Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fast Museums or Slow Museums?

Do museums really want people to slow down enough to carefully observe and consider the wonders within?  Or are museums really designed (physically and financially) to keep people moving --- to increase "throughput" --- contemplation be damned?

I was thinking about this the other day inside an art museum that seemed to have an especially conspicuous lack of seating (like benches) available in the galleries. It made me wonder if the gallery designers and curators really care about the people viewing the art inside, trudging along on the hard floors, eyes glazing over as they move from one uniformly white-walled gallery to another.  Standing and concentrating for long periods of time is hard work!

But leaving aside obvious amenities like seating, what other messages do museums send that either invite folks to linger and contemplate as a valued guest, or to hurry them along as just another paying customer?  Timed tickets? Security guards? Audio tours? No stroller policies? No picture taking?

There may be lots of "practical" reasons for "moving people along" through the galleries, but museum visitors may perceive such practicalities differently than museum administrators.  And, if you rush them through your museum, they might not be in a big hurry to come back.

What do you think?  Are "slow museums" an unrealistic Victorian notion, or a better idea than the "Throughput Uber Alles" of "fast museums"?  Share your views in the "Comments Section" below.

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  1. What contributes to hurrying visitors? Lack of Daylighting! Lack of Biophillic approaches! Think how much more comfortable visitors would be with some access to daylight - however filtered, refractored or managed. And think how natural elements calm people and facilitate learning and pleasure - from a natural rock wall, to running water, to imagery of nature.

  2. @Sarah Good points!

    The use of natural lighting and natural materials makes good sustainability practice, too.

  3. Benches are welcome relief for the slow art museum attendee. They are also essential perches for sketching. (A tradition in art museums.)

    I wonder if benches are so limited in most art museums because the art was hung at eye level and the curators didn't want people to view the art from another angle.

  4. One of the longest dwell-time exhibits I've ever witnessed was the Seattle's Experience Music Project. Not the whole place- just the floor where visitors got a chance to learn to play a lick on a keyboard, a riff on a guitar, a walking progression on a stand-up bass and different rhythms on a drum kit. Excellent, brief instructions, examples & guided practice! People often stayed 15 minutes or more at each station! I was lucky that it was not crowded on the day we visited. Is it possible to be too successful in designing a compelling experience? What if people won't leave, or are reluctant to let someone else have a turn?

  5. Interesting post! I'm a graduate student in Nonprofit Management and this immediately made me think of the very popular topic of mission drift. Particularly, it made me think of the ongoing tension between fulfilling a mission and taking up profit-motivated actions.

    I want to think that there's an excuse here: the benches were being cleaned or redesigned, they were cleared for an event, etc. It seems that a museum with an aim to educate and inspire would maximize the *opportunity* to educate and inspire. Inspiration has a certain connection to reflection... which is probably most comfortably done by some while sitting down. Thus, having no benches *on purpose* feels like incredible mission-drift.

    A lot of museums already have a hard time shedding negative associations or public perceptions. The last thing they need (especially art museums) is to grow associated with physical discomfort. I just think the negatives of removing benches and 'resting spaces' outweighs any positives and that flow/ exhibit use should be incorporated into exhibit design.

  6. I've been planning and designing exhibit environments for corporations and museums for over 30 years. Providing seating for visitors is a must when one is encouraging visitors to spend half-hour or more time within an exhibit space. Providing seating also allows children, handicapped and the elderly to visit and enjoy the exhibit. One of those elderly visitor just might consider donating funds at a later date to that kind institution that repeatedly made visits so enjoyable and comfortable. Equally important, it's a requirement for ADA compliance(American's with Disabilities Act) that must be met by many public institutions. Allow those who want or need to sit have a seat. It's common courtesy.

  7. My current science centre (one of the UK millennium projects) was originally designed with "throughput" as the key measure, with the result that the exhibits were all short, single-hit experiences. For a regional science centre with mostly repeat visitors this was a disaster. We've replaced this over the last 5 years with exhibits designed with "dwell-time" in mind instead. Even at our busiest, we never have so many visitors we need to ask people to leave so it's much beter to encourage them to hang around, try out everything and enjoy the experience of being here as much as any individual display. In a busy national museum, a theme park or an Expo pavillion I can forgive "throughput", but the rest of us probably don't need to worry about it.

  8. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    @Andy: I'm wondering if you could expand on how you switched to "dwell-time" exhibits. Did you switch out exhibits or modify existing components?

    In either case, what were the types of exhibit qualities that seemed to promote dwell time?

  9. In the nearly 3 decades I've worked doing museum exhibitions, I've never heard seating described as a negative when it comes to throughput. I'd like to hear if others have had that experience. What I've seen more often are museum planners who simply haven't considered how important seating is and so are more or less oblivious to it as a need, and planners who put seating at a low priority, treating it as more superfluous when balancing what to trim when over budget, or trying to find space for another exhibit component or artifact. Overall, this disposition reveals a blindspot and correlates to an institutional culture that has yet to put the visitor first. On the other hand, museums with a strong visitor-centered ethos, that undertake visitor research, that design to a wide spectrum of physical abilities and learning styles, generally do a better job of providing ample seating as well.

  10. @Dan

    You wouldn't think this would be the case, but some of the worst offenders for lack of seating include children's museums!

    I have heard from staff at several museums like this that they thought adults would be more likely to play with the kids if there was LESS seating. (In my experience, what really happens is any horizontal piece of exhibitry gets turned into a seat!)

  11. Hi,

    I believe this tension is only going to get more acute as museums are increasingly expected to pay their own way. If revenues are going to be increased, there are two main ways this can happen: either extract more income from your existing visitor base, or increase your visitor base.

    Now for most centres (as Andy mentions above - Hi Andy!), an increase in visitor numbers can be happily absorbed without having a negative impact on visitor experience through crowding, etc. Although if visitor numbers are expected to ever rise, sooner or later this will become a problem.

    And, rightly, we are reluctant to jack up prices - we tend to know what the spending capacity of our visitor base is; plus most of us have accessibility as part of our mission - high prices work against this. But, at the same time, a museum that closes because it hasn't the funds to keep its doors open is accessible to no-one.

    But maybe there is a middle way - I've seen some museums charging premium rates for more exclusive services, the profits from which help to subsidise works that could never ordinarily pay for themselves.

    Following up from Sarah Brophy's comment above - I've been doing some reading into the literature of how design influences the visitor experience (the subject of the PhD I've just commenced). And I've been surprised at the dearth of literature of the effect of lighting on dwell time, 'museum fatigue' and so forth. Maybe it's something I'll look into in my research . . .