Interstitial Spaces in Museums

part of CODE | WORDS 2.0: A Series of Epistolary Romances

Computer History Museum Lobby CC BY 3.0 image by Ethan Kaplan


  • Bruce Wyman I think about museums, design, user experience, architecture, exhibits, tech, and other kinds of interactions. I do some consulting work along the way. Previously, I was the Director of Creative Development at Second Story Interactive Studios and before that, the Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum. I live in Portland, OR, but I’m originally an east-coaster. For now, the west coast seems to be working out.
  • Daniel MeyersDaniel Meyers, AIA is a Creative Director, Experience Designer and Architect, working at the unexplored edges of the profession. He is currently Director, Design at Skylab Architecture.

The Initial Prompt

Daniel and Bruce are both interested in physical museum spaces and how they do or don’t succeed, for whom, and how, with a particular emphasis on the interstitial spaces that are often left out of the mix when planning, or relegated to the architect to take care of. Some of the questions they’re interested in include:

  • What are good examples of museums that did a good/bad job of thinking about the visitor experience from a holistic viewpoint?
  • What new possibilities do you see for making the interstices as deliberately designed as exhibition spaces?
  • Have our uses of public spaces changed in the digital era?

Our Correspondence (as it evolves)…

Bruce to Daniel, 24 January, 2016

Daniel —

Ed & Suse suggested that we might lead a conversation around space, prompting us with the intro above…

I have to admit that I find myself in the oft-position of disagreeing with the assertions in even the first sentence but I want to come back to that in a moment. I am kind of excited to chat with you about spaces, and spaces in museum in particular. I think we both think it’s pretty damn important and that any good experience is rooted in the context of that experience especially as part of a set of initial impressions. I’ve been designing interactive stuff in galleries since the early 90s when I was at the New England Aquarium and in hindsight, I realize that I was pretty lucky to have been at the aquarium and able to be part of the exhibit design team for a number of years. Because, it turns out, we were sort of unusual in our setup and I didn’t realize it. NEAq was the first major modern aquarium built in the late 60s with an emphasis on creating a new kind of experience of aquariums. It had a large interior (for the time) and was dark and harkened to the depths of the ocean with lighting and graphics meant to feel like you were underwater. Even better, we did all of the design in-house and much of the fabrication work happened at our shops across Boston Harbor in Charlestown. And, as we did each new exhibit, I got to see and be a part of the conceptualization from start to finish and was *always* aware that these things that we build are never really in isolation — they’re part of a broader cohesive experience.

It was the start of a long path of paying attention to the little details that make a difference in how I experience something. Boston had been the home to Wetzel Associates and a number of friends had worked their as part of their career arcs when I still lived in town. A few had done work on larger scales, doing theme parks and around the same time, I realized that I had a deep admiration for the work that Disney had done. Not Disney under Eisner — and every time I considered trying to get a job at Imagineering these same friends were quick to remind me that things were *different* these days. I had fallen in love with the early work of Imagineering and the early planning of Disneyland and Disney World. The early imagineers had made *amazing* experiences and it was all this attention to detail and thinking through what the overall experience of a thing would be. And it wasn’t just superficial treatment, but every component that would touch the visitor. I read everything I could about those design sessions and development and reveled in their tweaks and tricks to add just 10% more magic to every experience.

Around the same time, I went through my Tufte phase in thinking about information and interactive design. I loved puzzling through how interfaces and information is communicated to people and when is it most effective versus the moments that we get in our own ways. I remember sections on looking at charts and graphs and the consideration of how to keep removing elements because they were noise and that you could slowly reduce things down to their minimum, but the absolute most communicative minimum. Maximum signal. And that’s a thing I’ve applied to every interface I’ve designed and often the experiences I think about. What are the critical bits that communicate the most.

And, because my mind wanders, I apply the lessons of one field to another and thinking along the same lines begins to have me think about what are the critical bits in spaces and environments that begin to communicate the most to someone. For example, I’d argue that a good interface requires a minimum of learning or instruction to be usable by someone. You want to lower that barrier to entry and let someone get into an experience rather than trying to figure out how to actually do the experience. Sort of like as a kid when your dad would want to read the instructions to that new game and you just wanted to play and figure it out. And so, the same thing applies to physical spaces. They need to communicate what an experience might be, what it could be. It sets the stage and the mood for what you’re going to do. It creates expectations.

I’m fairly certain that we have some pretty strong overlap in where we think about this stuff although I know your own genesis story is substantially different than mine (although we both have some aquatics in our backgrounds).

Going back to our prompts, I don’t think good designers ignore these interstitial spaces. In fact, I think we’re *incredibly* aware of them and even use them carefully. They’re transition points and they allow someone to leave one experience and emerge into another. It’s easy to reference Apple’s glass cube entry on 5th Ave in NYC. It’s a transition space from the din of the outside world into this pristine (and often busy) space of Apple experience beneath the ground. And, being a marine biologist at one point, I realize that these interstitial spaces are rich with opportunity. In biology, we learn that the middle of an ecosystem is often kind of boring — the open ocean, the open lands. There’s a comfortable stability there. It’s where these spaces intersect that it gets really interesting such as salt marshes where the ocean meets the land. Something magical happens in these transition points and I think good designers are immensely aware of their role in making that transition good.

