Intention, reflection, and onboarding & offboarding

Happy Leap Day!

I’ve had a bunch of conversations lately that are all converging around the intersection of reflection and learning.

  • I had a meeting with the folks from Art Processors, and I’ve been reflecting on my visit to MONA, their mobile guide the O and what worked about it.
  • At work, I had a couple of conversations about the utility of asking visitors questions at the end of exhibitions and whether they work or not, and why we bother.
  • I had coffee with the friend of a friend (Hi, Cy!) who designs VR games, and we compared notes on our favorite experiences and what we liked about them, which segued into larp, immersive theatre and the importance of onboarding and offboarding.
  • Finally, I have been rereading Randi Korn’s “Intentional Practice for Museums” as research for my book. Also, we’re in the midst of a strategic planning process at the museum and I’m rusty. Randi’s book is great btw, and worth your while if you’re interested in being more intentional in your work.

In her book, Randi references Donald Schön’s work on reflective practice and the connection between reflection and learning that happens during a museum visit.

“Reflection is the active process of deliberately stepping back to look closely at an experience, a thought, or a thing with the intent of exploring it in great depth–much like what museum staff hope visitors do with objects.”

Schön’s work has been a real influence on me, but I’ve always thought of it solely in relation to what I do as a practitioner, not what visitors do as a matter of course. That little epiphany made all the other disparate conversations in that list above suddenly connect in interesting ways and demonstrated how Schön’s work (and his inspiration, Dewey’s) can be so powerful.

In thinking back on my experience with the O, it occurred to me that the voting mechanism–one that prompts you to “love” or “hate” any artwork you look up–is actually a mechanic for encouraging what Schön calls “reflecting-in-action”. Throughout my visit, whenever the app asked me to vote, which I did, grudgingly at first, I was having an internal dialogue. “How am I going to answer this screen prompt? How do I feel right now looking at this object? Do I ‘love’ it or ‘hate’ it?” The answer was rarely cut and dry. Where does “It’s ok, but doesn’t move me” fit? But I did it, and did it repeatedly, effectively reinforcing the behavior over the course of the visit. Even when I didn’t vote, I still thought about how an object made me feel. The O made me aware of my inner state in a way I rarely am during a museum visit.

When we put up a visitor response station in a temporary exhibition, the quality and quantity of responses can vary wildly. For an upcoming show, the team was debating whether or not to include an opportunity for visitors to respond to a question. I’m a fan of asking questions in general. That act of deciding how to answer is often the first act of meaning making that visitors engage in; that point when experience starts to become memory. This act is what Schön calls “reflecting-on-action”. It’s the retrospective contemplation of what you did and thought. When done well, it can result in some spectacular displays of meaning making, and more importantly, visitors interacting with each other’s comments.

This reminded me of my conversation about VR. When asked for an example of a “good” VR experience, I brought up Carne y Arena. And the reason I like it so much actually has to do with more than the VR. The experience begins and ends with physical experiences (an introductory space and a final gallery space), as well as an elaborate VR experience in the middle. What I like about Carne y Arena is that the bookending helps visitors both prepare for and reflect on the VR before they leave.

Having a chance to talk about what just happened is an important part that often gets left out, in both VR and other museum experiences. The immersive theatre show Sleep No More does this as well with their bar. It is where you queue for the performance as well as where you can hang out afterwards and compare notes about what happened, since two people might have wildly different experiences and visit completely different parts of the performance. Contrast this with typical museum practice which usually ends with you walking through a door into another gallery or a hallway, or, God forbid, a gift shop.

Photo by David Yu on

What good examples of museum onboarding and/or offboarding have you experienced?