On getting lost

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

Art Gallery of New South Wales by Flickr user State Records NSW

I’ve been silent of late.  A bad flu and general busy-ness have conspired to keep me away from the blog. Which is a shame, because I seemed to have touched a nerve when I wrote about my experience at Sleep No More in December. On immersion, theatre, and museums engendered a fair bit of comment and as I dug around, I found a lot of people starting to ask similar questions. I had hoped to host a Google Hangout of a bunch of museum folks who’d seen Sleep No More and then write about the conversation as the setup for this piece. The damned flu got in the way, though, so this’ll have to precede any more digging around inside the Sleep No More experience.

I haven’t reached any clarity yet, but it seemed worth surfacing the kinds of questions that others have been raising.  I’m not sure yet how to reconcile my desire to leave visitors room for exploration, wonder, and surprise with the competing drive to tell a compelling story. One leads towards free exploration, the other towards a defined sequence of events in a plot. Here are some of the competing inspirations banging around in my head at the moment.

Getting lost versus getting herded

As a developer, I spend a lot of time trying ensure that the content we are trying to present to visitors actually gets to them. In the non-linear, chaotic flow of interactive science museum exhibitions, this can be no mean feat.  You spend a lot of time on message hierarchies and trying to make sure the Big Idea gets reiterated as many times and in as many ways as possible. And I’ve been wondering whether by pursuing complete non-linearity have we given up other ways of telling our stories that might actually be more engaging, less repetitive, and more emotional?

So, along comes Nina Simon’s post on “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments” which details her own journey from rigid, “forced march” style exhibitions, to self-directed non-linear ones, and now to wondering if linearity might not be as much of a restriction as she (and I) think it. The line that stopped me was, “Maybe we fight our own purposes when we deliberately eschew the powerful dramatic tools available in the linear storytelling format.”

It’s a nice short post. You should read it. She spends some time looking at examples in both physical and digital experiences where linear storytelling is used to great advantage. Everybody’s been raving about the New York Times’ piece, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek and it lives up to all the praise. It’s a beautifully rendered story that unfolds as you scroll.  In the end, in good mentor fashion, she asks the community whether linear is better than non-linear, and whether they have any data to support their claim.

Space syntax and museums

Luckily for us, Regan Forrest has shared some of her PhD research. Her response to Nina, Free Choice and the “Forced March”, provides some data on visitor perceptions of navigating around gallery spaces and suggests that space syntax studies might have some light to shed on the issue.  Her alternatives to the forced march include “layouts that incorporate a common ‘home base’ – for instance a central spine off which galleries radiate (like a lot of ‘traditional’ museums) or a hub-and-spoke or cloverleaf arrangement where all galleries open off a central hub or atrium.” Nice stuff, particularly her reference to Hillier and Tzortzi’s work in space syntax studies. Their article she references is well worth the read. Go ask your librarian to get you a copy.

One idea that I found very useful was there are two key themes embedded in the spatial layout of the modern museum: organized walking and the congregation of visitors. By organizing the space into a sequence of visitable galleries, visitors can build a knowledge map as they navigate the space.  The creation of gathering spaces, what the author calls the integration core – the lobbies, atria, and other big central spaces where visitors can gather – serve to anchor visitors’ mental map of the museum.  Hillier and Tzortzi also provide a number of museum-wide studies of visitors making their way through space and propose two main models for ordering space; “the deterministic model, according to which movement is forced as circulation choices are restricted; and the probabilistic model, according to which movement is allowed to be more random…” Sound familiar?

Interestingly, many of the examples are not at the exhibition scale, but rather the whole building scale, so it’s a little hard to see how much it’ll prove relevant to the questions that interest Nina and me. But it’s grist for the mill, so to speak. Luckily, there are studies that focus on visitor navigation through exhibitions at a smaller scale.

Linearity and visibility

Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven
Louvre gallery by Flickr user 01steven

Dirk vom Lehn is sociologist at King’s College London at the Work, Interaction and Technology Research Centre (Hi, Dirk!) who has done really interesting research concerned with social interaction in museums, from how people in a group influence each other’s decisions about where to go in a gallery, to studying the dance that visitors in front of a painting do as they try to both share that space and leave space for each other. Good stuff! You should follow him. Dirk weighs in to the linearity debate and provides a bunch of references that address Nina’s question about what the evidence says. His post, Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits comes out pretty strongly in favor of linearity over random-access, with some important distinctions.

He makes the point that visibility is as important as linearity.  He says, “It is worthwhile stressing here that visitors are able to organise their visit in this way not only because the exhibits are organised in a linear way but because of the visibility of what (kind of) exhibit the next one is. Furthermore, visitors can see whether that possible next exhibit is occupied by other visitors.” He lists three points at the end that are worth repeating.

