On immersion & interactivity via #MW2019

This is a lightly edited version of text that was originally written as part of Issue #17 of the Fresh & New newsletter, which I describe as my ‘thinking in progress about technology, design, heritage, music and sound — and where they all intersect. Precursors to fully formed ideas and projects. A notebook in progress. An experiment in fast writing’. You can sign up to receive future newsletters in your inbox over at buttondown.email/sebchan. They don’t (usually) appear on the open web. This is an exception.

At the Museums and the Web conference this year I got the sense that some of us in the museum world have lost a common understanding of the reasons we do the work we do, or its value in the world. This is happening at a broad ‘can museums make a difference’ level, as well as at a microlevel in the exhibition and museum technology inner sanctum. Part of this feels like it is the fallout from a decade of austerity, Brexit in the UK, and the broader turn to the Right combined with the ways in which many of the younger folks in the field have internalised this sense of crisis.

Sitting in my room in Boston the night before my presentation, I added a couple of slides to my presentation to call out some of the fundamentals around the purpose and value of immersion and interactivity in museums to speak to those in the exhibition and museum technology world who are in crisis. I wanted to specifically address why does ‘immersive’ (still) matter, why does ‘interactivity’ (still) matter, and, why there is value and opportunity in a ‘post-visit’ or a ‘visit extension’.

Despite the efforts to create a ‘museum without walls’, a phrase that dates back to Andre Malraux (1947), and the (still largely unrealised) potential of a distributed, internationalist museum ‘collection of collections’ promised by the web (digital colonialism aside), museum redevelopments and the building of new museum buildings — museums with walls — continue apace.

If all these new buildings are being made and museums are looking to deliver renewed missions and purpose beyond their (new) walls, then it requires museum workers to be clear about the purpose of our public facing physical spaces, as distinct from our offsite and online activities.

Previously I’ve spoken about the realisation, part way through the Cooper Hewitt project, of ‘the museum building itself becoming a physical and social interface for both a material and a digital/digitized collection’. This purpose feels like it needs restating even more clearly these days.

With museum-like commercial experiences popping up all over global media hub-cities (the purpose of a pop up is to be shared widely — the so-called ‘Instagram factories’ that I wrote about in #2 On Selfies), and as artists and their estates find the means (and the tax incentives) to establish their ‘own’ memory archives and museums, the ‘future of museums’ isn’t as obvious as it used to feel. You might even decide that this is about asserting or finding relevance.

Museums need to be clear as to how their buildings are both architecturally and experientially distinct in a city. I’ve borrowed an idea from game studies (and historian Johan Huzinga originally in 1938) of the ‘magic circle’, and that visitors should feel that inside the museum that they have superpowers.

Sometimes those superpowers might feel like literal magic as in ‘see/feel the past’ through various (new) media technologies. But other times those superpowers might simply be being able to have a ‘contextual understanding’ of works and objects, or just a comfort in being challenged by new ideas.

Visitor superpowers do not need to be granted by technology, but sometimes technology can make them more accessible, persistent, or unique.

From a museum’s perspective it is about a building a confidence that it is possible to be both approachable/accessible, and also offer a distinct/different delineated experience. (That confidence has been historically undermined by accusations of ‘Disneyfication’ when museums or exhibits are determined to be ‘too accessible’ or ‘too fun’ by cultural conservatives).

If we accept that the museum can form a ‘magic circle’ of sorts, then interactivity is almost presumed. Rather than interactivity being seen as an ‘add-on’ to a museum exhibition, probably commissioned and built as an entirely seperate design/production process, what if it was built-in and designed from the start?

Foregrounding the purpose of interactivity — that it enables more effective understanding and learning through engaging the visitors in active doing, and that it allows for the museum to be a site of inter-generational social learning — is critical. NZ exhibition designer David Hebblethwaite’s term ‘visitor chemistry’ is a lovely way of describing the optimum outcome of an in-gallery museum experience and Colleen Dillenschneider’s visitor research in the US (2015) continues to demostrate that one of the primary drivers of museum visitation is ‘spending time with friends and family’, not so much the specifics of objects or artworks.

A lot of the work I’ve been a part of in the last decade has focussed on finding ways to better enable museums to provide scaffolding for a change of mind, change of perspective, or a deeper understanding amongst visitors. Whilst inside a museum it is possible to spark a curiosity for new ideas, new experiences, the ability for a museum’s publications and website has always offered the ability to extend that further. And with the majority of visitors memorialising their visit with photographs taken and share on smartphones, the idea that the museum itself should attempt to build new and better scaffolding for recall and persistence seems like the right thing to be doing. A meaningful ‘post-visit’ or ‘visit extension’ as I’m starting to call it these days is all about that.

As museums become more and more visited and are turned into tourist attractions — a trend that leads back to the 1980s — then this extension of impact feels even more important.

If museums are to be spaces for imagining alternative realities and alternative futures, then a post-visit experience is about extending the tendrils of that imagining out into the space and time after the museum visit is over.

This was originally written as part of Issue #17 of the Fresh & New newsletter, sent on 21 April 2019. You can sign up to receive future newsletters in your inbox over at buttondown.email/sebchan.

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Seb Chan

I’m currently the Director & CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).