Discovering Our Museum Philosophy With Our Visitors

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Discovering Our Museum Philosophy With Our Visitors

*Note: This essay has been submitted to MuseumHack’s contest for thought leadership: https://museumhack.com/writing-contest/

I work at a Science, Art & Technology museum in Salt Lake City that markets itself mostly to parents and children. Every time the exhibits team convenes to design a new experience for our visitors we inevitably revisit these questions: How much guidance do we provide them? What content do we pre-select and what do we wish our visitors bring to the exhibit?

We debate, productively. One of our major institutional goals is to design exhibits that invite and even depend on public participation. So we are careful to design components that guide their participation but also engage our visitors meaningfully, creatively, so that they walk away feeling as though they contributed to the exhibit. Too much structure can squelch this feeling. Whereas not enough structure will leave them at a loss for what to do.

We choose the topic of physics and mode of interaction. Our visitors do the rest.

In some sense, this is an essential tension to creating a participatory exhibit. But it still seems unsatisfying that our design practice ultimately entails throwing up a curtain between us and the visitors we mean to include. It is, after all, kind of odd to privately plan about how to involve the public. In my years at The Leonardo, though, I’ve noticed that our museum has begun to approach this problem in an intriguing way.

In some sense, the exhibits staff is echoing Duncan Cameron’s famous essay “The Museum, a Temple or The Forum.” Cameron’s “Temple” was the traditional model of a museum that collected and elevated particular objects and sets of ideas. It did much thinking for its visitors, and it risked alienating the public. The “Forum” is a public space predicated on participation, where all ideas are heard and all sensibilities honored, regardless of class, status, or perceived merit. It did little to no thinking for the public, and it risked frivolity and incoherence (peruse an Internet forum if you’d like some evidence of this.) As Cameron put it, “The forums are where the battles are fought, the temple is where the victors rest.”

Cameron insisted that the choice between these models was binary. It’s a rule: no battling in the temple! Yet decades after Cameron wrote this essay, museums in the United States are still trying to marry the two models. Traditional collection-based museums struggle to remain relevant to the popular culture, while exploratory learning centers strive to be more than what Cameron called “three-dimensional textbooks” that supplement school curricula.

The Leonardo opened its doors in 2011 hoping to articulate a new vision that treats this dilemma as honestly as possible. The museum, named for the early-Renaissance figure Leonardo da Vinci, celebrates Leonardo’s way of looking at the world, rather than his biography, preserved writings and sketches. Ideally, to walk the floors and interact with our exhibits is to explore the mind of Leonardo, and in some sense to have a conversation not with the exhibit designers but with Leonardo himself.

Thus another frequent topic of discussion among the staff is whether our exhibit ideas agree with Leonardo’s way of thinking. Ultimately, this is a matter of our reasonable interpretation. There’s no escaping the fact that museum staff, by designing exhibits, initiates a conversation with the community. We play a role, no doubt, but we should not presume to have convinced our visitors that everything in our museum best conveys why Leonardo’s creative spirit is relevant and necessary to the world in which they live.

In mediating our designs and ideas through a worldview that we articulate on the floor of the museum, we are in effect compromising with our visitors. The thinking that created the exhibits they explore is presented to them for their inspection, rather than hidden away in an office or drafting room. The Leonardo seeks to become a collaboration with the community. In some sense, the very idea of the museum cannot be realized without the participation of the public.

A benefit of this approach is it that it makes it hard to be irrelevant to the broader community, especially because that community can contribute in more significant ways than merely providing feedback or buying admission tickets. Necessarily, the more the public is included, the lower chance of alienating them. Our most successful exhibits were directly influenced by our local community and sought their active contributions. Salt Lake City and its environs have a major problem in homelessness (there has been some progress but the suffering is still rampant) so we created an exhibit on the topic, called No Fixed Address, that asked the community to contribute photography and written stories. The response was large and gratifying. Salt Lake and Utah generally have a rich story in the greater history of American flight, and so our first marquee exhibit FLIGHT, invited visitors to explore that topic. One of the reasons we chose to build this permissive, highly-interactive exhibit, is that we knew that it was a subject many Utahns are personally connected to.

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What we could call a “flaw” of our museum philosophy is that the exhibit components that most require public input often take on a life the developers could have never predicted. We once designed a peg board that prompted visitors to think about what human rights they had access to in their community. If you had access to a particular human right, you stuck a peg in the board. The big idea (simple as it seemed) was to gradually create a picture of which human rights the community felt secure in and which it was concerned about.

But we underestimated how enticing thousands of vibrantly colored pegs were to the more visually-inclined among our visitors; I imagine it had the appeal of a NightBright, that addictive childhood toy. While some visitors participated the way we had intended, others were more impressionistic — indeed many of the pictures people created with the pegs were relevant to the subject of the exhibit they’d just visited. I initially believed this a failure, but have come to realize that if our mission is to be truly collaborative, we not only have to accept this, but encourage it.

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We execute our vision imperfectly; I doubt anyone here would contest that. What makes it so difficult? I imagine it’s a cliché for an employee of a young museum to gripe about lack of resources. But it’s true. Plus, establishing an institutional presence on the local and national scale takes a long time and much patience. Yet perhaps the greatest challenge is imagining what success for a museum like ours even looks like, because the museum staff represent only half of the puzzle. The rest is up to our visitors, who are understandably not used to being told their interests and ideas are just as, if not more important than the content in the museum. The Leonardo aspires to be an institution where its visitor’s ingenuity, creativity and curiosity are the primary cause for celebration. But still, how surprising it must be to watch the wizard step out from behind the curtain and ask you — yes, you — what should be added next to the emporium.