifest. However, Disney also exemplifies the hallmark of immersive experiences. Heightened experiences require playing with multiple senses. Disney subtly controls every sense in their spaces, including smell. With the mechanics hidden, the Disney visitor can be transformed into worlds that never existed.

Successful experiences do not need built space to be immersed. Video games are a $108.9 billion industry partly thanks to their highly immersive nature. Setting aside virtual reality and augmented reality for the moment, most video games have all the hallmarks of immersive experiences. Games are designed to make players feel as if they have entered the world of the game. The effect is so compelling that players often lose all sense of time as they become subsumed by the experience. People playing games feel empathy for their digital simulacrum in the game. The immersive nature of video games, like in Disney, is a carefully manufactured effect. Designers craft compelling storylines and build out complex digital spaces complete auditory effects and sounds. Players respond by feeling completely transported to the game world.

The appetite for immersive leisure has fueled intense interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a technology tool, usually accessed through a visor-headset, let’s users explore a world in 360-degrees. Augmented reality adds a virtual layer to reality, say through using a mobile app that combines input from a camera with digital content.  Virtual reality uses technology to take people to new places, while augmented reality brings new places into people’s current reality.

These technologies remain in their pioneer phase. Consumer behaviors will help the scale of success and diffusion of VR and AR. Pokemon Go is oft noted as being the first successful AR game. In the game, players capture figures who seemingly appear in their actual surroundings, as pictured in the app. The player’s wonderment and delight are predicated on the juxtapositions between their world and another reality. The New York Times, under Maureen Towey, has been producing virtual reality videos that use cell phones and Google Cardboard. Towey noted at the Detroit convening that this medium allows people to explore in 360 degrees just as they view their real world. The NYTimesVR endeavor is seen as an extension of their existing work. These short videos are framed to tell immersive stories. Through experiencing video of the Land of Salt and Fire, for example, consumers delve into a story about Ethiopia’s Afar people.

Consumer behavior outside the museum sphere affects their desires for institutions. The trend for immersive exhibitions, therefore, is as much a product of the appetite for immersive games as an interest in being able to take trendy social media photographs. Therefore, museums would be remiss to ignore immersion as a form of visitor engagement. Immersive engagement is within the museum’s historical underpinnings.

Museums and the Future of Immersion

A few museums have had real success using technology to enhance reality. The Canadian Human Rights Museum had a well-reviewed virtual reality experience helping patrons understand the lives of Guatemalan women. The Knight Foundation-funded Detroit Institute of Art’s Lumin experience uses AR to deliver interpretation about the collection. While there are differences between these experiences, an important similarity connects them—they are visually-driven technology-mediated interpretive tools. Technology allows museums to break away from textual interpretation. Engaging patrons using other senses and forms of meaning-making is an important step in diversifying audiences.

These early museum AR/VR projects, though, only hint at the future of museum immersion. For the possibilities to come to fruition, however, the field needs to transform many of its processes. Immersion requires placing visitor experience above content goals. For museums, moving towards a human-centered design can be challenging. Museums are more comfortable at broadcasting information based on their internal, curatorial goals. This status quo is antithetical to the ideal processes needed to create compelling, immersive experiences. However, if museums are willing to move towards visitor-centered experience design, their audience and reach will expand greatly. The trade-off is the long run is a worthy one. Immersive experiences offer museums a future where huge audiences are a reality.

Content Touchpoints

Often museums preference onsite visitors to offsite ones. But, both types of visitors engage with ideas; and both groups overlap. The numbers can be astonishing.  Art Institute of Chicago has about 1.5 million onsite visitors and 706000 on social media. LACMA 1.2 Million onsite and 2 million on social media platforms. Museum technology, particularly social media, might reach those who otherwise would never even thinking about your museum. Sometimes social media might draw visitors to the site, but that isn’t the point of social.  Thinking holistically about content, and consider BOTH onsite and offsite visitors allows interpretation to implement better differentiation by format for the audience.

