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Museums as Immersive Theater: Notes from the Museums and the Web Conference 2013

  • by Maryanna Rogers on May 1, 2013
    What is the role of the museum in the context of contemporary [digital] culture?  …Where we face a constant flood of information?  …Where anyone and everyone can become a curator of knowledge? …Where digital replicas of historical objects, artworks, and interactive learning experiences are available 24/7 to those with access to the Internet?

    In mid-April, a group of international researchers, designers, developers, students, and museum and library professionals convened in Portland, Oregon to share their perspectives on the role of  "digital practice for cultural, natural, and scientific heritage" at the 17th annual Museums and the Web conference.  
    Larry Friedlander, Professor Emeritus of English at Stanford, gave the opening talk that set the stage for several themes that emerged at this year's conference.  According to Friedlander, museums, which emerged as part of the urban landscape, are now like "teenagers" in the midst of an identity crisis as we try to navigate our place in global digital culture.  Museums originally served to help the public separate value from trivia and the ephemeral from the timeless.  Are museums still "the voice of beauty and truth," or is our role transitioning?

    What might museums learn from immersive theater?
    Friedlander's talk and the closing session with Diane Borger, producer of Sleep No More, bookended the conference with comparisons of the museum to spectacle and immersive theater.  Sleep No More invites theater-goers into a building, where they put on masks and individually explore the building's floors, rooms, and objects.  Audience members self-direct their own path through the space, encountering actors along the way who weave a tapestry of dramatic elements adapted from Macbeth.  There are 17 hours of content, of which each theater-goer experiences only three during the course of a performance.

    Rather than present a linear story for visitors to view, immersive theater asks its audience to make sense of a combination of disparate experiences - to connect the dots as in an impressionist painting, as Friedlander noted.  Like discovering clues to unlock a mystery, the audience knows that there are many unknowns, and it is their job to make sense of what they encounter.  The content is not handed to them on a platter -  it truly challenges them.  

    Connections to the museum-going experience are clear:  museums provide visitors a space to navigate as part of a self-directed experience of discovery.  What can museums learn from immersive theater?  This question challenges our preconceived notions about what a museum experience should be.  

    We might ask ourselves:
    - How might the museum-going experience provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity, setting up unstructured "mission" for which there are unlimited valid interpretations?  
    - How might we reframe the ways we think about how we help visitors craft the story of their own experience (aside from the typical ways we conceive of maps, tours, and guides)?
    - What is the appropriate balance of explicit and implicit content, didactic and aesthetic experience, and passive and active engagement?

    Breaking the fourth wall
    In theater, "breaking the fourth wall" is the self-conscious act of reminding the audience that they are in the theater - that the characters are played by actors, the space is a set, and the actions were deliberate and planned.  In the museum world, several institutions are playing with the tension between presenting polished experiences and allowing visitors to peer behind the curtain.  For instance, at the Exploratorium, the museum's full machine shop, housed with lathes, drill presses, CNC machines, etc., is separated from visitors by only a waist-height wall.  At The Tech Museum of Innovation, we recently opened a new space, The Tech Studio, where we invite visitors to see into our exhibit development process.  Our digital fabrication lab is on the museum floor, where visitors can watch as our exhibit prototyper makes parts on the 3D printer.  We also hold team meetings and test our rough (mostly cardboard and paper) prototypes with visitors in this space.  

    Printing parts for prototyping on the 3D printers in The Tech Studio.

    Prototyping a new exhibit on human-centered design processes with visitors.

    "Hybrid spaces" that blur the lines between inner and outer are also appearing in other cultural institutions.  Friedlander described a project at The National Theater in London, where they had planned to open up a side of the building to expose the backstage and where passersby could peer into rehearsals.  (Unfortunately, this project was abbreviated due to funding problems in 2008.)  

    In addition to exposing the inner workings of institutions, some museums are exploring how to meld public with private spaces.  For instance, SFMOMA is conceiving of a hybrid space that invites the public to engage with artworks, and the Exploratorium's outdoor gallery provides activated promenades for anyone strolling along the Embarcadero. 

    Why walls at all?
    In a time when the Internet offers us countless opportunities to access knowledge, to view images of historic and artistic artifacts, and to engage in interactive educational experiences, perhaps the greatest value that museums offer our communities is physical space.  There are numerous compelling digital projects that invite visitors to virtually view artworks closer than one could even in the actual museum (Google Art Project), to "fly" into and around historical landmarks (e.g., Friedlander's Temple Mount Project in Jerusalem), and to browse and collect art ( from a distance; however, the social, tangible, three dimensional context that the museum provides could never be completely replicated by technological invention.   
    While cherishing the value that a physical space can bring, is it also the museum's role to reach out to broader audiences - to those without the means or ability to visit the museum in person?  Many institutions are exploring both digital and real world experiments to broaden their reach.  In San Francisco, the idea of the "pop-up," or temporary physical structures or events, has transitioned from food stands to museum experiences (e.g., at the Exploratorium and the Museum of Craft and Design).    

