Sunday, April 10, 2011

Can Exhibits Really Change Lives?

Given that even the most avid museum-goers spend the vast majority of their lives outside of our exhibit galleries, perhaps a more nuanced question might be: "After visiting an exhibition, can visitors become motivated to make specific choices or take concrete actions that will improve their lives?"

Many exhibitions, especially those involving topics related to Energy, Environment, or Health, in addition to wanting to impart content-rich material, often have an underlying desire to get visitors to take action after leaving the museum.  But, can exhibit messages, delivered in the context of a busy museum visit, ever really "stick" enough so that visitors begin to modify their behavior in the days, weeks, and months following their exposure to such messages?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately since I'm involved in exhibits projects that specifically want people to take concrete actions relating to their own sustainable practices (in one case) and fitness-related choices (in the other case.)

In our project team discussions, we keep returning to several factors:

          • Keep the messages positive.   It's one thing to tell exhibit users that even small steps can lead to increased fitness.  It's another thing to slap them in the face with the message "You're Obese!"  (even though they might be ... ) without providing some way of mitigating that message.

Many "Rain Forest Exhibits" are notoriously bad at this.  There is often an LED counter that shows how many acres of rain forest have been destroyed while you've been inside the exhibition.  Really what can you do with that sort of message? (Except feel depressed ...)

         • Offer options.  There be many legitimate reasons why a person may need to drive to work, instead of biking or using mass transit. But if all of your exhibit messages boil down to CARS = EVIL you probably haven't won many hearts and minds, and you may just have turned the drivers in your audience away from many other positive actionable messages in your exhibition.

        • Make Follow-ups Memorable (and Specific.)  Telling visitors to eat according to the Food Pyramid is not very memorable --- it's a boring message they've heard before.  But letting them try to create a "Rainbow Plate" composed of differently-colored healthy food choices will, hopefully, leave a longer-lasting impression tied to a specific positive action that will follow them home.

It's devilishly hard to determine the correlation (or causation!) of visitors' actions based on a single short visit to an exhibition, but is it unrealistic for museums to try to change behaviors (and ultimately lives) through the exhibition medium?

I'd love to have you leave your opinion in the "Comments Section" below, along with any examples of exhibitions that seemed to be effective at helping to change visitor behavior outside the museum.

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