  • * The linearity of the organisation of exhibits in the gallery coupled with a visibility of information about next exhibits can support visitors in aligning their organisation of the navigation of a gallery with that of other people.

  • * It is not only the visibility of next exhibits that people use to navigate museums but also they use the visibility of exhibits coupled with the visibility of other people’s actions at these exhibits to fashion their own action at the current exhibit.

  • * A practical viewpoint of research in museums highlights how the organisation of exhibits can help people with little or no preconception of the detailed layout of the exhibition to (practically) organise their museum visit.

Oh boy… So what does this mean? I’ve always resented being stuck in linear exhibitions. How to integrate this with my desire to be more immersive , more magical and to do more showing and less telling? One thing that seems clear (at least right now) is that this idea of being able to orient in a space and know where to go next is important. When I think back to my least favorite linear exhibitions, the thing I really resented was not the linearity as much as the inability to know how far into my “forced march” I was. Were there two rooms left or seven? Was I almost done or did I need to husband my strength for more marching. Maybe my idea of “linear” needs some adjusting…

The other interesting thing to me is that all the preceding studies look at the physical process of getting through museum spaces and basically ignore what visitors are thinking and learning.  The content equivalent of this spatial navigating is narrative. What is the role of the story, and how can it lead visitors through space and interactions?

Connecting with the story

Steve Almond wrote an intriguing opinion piece in the New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’ where he posits that in our shift from an oral to a visual culture, we have lost an essential wayfinding aid – a narrator who guides us through their storyworld. “In evolving from readers to viewers, we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us.” The piece is a bit overly-dramatic in its dire warnings of the existential threats we face as a result of this shift, and the increasing ease with which we can distract ourselves. However, his lament that “we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes.” rings true on some level for me, particularly in regards to my experience of Sleep No More. I felt both intense sensation *and* complete emotional detachment. I had little moments of discovery while feeling completely adrift when it came to the larger story unfolding around me.

Jonathan Gottschall, author of the Storytelling Animal, has an interesting essay in Fast Company called, Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon. He specifically addresses how businesses can use story to sell products, but the museum implications are also pretty clear.  Humans use narrative to make sense of the world and one of our challenges, particularly in communicating science is that people aren’t moved by data. As Eric Siegel said at MCN 2012, we live our lives anecdotally, not statistically, so translating data into narratives is an essential requirement for reaching visitors. The evidence for our impact on the natural world is vast, but it seems to take a focused narrative like the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71, which retraces the life of a single bear in the Canadian wilderness using data from its tracking collar and remote wildlife cameras to provide us with a story with which we can emotionally link.

Gottschall runs down some of the recent scientific literature and concludes that,  “fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” The money quote for me is this,

“[T]here is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

So, this is a challenge, because I want visitors to be critical and skeptical *and* emotionally invested.

The exhibition as a campfire?

Campfire by Flickr user Jelles
Campfire by Flickr user Jelles

Paul Rissen, a BBC User Experience Architect has the first part of a series of articles which ask the question whether we should be aiming to recreate the classic campfire experience. “Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience”  is a great example of how experimental even big, old institutions can be.  Rissen highlights one aspect of campfire storytelling that is ripe for more exploitation, personalization. He is particularly interested in the way digital technologies could help us return to the days when “the storyteller could adapt their work to suit the audience ‘on-the-fly’, as it were. We all know this is nothing new – live performance[s]… thrive on the interplay between audience and performer – but they all rely on spatial proximity and community. How might technology step in, when physical geography is still a barrier? Indeed, with the full gamut of software engineering skills at our disposal, what opportunities does technology afford us?”

Rissen is talking about the BBC’s particular challenge, but I think you could substitute the physical distance of his radio audience with the temporal distance of the developer or curator who has constructed a narrative before the audience has arrived in the museum or at their website or app, and ask the same questions.

So, do you see any deep order here? Let me know. I’ll try to get that Sleep No More hangout to happen again, so I can add some different viewpoints on the event to the conversation. 

