From Location To Place – workshop review notes

I ran the first “From Location To Place” workshop on Friday at the National Gallery in London. There were 5 participants (sadly a couple had to drop out due to illness and to work). We spend just over an hour talking, walking, observing, sensing, sketching, mapping and writing about a journey thru the museum we took 4 times.

The workshop came out of my concern that we stare too tightly at the user journey, with its touchpoints and individual interactions, and ignore the broader social and communal aspects of the places we all move thru.

We map and measure in ways that embed a sense of lonely consumerism in our products and services as we deliberately avoid looking up and around at the rituals and communities that always exist around us.

4 walks, 4 maps

The workshop had a simple structure: 4 walks to create 4 maps but starting with an intent.

Intent matters: people go places to do things. How they go and what they do in the the end changes but there’s an intent at the start.

For this workshop, the intent was to go and see 3 pictures in the National Gallery in London. I chose the museum because it’s January and so it’s a warm and dry place to walk and it is full of people.

Walk 1

Walk 1 was the most standard exercise – guide another person along the route to the pictures.

This is a very typical form of wayfinding and user journey mapping exercise.

It’s about clarity and velocity of information. The map is to provide a structure within which the journey can be shown. It’s about turns and doors and rooms. It’s not about people. It’s getting a person to move thru a location.

Walk 2

Walk 2 was the first shift from that individual idea of a user journey. It was about mapping the sensory experience of moving thru the galleries.

This is something I do a lot in my museum accessibility work.

One of the most important skills in this kind of research is Stopping.

Stopping to sense the place. Paying attention to the sound, smell, light and more of a room.

It’s a liminal space as the sensory is constructed from your perception of the room and that involves your senses, your memories, your imagination and your emotions as they shift attention and cognition. All of that is within the swirl of people who help create the sounds, smells and sights that you perceive. You are sensing not merely the room as architecture but as a social space.

The galleries during the workshop changed as the light moved to evening artificial light and as the crowd density changed and shifted.

Stopping and sensing is a good simple practice to start looking up and looking around.

Walk 3

Walk 3 was about mapping people in the galleries. Where people were, how they grouped and how they shifted and moved.

This was observation and mapping of the galleries as human-filled spaces not just built architecture.

The maps are about the clumping of people around pictures and around each other. About people moving quickly and slowly thru rooms. About sitting and standing, being alone, in a couple and in a group.

Galleries become softer, lumpier communal spaces as the hard architecture of stone and wood recedes. However the way in which the National Gallery has blocked off flow does become apparent.

The gallery space with the Van Gogh is now a dead end and people each into like flotsam. The crowds thrown against the walls of impressionist and post-impressionist art.

Walk 4

Walk 4 was to map the what people were doing. Museums are not just about going to see art (this is why the intent defined at the start was a white lie). People use museums for many purposes and they use the architecture and art to achieve those multiple intents.

Having walked thru the museum on several occasions and shifted attention beyond the user journey, it becomes easier to observe and look for meaning in how people use the differing locations as human places.

The Main Hall was like a Waiting Room: quiet and stiffly formal. Some people coming in and reading the museum boards: learning and shifting their behaviour to match that around them. This is part of the ritual of museums as a communal place. Some people waiting: maybe to start their visit, maybe to end it but sitting stiffly and flicking thru apps on their mobiles.

One gallery (with works by Turner and Stubbs) is a social place like a living room. The huge leather sofas enable a mixture of relaxation (the slumped bodies of tourists after a long day in London) and activity (families talking and fixing issues as well as couples planning what to do next). This is a room full of changing intents and future activities. There are people moving along the walls looking at art but the seats are where the human place is.

Finally the impressionist and post-impressionist room: this probably is the closest to a gallery room there was. The crowds pushed and clumped around the walls. The larger lumps around works like Ban Gogh’s Sunflowers. A bright space, a crowded space that only the typical rituals of museum visiting could work in. The crowd moving along the wall, the shifts to gain a view, the presumption that crowding is a measure of importance of a specific work.

Walk 4 was about place, about community and about rituals. People acting together. The rooms as locations were all full of art and had roughly similar architecture yet they were different places as people used them for differing purposes.

The End

The workshop ended with the sharing of ideas and maps.

Some maps were beautifully detailed (the handheld cards were deliberately small to enforce concentration) and some weren’t maps at all. Some were closer to poetry: the evocation of place thru single words and share phrases. If I run the workshop again I need to more strongly support that aspect.

Further reading

There was a Reading List for the workshop:

  • Practical Ethnography by Sam Ladner
  • Spatializing Culture by Setha Low
  • Ritual and its consequences by Adam Seligman

I’d recommend you read the first for definite. The second helps show alternative ways of perceiving and researching places from differing academic viewpoints. The third is a remarkable discussion of the need to return to a sense of being human that is not just about being an individual who has solitary interactions but to being a human who moves thru many communities with many shared rituals (both formal and play) that connect us together.

We are more than users and our humanity is shared through our communities. The workshop was to help practice seeing more than the ourselves. We create technologies and services that enforce loneliness and loss of community because everything is framed by the individual. We need to break that pattern. This workshop was one attempt to do that.

Come along to the next workshop

I am planning to run another workshop on Friday 1st March. Tickets are on Eventbrite now. Tickets are priced for donations so pay what you like. I just need to cover some printing costs.

I’ll also be bringing along some larger sized postcards for people to try out.

These are some sample images.