For more about digital interpretation, read When Content is Global: Digital Interpretation

Onboarding and Interpretation


Museum interpretation professionals are creating content for people who generally know less than them. Getting the right amount of content requires understanding the visitor. Tools like content mapping can help organizations get their content right. But, all museum professionals need to remember that their visitors have different baseline knowledge levels. Onboarding is a classic corporate word that encapsulates the idea that people might need a bit of aid to get connected to an organization. I always picture a ramp when I think of the idea of onboarding. Some ramps are short, when there is little small between two elevations. Others are long. The ramp is a good metaphor for the onboarding needs of visitors. People who know a great deal about the collection area will need little onboarding. (But, these people are also the ones who are the power users of your content.)  Casual visitors are often also people with greater onboarding needs; they have less pre-knowledge. Keeping the issues of onboarding in mind as you develop content will help you create content that meets the various needs of your visitor-base. Remembering that everyone comes in with different needs and pre-knowledge, also helps center the visitor in the customer experience.

Emotions and Customer Experience

Customer/ Visitor Experience basically encompasses connection your visitor has with your organization from the signs on the street to the moments in the galleries. CX overarches both onsite and offsite; physical and digital. Experience is, therefore, a huge concept. As with all large concepts, considering constituent aspects.

Touchpoints:

The concrete elements that express the experience to customers/ visitors are a good place to start. These elements are where the ideas of the experience come to fruition, where theory becomes action. Here are some examples:

  • Discovery:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online
  • Research:
    • Social Media
    • Online
    • Front of Line Staff
  • Initiation:
    • Parking
    • Entrance
    • Front of Line Staff
    • Point of Sale
  • Consumption:
    • Galleries
    • Labels
    • Educators
    • Interactives
  • Review:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online

Reactions:

The touchpoints should spark reactions in visitors. These reactions aren’t just procedural. For example, a common museum touchpoint is a map that should help people get to places, at a bare minimum. But, the map should also communicate welcome and ease. People should feel comfortable.

Museums often focus on the procedural element to the touchpoints and therefore miss the mark with reactions. An effort needs to be placed on understanding that touchpoints evoke attitudinal (not just behavioral) reactions. Without careful consideration, those touchpoints will strike the wrong chord.

Actions:

Thinking big picture is a good improve the alignment of the touchpoints and the reactions. Start with the action you hope to evoke. So, for the map, for example, you are communicating welcome. You want people to feel ready and able. Certainly, you want them to get to each of the galleries. They won’t even want to get to your collection if they feel overwhelmed or turned off from the map.

Museums and the Web 18 Review OR Reality can be hard even when its not Virtual

Museums and the Web 18

Museums and the Web 2018 was hosted in lovely Vancouver. As always, friends from around the world descended upon the town for ideas and enjoyment. While the MuseWeb organization does a great job of publishing articles that expand on the presentations, here are the highlights and themes from this year’s conference:

 

VR/AR/R: All types of reality were discussed and debated. Virtual reality was featured in the keynote, from LucasFilms VR lab no less. The back channel, a bit of unicorn at conferences these days, got fired up, with good reason. Virtual reality, in practice, currently feels more virtual than real. And, we as a field have real problems. We need to slay our dragons before marching out onto a virtual quest.  In addition, VR is about being in a new reality. For museums, this is a big challenge. We want people to explore our reality, not escape our reality. In that way, AR seems supremely promising. Augmented reality is like seeing your own world through a surprising lens. Interpretation at museums is basically augmented reality, without the tech. So, this tech feels like a natural option. That said, a few pioneers have marched into VR, eyes open. From what they say about the frontier; it is challenging but compelling if you work really hard to do the VR right and have money from the private sector. Oh, that is, if you aren’t under 13, because insurance, et al, are not into VR for the teeny, tiny visitors.