Related Posts:

Nina Simon – Museum 2.0 –  “Should Museum Exhibitions Be More Linear? Exploring the Power of the Forced March in Digital and Physical Environments

The New York Times – Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

Regan Forrest  – Interactivate – Free Choice and the “Forced March”

Dirk vom Lehn – Stepwise Exploration of Museums: arguments for a linear organisation of exhibits

Seb Chan – Fresh and New(er) – On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling | Fresh & New(er)

Steve Almond – Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’

Jonathan Gottschall – Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon

Paul Rissen – Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience


  1. This one got me thinking!
    In general as a visitor, I have a strong prickling resistance to being sherpherded in a Museum (or indeed anywhere else). Give me the stuff, and I’ll hunt out what I fancy, thanks.
    I have long struggled with the tension between imposing order and allowing freedom. I can see that presenting the well-researched story suits museums whose purpose is to get across a specific idea (institutionally decided), but that’s not really what I want to get from a museum usually. OK for an exhibition, where you sign up for the trip, but not for the venue, where you come to explore and forage.
    You make a very good point that you should at least make it clear to a visitor what it is they are buying into . That is giving them teh power to choose.
    The most useful book I have read that helped me make some sense of the tensions here is John Falk’s “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience”.
    This turns it round completely and asks what it is that people need from a museum, not what should a museum should give to people – great stuff!
    Falk essentially makes the case that we come to museums to reinforce aspects of our self-identity (I am intellectual, I am a good parent, I love art, etc. I’ve seen the actual Mona Lisa!) NOT to consume the latest museum product. It also offers some way into predicting behaviours. A great book.
    With Falk’s model, the decisions one makes about providing linear versus random access can be seen as being about trying to see how your spaces, collections and missions suit generic groupings of identity-related behaviour. (that’s that sorted then!)
    Thanks Ed – a great post


  2. This post and the ideas of “getting lost” and “non-linear” movement remind me of the Web.

    On a good website, for example, people can wander where ever they’d like but they are guided by a universal navigational framework. This framework is based on the knowledge of where people want to go (common tasks users want to perform) and making it easy for them to get around.

    If a website is well-designed, you should be able to drop a person on any one (landing?) page and they should easily be able to get around to all the other pages. It seems to me that good non-linear exhibits must be designed in the same way. That is to say they are guided by a structure that is informed by the knowledge of where people would want to go. This way they give visitors the freedom to experience the exhibit in their own way without “funneling” them.

    In web design (or user experience design, if you will) it’s always best practice to test your assumptions. It would probably be a good idea to test non-linear exhibit designs to see if people go where you expect, before they are actually opened to the general public.

    Great post, Ed. Good food for thought.


  3. Andrew and Rob both make great points in their comments (as does Ed with this post). I don’t mind a linear exhibit. The reason why I come to museum exhibits is to learn and be inspired. Usually art exhibits are what inspires me to make art (i’m an artist). And the museum exhibits provide a learning space–usually be peaking my curiousity. If it’s a linear exhibit, that’s fine. Books are linear after all. A more open layout is encouraged as well.

    Andrew’s point about self-identity is interesting. I bet that is true for the great majority of visitors. To reaffirm who they are. I want to go a a show and be able to create something based on the show. But that’s me as an artist, so perhaps in that way it’s reaffirming my identity as an artist.

    Your blog post has inspired me to write about how I prefer to experience a new museum exhibition. Granted, your blog post here is more about how to experience multiple exhibitions and where you turn in the museum after a show. But I have a fun method on how to experience a single museum exhibit. Teaser: Step 1: Walk really really fast through the whole show. Step 2: Go a normal pace through the whole show. Step 3: Go back to the start and absorb your favorite pieces at length. With step 1 you avoide the dreaded march as Ed illustrates.


  4. Great post – and thanks for the link to my blog. This has prompted so many thoughts I’m not quite sure where to start . . . so apologies for what follows if it meanders somewhat:

    – Space syntax on an exhibition level: Ed you are right that most SS research has focused on the building level, although Wineman and Peponis have published some research of individual exhibitions (e.g. http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0013916509335534). Interestingly they have data from the same exhibition at more than one location, and while it’s been a while since I’ve read this, I do seem to recall that it confirms vom Lehm’s findings about the importance of cross visibility.

    – Another thing this post (and the comments) makes me think of is how fuzzy some of the language we use can be: linearity, immersion, narrative. Are we using common definitions of these concepts or are there important differences? Also, how do the way *we* understand these terms relate to the way visitors do? For instance I’m aware of research that shows visitors do not use ‘interactive’ in the same way that many museum professionals do – their definition is far broader. Also, in my own research, I’ve had to delete ‘Immersive’ as a descriptor from my own survey after piloting because a fair proportion of respondents didn’t know what the word meant.

    – One final observation, following on from Andrew’s comment, is the importance of getting a visitor perspective. A frequent frustration of mine is how much museological discourse seems to happen in a theoretical vacuum in which no visitors have been observed or talked with. It might be my scientific bias showing, but I sometimes suspect that many postmodern/critical discourses have just supplanted one kind of intellectual elitism for another (something I blogged about a year or so ago: http://reganforrest.com/2011/06/the-narrative-dilemma/ and http://reganforrest.com/2011/06/authority-and-authorship/). What might be self-evident to us as ‘experts’ may be viewed very differently indeed by visitors – or not. But unless we ask the question we won’t know.


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