Are museums “lean forward” or “lean back” experiences?

“Lean forward” and “lean back” are terms that emerged in digital media to describe different engagement styles with screen-based experiences.

Lean back behaviour is envisaged as a passive, kick-back-with-a-beer-in-front-of-the-TV type of behaviour, whereas lean forward implies more hands-on engagement such as with gaming or surfing the web. Therefore, it has often been assumed that lean forward experiences require a higher level of engagement than lean back ones. But as this post argues, that doesn’t necessarily follow. Indeed, lean forward experiences are often hyperactive: full of distractions, shortcuts and multitasking. In contrast, lean back experiences can be conducive to engagement with more long-form media such as a book or a movie. Our level of intellectual absorption doesn’t always correspond with our level of activity.

I’m wondering what this means for museums, which under different circumstances may offer both lean forward and lean back experiences. Do certain types of visitors expect one type, and then disappointed if they find the other? Is this part of the reason why James Durston complains about Why He Hates Museums, meanwhile Judith Dobrzynski laments when High Culture Goes Hands On? (To bring in of the most talked-about museum articles in the mainstream press this past month or so. . . )

I first got on this train of thought while thinking about the word “entertainment” in the context of museums. We’ve well and truly moved on from the days when it was assumed education and entertainment were polar opposites. Even so, entertainment may not be the best word to use – “enjoyment” is spontaneously mentioned far more frequently by visitors than entertainment is [1]. I started off thinking that entertainment conjured up an image of a more passive kind of engagement – entertainment as something that is done to you.  On the other hand, enjoyment implies something that was more active and participatory- you enjoy doing something. I thought this might relate to lean forward versus lean back experiences, but now I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.

What do you think?


[1] As reported by Tiina Roppola in Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, 2012 (Routledge)

Beyond the comfort zone

I’ve recently returned from a month-long sojourn in the US. In contrast to my frenetically paced, museum-focused study tour of 2012, this trip was primarily a holiday. Nonetheless, while in New York I eventually decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the immersive theatre production Sleep No More. If nothing else, I itched to find out for myself what my venerable colleagues Suse Cairns, Ed Rodley and Seb Chan had been talking about all this time.

Sleep No More in Brief

The links above provide more detail that I won’t duplicate here, but to give a quick rundown: Sleep No More (SNM) is an immersive performance staged over five storeys of a converted warehouse in Chelsea. Upon arrival you navigate a dark, labyrinthine corridor to emerge at the Manderley Bar, which has a 1930s, film noir kind of feel (as does the production as a whole). In small groups you are escorted into an elevator, briefed, given a mask (only the performers are unmasked) and instructed to remain silent throughout the performance. Then, over the next three hours or so, it’s up to you to create your own experience: wander the spaces, explore the sets, follow different characters as they move through the different spaces and interact with one another. There is no dialogue, just a music soundtrack, movement, gesture and dance.

The Reluctant Visitor

I confess I needed some convincing to go see SNM (Seb finally talked me around when we caught up over lunch in NYC). Based on what I’d read, I suspected it wouldn’t particularly be my thing. Firstly, there would be lots of things happening at once and I’d need to make snap decisions about what to see and where to go, constantly facing the possibility I’d missed all the important bits (I hate that). Secondly, the performance is loosely based on Macbeth, a play I’ve never read and only have the vaguest idea of its plot (that’s the price of being in the science stream at high school). Finally, when it comes to theatre I feel like a bit of a dimwit at the best of times – I’m tone-deaf to its nuances and unless something’s really spelled out, I can miss the point spectacularly. So, chances were I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on at SNM. However, Seb finally appealed to the exhibition designer in me, saying that if nothing else I should have a look at the layout of the spaces and the detail of the set design.

The Misfit Visitor

As it became time to head out from my hotel, I began to worry that I would be a bit of a square peg at this kind of gig. SNM being a piece of non-mainstream theatre in a city like New York, I pictured the crowd as being uber-hip arts afficionados. With my look being distinctively more housewife than hipster (especially given I’d packed for comfort, not trendsetting), I feared I’d stick out like a sore thumb – an unsophisticated out-of-towner who’d showed up to the wrong show by accident. Now this discomfort wasn’t enough to put me off from going – after all, I was there to research and observe, not fit in and make friends – but still I’m grateful for the reassurances I received over Twitter on my way there (thanks Mia, Seb and Suse!).

I emphasise this point because I think it’s instructive to go places where we think we won’t fit in from time to time. If we’ve been going to cultural venues for most of our lives, it’s easy to forget that visiting such places is not a natural and obvious thing for everyone. Particularly considering demographic groups who don’t tend to visit museums, I wonder how many of them are put off going because they’re worried that they’ll inadvertently do something inappropriate, or that staff and fellow visitors will somehow look down their noses at them? It’s useful to walk a mile in those shoes every so often.

My Experience

Similarly to my experience at MONA earlier this year, I made a conscious decision to be a “passenger” rather than a “driver”. I would go with the flow, explore and not worry too much about trying to “get” everything that was going on. This turned out to be a good approach as I would not really be able to tell you anything meaningful regarding what SNM was “about”, and I’m not really sure I’d do any better even if I had tried to follow and decode it more closely. I recognised up front that trying to make sense of all aspects of the experience was an exercise in futility. This strategy helped me avoid the frustration I’d normally experience when something happens that I don’t understand.

When it came to following the action I had an added practical problem – my size. I’m only 155cm (5’1″) tall. Most of the action was taking place within relatively confined spaces, in which I had to compete with lots of other audience members to get a glimpse of what was going on. Sometimes it was just too hard for me to get a clear line of sight to the performers, especially at times when they suddenly darted off to another part of the building (and I didn’t feel sure-footed enough in the dimly lit environment to join the scrum running after them). This frenetic pace got a bit much for me and most of the time I preferred to simply potter around the incredibly detailed sets: flicking through books, opening drawers, touching costumes, reading letters, and in some cases feeling through the darkness to see if a hidden area would reveal itself. These spaces appealed to literally all the senses: a range of different smells; the subversive feel of taking sweets from the sweet shop; the shock of unexpectedly brushing up against wet laundry hanging out.

On Seb’s recommendation I visited SNM alone, so the solo nature of the experience did not bother me. In fact I liked being able to follow my nose and spend as much or as little time as I wanted to at various things. However, despite ushers encouraging solo exploration during the briefing, I noticed a large number of couples and groups attempting to stay together during the performance  (I didn’t see ushers actively separating couples like Ed did so maybe they don’t enforce the solitary-ness as much as they used to).

Closing Thoughts

Overall I’m glad I went, and it’s the sort of thing you could go to again: no two visits would be the same, and you may also get more out of it if you’ve been before and already have a  sense of the layout of the space and how the whole thing works. Based on the way some of my fellow audience members appeared to anticipate certain events, I think there were quite a few repeat visitors.

However, even though SNM  was interesting to explore and my attention was engaged throughout, it still niggles me somewhat to experience something for three hours and at the end of it gain no sense of understanding regarding what it was all about. I think I’m one of those people who gains pleasure from having a glimmer of recognition and being able to work something out. Without this sense of closure, there is a slight feeling of being left hanging.