    Creating temporary physical spaces in the community is one approach to moving beyond the museum walls, but what about pushing museum content out into the world digitally?  Or, conversely, how might we invite virtual visitors inside the museum?  Dave Patten, of The Science Museum in London, presented an ambitious project to do just that.  Web Lab, originally conceived by Google Creative Lab and Tellart, is a series of five online and on-the-floor interactive exhibits that individuals can manipulate via a web platform or on the museum floor.  This project marks a new breed of interactions that are emerging at the intersection of physical / virtual museum experience.

    How to craft individual experience
    In the conference's opening plenary, Friedlander posited that dramaturgy is about understanding the audience's assumptions - and then subverting them - in a way that sparks curiosity and discovery.  He emphasized the need for museums to design for "what people bring to an experience."  Indeed, understanding the individual and applying human-centered design methods to museum experience was a pervasive thread throughout the conference.  It makes sense.  A large number of Museums and the Web conference-goers come from the tech industry, where agile design and user-centered methodologies are the way of the land.  Now, how might we apply this process to overall museum design?

    Testing ideas, experiences, and exhibits with rough and rapid prototyping is a good step in that direction.  I kicked off my MW2013 week with Slavko Milekic's workshop on LiveCode, a great new tool for non-programmers to prototype screen-based interactives across platforms.  [The script understands natural or "English-like" language.]  Other skills-rich sessions included a talk by Dave Eresian of Hot Studio, who shared techniques for building and testing prototypes of video-based museum experiences, drawing from a case study of his team's work at The California Academy of Sciences.  

    Other conference sessions addressed how to adopt human-centered methods across the entire design process.  On the first morning of the conference, I co-presented with Dana Mitroff Silvers and Molly Wilson on a partnership between the SFMOMA and a class at the Stanford  [Our paper is available here.]  We shared the design thinking process, as it is taught at the, and encouraged museum professionals to get to know their visitors' individual needs - rather than design for broad demographic groups.  This means adopting an orientation towards engagement and a bias towards action.  We encouraged anyone on museum design and development teams to get out on the museum floor as much as possible and spend time observing and interviewing individual visitors as they engage in the space.  This is not just the job of the evaluator; it should be an embedded practice of your design teams.  We also discussed the importance of making and testing rough prototypes as early and as often as possible.  This requires a letting go of the preciousness of the object - a mindset shift that may be challenging for some long time museum professionals.  Our talk raised as many questions as it answered about the challenges that face institutions as they attempt to shift the ways they work.  This is no trivial task.

    Immersive theater provides an interesting parallel to the idea of designing for the individual.  For instance, A Waking Dream Made Just For You, produced by Oakland-based Odyssey Works, is an extreme example of designing for one individual's needs.  Crafting the show requires months of observations, interviews, and investigations to learn about one individual's interests, desires, and motivations.  In the end, the performance is for an audience of just that one person.  This process of gaining a deep understanding of individuals is akin to the ethnographic methods adopted by human-centered designers.  [For a comprehensive list of recent experiments in immersive theater, see Ed Rodley's blog, Thinking about Museums.] 

    In terms of the staging, Sleep No More, which we discussed in detail during the final session of the conference, might more closely parallel that of the museum experience.  There are objects and spaces available for the audience to explore in a self-directed way, based on interest, curiosity, mood - or, what they are bringing to the experience.  The individual experience is crafted on the fly, as a collaboration between the individual, the actors, and the space.   I am curious to know more about the pre-production process for this show.  How does crafting such a performance differ from designing a museum experience?  How might we plan for individual pathways and multiple streams of meaning making to match individual visitors' needs?

    Growing up into global digital culture
    As one museum-goer tweeted on the first day of the conference, "I get inspiration at MW2013 but return to a museum with a propane torch for a glacier fight."  In response to our changing world, institutional change in museums is necessary - but extremely challenging.  How might we ease the growing pains and gracefully usher in this shift to adulthood?

    The Museums and the Web conference introduced an array of great questions about the role of museums in society, the role of digital content on the museum floor and beyond, and the role of curators in the museum setting.  In three days time, we could only scratch the surface of finding answers.  However, with these questions in our shared repertoire, we have another year to develop and test prototypes, initiatives, and frameworks to help advance this knowledge - and the field - before next year's Museums and the Web conference.