Museum Visitor Experiences Part 4: Broadening

This is Part 4 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1. Go to Part 2. Go to Part 3.

Broadening: visitors making sense of the museum experience

Broadening is the term Roppola uses to describe “[h]ow visitors find themselves in relationship with the interpretive content of museums” (Roppola, 2012, p.216) as they negotiate “the poetics and politics of display” (ibid. p. 217, original emphasis). Examples of broadening that take place in museums include:

  • Experiential broadening: seeing or doing something you would not normally have the chance to
  • Conceptual broadening: improving understanding of a theoretical principle
  • Affective broadening: exploration on an emotional level
  • Discursive broadening: considering an issue from another point of view

Roppola’s study encompassed a wide range of exhibit types – classical dioramas, multimedia exhibits, artefact-based displays and so on – covering topics across the sciences and the humanities. I’ll summarise some examples very briefly.

Broadening in the sciences:

  • Physical to Theoretical, Theoretical to Physical: the links people made between conceptual scientific knowledge and the physical experience of using hands-on interactive exhibits.
  • Standing in testimony to life: the ability for natural history and nature-based exhibits to increase an appreciation of the value and beauty of the natural world.
  • Science as storied: exhibits provoking visitors to think about the processes of science, science as having agency and acting in a broader social and political context.

Broadening in the humanities:

  • The guts story of people: engaging with powerful human stories on a visceral and emotional level
  • Who is telling whose story, and how? The representation of different cultural groups in the museum context prompts visitors to critically evaluate the way different cultures are presented and from whose perspective.
  • Speaking silences out loud: exhibits providing an opportunity for visitors to talk about things which usually remain unspoken – for instance death or a family member’s experience of war

Conclusion: Bringing it all Together

Framing, Resonating, Channelling and Broadening are not a sequence of processes that visitors undergo – all four can be seen taking place simultaneously over the course of a museum visit. What I find appealing about this study is that the theoretical constructs have emerged from the words of actual visitors in an exhibition context – it is a ‘home grown’ museological theory. Interestingly as well, three of the four concepts, Framing, Resonating and Channelling, are all relatively “content neutral” in that they describe the relationship between visitors and exhibits in a way that transcends the specific interpretive messages that exhibits are meant to convey. This is a novel insight, particularly since most museum visitor research historically has taken as its starting point what visitors “learn” from a given exhibition (however learning is defined).  It’s also encouraging as it mirrors the content-neutral approach my own research has attempted to take:  trying to understand the gamut of visitor experiences that include but are not limited to the specifics of exhibit content.

Summarising the complexities and nuances of a whole book in a mere 4 blog posts is an impossible task – I’ve necessarily been superficial in my treatment. However, I hope I’ve adequately conveyed the main ideas (and encouraged you to read further).

Museum Visitor Experiences Part 3: Channelling

This is Part 3 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1. Go to Part 2.

Channelling: the museum visit through space and time

Museum exhibitions can be considered as four-dimensional media – we physically move through them in both space and time. Roppola describes how visitors navigate this trajectory in terms of “channelling”. More than simply wayfinding, channeling describes how “visitors [find] their way through museums conceptually, attentionally, perceptually as well as physically” (Roppola 2012, p. 174). She defines three different types of channels – spatial channels, narrative channels, and multimodal/multimedial channels.

Spatial channels

The most literal interpretation of the channelling concept, spatial channels pertain to the way that visitors ‘read’ museum environments and act accordingly. Some spaces encourage visitors to linger, others chivvy them along. Seating allows time to rest, recharge and ponder. Where seating is provided, it sends visitors a message that lingering is encouraged. Visitors are more likely to sit and watch a video to the end if there’s a place to sit. Conversely, thin galleries may be perceived as corridors and moved through quickly. Doorways and escalators can have a magnetic effect, pulling visitors towards them. But for other visitors, such thresholds may act as a barrier and they hover at the edges rather than enter. In the same way, small enclosed spaces are inviting to some, offputting to others. (In my own research, I’ve noticed how doorways or even just a slight narrowing of gallery can act as a sort of “reset” function– visitors can be seen to act as if they are in a new environment once they’ve crossed that threshold.)  

Visitors also vary in the extent to which they want spatial channels to guide them along a certain path – something which emerged in my visitor interviews and which I’ve commented on previously.  

Narrative Channels

While spatial channels address the physical movement through an exhibition, narrative channels pertain to the conceptual journey of the visitor. Again, this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, with respect to my own approach to museum visits. An absence of narrative is often confusing and disconcerting for visitors, but then again not always: it depends on your expectations – do you want to take control or are you happy to go along for the ride? (This brings us back to the concept of Framing which was discussed in Part 1 of this series.)

Without a discernible narrative, an exhibition can be seen as “all mixed up”, “all over the place”, “cluttered”, or having “no real point” (visitors quoted in Roppola, 2012, pp. 204-205). Many visitors described the importance of some kind of theme as a way of organising an exhibition (which will be music to the ears of many interpreters!)

Multimodal/Multimedial Channels

Multimodality is a semiotic concept that encompasses all ways a culture might express meaning. Text, speech, images, gestures and sounds are all examples of semiotic modes. Even fonts and colours can be considered modes in some contexts. Multimodality is thus the integration of multiple modes in the creation of meaning – in a conversation, for instance, meaning is conveyed not just in the words spoken but through tone of voice, gestures and proximity of the speakers. Furthermore, individual modes can be manifested through different media – the mode of text can be communicated through a wide range of media such as a magazine, a scroll of parchment, or an exhibit label.