 

More Money/ More Problems: “Big museums get to do big projects” used to be the story of the field. Now, with a proliferation of technology options, technology is being used across the sector. Investment dollars don’t have a direct relationship with success. Leaders who lay off their ego and instead focus on their visitors will succeed.

 

The Thing Doesn’t Matter; The Thing Really Matters: A few years ago, the theme of tech conferences could be: its all about tech/ its not about tech. There was a real tension between the need to focus on content and the need to focus on tech.  Truthfully, they both matter. One is about how the road is built; the other is about where the road goes. For the road to be useful, both its physical manifestation and its functional raison d’etre have to be considered together. This tension from conferences past seems to have been transmuted slightly. Rather than should we tech or should we not, now the field has moved into a bit more nuanced questions: how should we do this? Should it be tech?

 

The Workplace can be an Albatross or our Lifejacket: We are at the end of the college years in the field of museum technology. In our infancy, we could do one-off projects because everything young ones do is great. In our teen years, we showed responsibility by attempting to implement enterprise solutions. In the last few years, like college students, we did group projects better than ever by playing nice(r) with other departments and other institutions. Now, as if with new found maturity, we are aching to make our lessons mean more for the field and more our visitors. But, how? We are struggling with making the workplace equitable and reasonable. We are trying to get others to understand that tech is for everyone; and that everyone needs to know tech. We are communicating better ways for work to happen. We are hoping that our leaders grab those life-jackets; many in our field feel like they are drowning.

 

Be Analytical but not an A**hole: We are all trying to understand everything better. Data feels like the place to get answers. Numbers seem like they don’t lie. (Be warned. The people crunching the numbers might inadvertently make them do so.)  We want the best museum: well-run and well-attended. But, this ideal has a Shangri-la-like quality; a foggy possible existence that is remote and unreachable. We use data to help us track a path to this ideal. We are getting closer and closer, but it is still not quite in reach.

 

Collaboration & Coalitions: Working together is the hardest and easiest part of work.  That is, in theory, it makes perfect sense to work together towards a common goal–easy peasy lemon squeezy.  However,  nothing that involves people is easy. We, as a species, are erratic and confusing.  Therefore, collaboration can be the hardest part of the workplace. Politics and bad behavior can cost an organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Killing it at collaboration means everyone on the team succeeding.  Collaboration gets easier with practice, though.  Thoughtful action can result in being better collaborators, which will eventually lead to an easier/ better workplace situation. Inter-organization collaboration expands reach exponentially (with the commensurate expansion of challenges.)

 

Conclusion: These year’s MW had a sort of sedate quality, as if many in the field are in their crystallises getting ready to burst out in full flutter. So many conversations were about doing better at our work. Refinement and improvement seems like key issues in the field.

 

5 Ways that UX Designers Practice can Improve Museum Work

 

User Experience Design is the set of practices employed to create products that center the user. These designers focus on people to make products better. Their working practices also center people to foster collaboration and support. So, what can  museum workers learn from UX Designers:

 

Problem: You are working on a big project together but you don’t know what each person is doing.

Make it Visual

Put up a physical board that shows where each team comes in. Have teams tick off progress so that everyone can see quickly.

 

Stand-Ups/ Check-in time

Set up a time that you can check in for 15 minutes with everyone that recurs.  This could be weekly or daily depending on the timeline. Every team reports where they are on the project. Then, you deal with pressing issues teams have in order to go forward.

Don’t let this meeting go over. Be brutal when the meeting gets off track.

You can do this live, if the group size makes this feasible. If not, try meeting on slack. Avoid doing this on email, as it will just cause chaos.

 

Problem: You are never in the same place or in the same meetings.

Make time for in-person interactions

Buy some cake and invite the team. Set up some time to meet together for lunch. Foster strong bonds across silos.

 

Add some Slack

Online tools like slack can be an ideal way to create a conversational tone amongst peers from different teams.

 

Make files accessible

Create a shared drive, with naming and filing conventions, so that everyone is looking at the same thing.