Multimodal and multimedial channelling thus describes how visitors interact with the different modes and media embodied in museum exhibits. Roppola  describes the following:

  • Restorative channelling: a diversity of media helps “break up” content, enhancing interest and reducing fatigue associated with reading “panels and panels and panels of text” (visitor quoted in Roppola, 2012, p.190).
  • Selective channelling: a way of directing visitor attention. Less is more with selective channeling –  a minimalist approach helps to provide a clear focal point to a display. Text hierarchies are also a form of selective channeling by suggesting an order in which to engage with the content.
  • Fragmented channelling: caused by too much complexity without sufficient coherence to enable visitors to make sense of it (touching on Kaplan’s theories I’ve described previously – complexity is only pleasant if it’s legible enough for us to make sense of). Fragmented channels can also result from having too large a physical distance between related items (e.g. a label too far away from the object it describes), or having adjacent exhibits competing with each other for visitor attention.
  • Synchronous channelling: a harmonious relationship between the multimedial elements of an exhibit. The different parts of the exhibit enhance and complement each other rather than competing for attention. Unlike in fragmented challenging, the complexity of multiple modes and media is complemented by coherence.

One good example of channelling I’ve seen is the “Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary” exhibit (see here). This combined synchronous channelling (the pairing of text, audio and images) and spatial channelling (the sequential positioning of the images along a corridor) help to create a coherent experience through space and time.

Next week – Broadening.

Museum Visitor Experiences Part 2: Resonating

This is Part 2 of a four-part series of posts based on the book “Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience” by Tiina Roppola. Go to Part 1.

Resonating: features that attract and repel visitors

In interviews, visitors often described feeling “drawn to” particular exhibition environments and displays. Roppola uses the concept of resonance to characterise this interaction between visitors and features of the exhibition environment. In physics, ‘resonance’ is used to describe the amplification effect observed when two bodies vibrate at the same wavelength. Similarly, visitors and exhibits can be considered as being in a resonant relationship when they are ‘in tune’ with one another.

Certain environmental features, such as “size, beauty, colour, light, a quality of realism, sensory change/movement and opportunity for action” (Roppola, 2012, p. 126) tend to attract visitors and draw them in. Spatial characteristics can also be resonant – environments that feel pleasant to be in owing to characteristics such as light, spaciousness or aesthetic appeal.

Perceptual resonance

Resonance can be achieved by the way that sensory cues of exhibits interact with our perceptual systems. Sensory cues can be seen as “bottom up” data, which we interpret using “top down” mental constructs – an example is how we readily interpret two dots and a curved line as a smiley face (see below). This process of “filling in” the gap between bottom up sensory data and top down constructs can happen within one sense or between multiple senses (eg. visual cues working with auditory information to create an integrated whole).

Perceptual resonance in the visual sense. This image comprises just three lines but we use this bottom-up visual cue along with our top-down concept of a human face to “fill in” the gaps and perceive this as a picture of a smiley face.

Exhibits can take advantage of this intrasensory augmentation to create an enhanced sense of realism – for instance simulator exhibits combine immersive visual stimuli with a relatively modest amount of movement to create a feeling of flying or being in motion. In immersive exhibits or recreated environments, sound effects and smell can be used to enhance realism by hinting at the presence of things unseen – such as bread baking in an oven or the faint cry of a child in the distance. However, simply combining sounds, sights, smells and textures does not automatically create a coherent perceptual whole; the sensory information needs to be congruent with the top-level mental constructs through which visitors interpret them.



Coalescent resonance and how visitors define “interactivity”

Coalescent resonance occurs when two separate entities come together to form a complementary whole. In an exhibit context, this can mean feeling “part of” the exhibition environment: “visitors can physically, personally and socially interact with, or feel part of, exhibition environments” (Roppola p. 151, original emphasis). Physical coalescence can be literal, such as being able to directly touch or get up close to exhibits; it can also be conceptual as visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in a given setting or scenario.

Interestingly, Roppola describes several instances where visitors use the term “interactive” in a sense that is very different from the way exhibit designers and other museum professionals use it – namely, that an “interactive” exhibit is one that visitors physically touch or manipulate in some way. This prerequisite seemed less important to visitors, who also used the word “interactive” to pertain to exhibits that allowed physical proximity or social interaction, but not necessarily hands-on contact. A museum professional may call this latter type of exhibit “immersive” rather than “interactive” [1]. This different understanding of the term “interactive” shows the value of qualitative research in validating the terminology we use – when people say they want more “interactive” experiences, do they mean what we’ve assumed they mean?

Impeding Resonance

Just as environmental stimuli can enhance a resonant relationship between visitors and exhibits, they can also impede it. Things that can impede or block resonant experiences:

  • “You can only take so much in” – a museum visit can saturate your sensory and cognitive capacities. Visitors deploy strategies to allocate their time and mental budgets according to their interests. A sense of “too much to take in” can be overwhelming and prevent visitors from engaging with an exhibition.
  • “It’s all jumbled”- the sense of there being too much to take in can be exacerbated by the lack of a clear order or logic with which to make sense of an exhibit. The ‘signal’ of an interpretive message is lost in the ‘noise’ of an overly cluttered display – different features compete and cancel each other out.
  • “The people I’m with won’t let me” – visitors might spend less time on an exhibit than they would like if they feel they’re being hurried along by their companions. Queues and crowding can impede resonance by getting in the way or making an environment less pleasant by their presence.

Next week – Channelling

[1] In my own research, I found that “immersive” was not a word that resonated particularly with visitors when asked to describe exhibit environments. I used the word in my pilot questionnaire and several visitors said they didn’t know what the word meant (and the pilot results suggested these people were just the tip of the iceberg). Given the amount of museological discourse there currently is around “immersive experiences”, this is a point worth noting – we’re potentially talking about visitor experiences in terms visitors would not recognise.