 

Problem: Everyone has their own process.

Create a common language

Processes can differ if you are communicating together. Find ways to find commonality, like by creating shared experiences (see above). You might need to create a shared term’s document so that you are all speaking the same language. This final detail is particularly important in places that use a number of acronyms or in projects that work across a divergent field.

 

Problem: There are misconceptions in other departments about your project.

Align with your message

Make sure everyone on the project has the same message. Allow everyone to share the message, or find a message that everyone can share.

 

Invest time into educating people about your project.

Nominate people throughout hierarchy and across the project departments to serve as ambassadors.

Share

Be transparent about your work to those outside your project teams, including setbacks. This will build trust and goodwill.

 

This post was inspired by the great post by  Code Monkey Tech.

Its Not the Destination OR Journey Mapping for Museums

 

Touchpoints

Visitor experience is everyone’s job, not just those people who have “visitor” or “experience” in their title. Picture your visitor. What is the first thing that comes to mind? What are they doing? Buying a ticket? Standing in your gallery? Reading your labels. These are the types of touchpoints that are the focus of many museum professionals. However, you are missing important elements of your visitor’s experience. Much of the make and break comes at the moments in between.

Step back for a moment, think about going to the grocery store. You bought vegetables, milk, and bread. You also bought six things that were not on your list. Is that what you remembered? Or did you also remember the old lady who cut you off on the way to the corn? And, the sample guy trying to convince you that “pea-based false meat” is pretty good. Then there was your third-grade teacher standing in the lunch meat aisle. Many of your memories are about the moments in between destinations. As the adage extolls, it’s the journey not the destination.

Pathway Planning

Focusing on the journey requires changing focus from end-point planning, where you focus your energy on the galleries, turning instead to pathways. This shift requires focusing on the visitor’s needs and actions. In doing this, the energy shifts focus from the institution, often placing its decision-making heft in gallery-based decisions, to the visitor, whose experience is often born of the spaces in between the parking lot to the gallery. Mapping out people’s paths is called Journey Mapping, in User Experience Design talk. But, basically, you visualize what people do and why they do it.

Why use Journey Mapping?

As another old adage goes, don’t judge until you walk a mile in his shoes.  The saying, trite as it is, points to the role of understanding in creating a Journey Map. In other words, an ideal pathway planning process requires purpose and empathy to be foregrounded. Instead of just the nodes, or the point of getting somewhere, you spend your energy on every moment in between.  When you do that you learn new insights into your visitors’ decision-making processes. You also learn when serendipity and/ poor planning cause reactions. In other words, you get insight into why people react to your spaces.  In this way, journey mapping helps break through status quo planning, i.e. doing something as its always been done.

How do you Journey Map?

  1. Just as with fiction, journey maps should draw on what you know. So, start by observing patrons. But, then use that as the base to creating your map.
  2. A journey map is not a generic map. The journey map starts with a person. Specificity is essential. This is not like google maps. Instead, it’s more than the map your best friend gives you with asides about great signs and tips about places you will get lost. When doing journey maps, take a point of view. Keep that person in mind as you work.
  3. Next go for story. Imagine this person coming to your organization. Why are they there? What do they want out of it? That will be the motivation. Write out a two-sentence story of their motivations and goals, like the plot of their visit.
  4. The map is sort of the arc of your story, with all the tangents and eddies that your character might need to be authentic. Make sure to think out the path and the stops. Be specific about the character’s motivation and well as their process.
  5. You might imagine that you start by drawing. But, the best journey maps are visualizations of an experience that you have thoroughly planned. They are not random. So, waiting to draw allows you to be purposeful.

Even if you choose to hire someone to do your journey maps, understanding the process is incredibly useful. It helps you understand why maps are useful. They help you understand your visitor’s holistically. Often museum staff prioritize decisions without having a thorough understanding of their visitor. Tools like journey maps help you center your visitor in your process in ways that draw on process and empathy.