What are some of your favorite transition points? What have been some of the things that inspire your own thinking about space and transition? Do you find yourself often applying the lessons of other fields to yet another field?


Daniel to Bruce, 27 January, 2016


First off, I want to thank you for firing the initial salvo in what I hope will be a long dialogue. Thinking about the spaces we humans make, in a contemporary cultural context, is perhaps my third or fourth favorite thing to do in the world! Top-ten, at least. To get to do it in this modern epistolary format with all its rich allusion, and with a person whose opinion I respect so much, is especially fun. I like the way in which the letter as a form permits us to wander and uncover connections as we go along. Meandering is my preferred modus operandi, and to be able to write this way unapologetically is a real treat!

Since you brought it up, I actually wonder how much of our shared perspective on this stuff (and we’ll see how much of that there actually is shortly) is a result of some similarities in our biographies? I’ve discovered as I get older that my thinking about places, the ones I experience and the ones I design, is pretty strongly rooted in early experience. We humans are a wildly varied bunch of primates and I’m hesitant to generalize- but this seems to be true of most people. Despite our efforts to educate ourselves, so much adult perspective and sensibility comes from the context(s) we were formed in!

As you know I grew up in a rural alpine corner of Colorado in a town that both time and the economic boom brought to that region in the late 70’s by skiing forgot. You might not know that my parents ended up in that part of the world after grad school- my father in photography from the American Bauhaus at IIT, my mother in Library Studies after a stint at the Newberry. He shot the landscape and did photo press work for a small publisher, she took over and revitalized the little Carnegie library. They divorced early on, and fell in with equally interesting characters: mountaineers, hippie nurses. This community were representatives of perhaps the last gasp of the Beat ethos. A family friend referred to the valley as the largest open air insane asylum in North America. The landscape, the way humans chose to occupy it over time, and the people themselves, were cut in such dramatic relief. That my later experiences, nautical and otherwise, have re-affirmed this experience of life as bonkers pageant seems in retrospect to be a real stroke of luck! All my work subsequently has that time and place to live up to.

In a way these experiences I had before wandering down my professional path in the late 90’s might be a good analogue for your time at the NEA- though obviously you were working explicitly in the area of museum spaces and content by then. When we’re fortunate enough to have exceptional level-setting experiences, we come to the rest of our lives with pretty high expectations.

Regarding those expectations- It’s really interesting to me, though perhaps not surprising, that you cite pre-Eisner Disney as we begin this dialogue. For all sorts of reasons much of your work, and my work to an extent, owe a debt to the paradigm Disney created. But I have to tell you, my first experiences of Disney attractions were profoundly disappointing! Perhaps it was just a failure of my imagination, but even as a youngster I found myself unable to suspend disbelief. Rather than feeling immersed in story, I was interested in understanding the mechanisms behind the silicone curtain, as a way to pass the time. All of this drove my mother insane, I’m sure. One of my trips to Disney World in the mid 80’s coincided with a space shuttle launch. We went out near Cape Canaveral to watch. now THAT was an immersive experience. Loud, raw, dangerous, hopeful, optimistic, scary, strong and smart all wrapped up in a late cold war package! It was real.

So: Museums. Interstices. Liminal spaces. Thresholds.

You can’t live your whole life turned up to 11. Remaining sufficiently sensitive to the transfer of information and emotion requires a cadence and pacing that includes ups and downs like any good story. So, good spaces provide transitions in a similar way (though I was told that letters have no such requirement?). You asked about my favorite transition spaces. There are so many great examples of architectural transition spaces, and it’s something architects talk about a lot: the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian library in Florence is an oft-cited example, of course many living architects do it well too. Even Daniel Leibskind (let’s talk about him more later), whose museum architecture is not always a personal favorite, did a pretty banging job of making threshold and drama fuse together at Denver Art. Right next door Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum handles the same task completely differently, and with at least equal success. Not every transition is the same (between what and what?), and you need the right tool for the job. All of that is founded, it seems to me, on the way we experience landscapes. Earlier humans must have though about transitions a lot- whether mountain passes separating hunting grounds or sea passages separating islands. I think all of that is baked into our experience of the universe. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Seems to me we should be talking about Suse & Ed’s third question first, because that’s where this all gets really complicated! Do you think we can arrive at a small set of working definitions for public spaces, the digital era, and use? It’s a lot to unpack, but from my perspective the foundation for any conversation about space-making, or storytelling for that matter, is an agreement on the terms of the cultural context.

My opening move is to assert that:

-human experience, understanding, and behavior are created out of a complicated interaction between our nature and our context

-context is plastic

-our nature is also plastic

-digital tools effect both nature and context in profound ways, that we don’t yet fully understand

I have more to say on this subject- which is lucky because we’re going to be talking about this for awhile- but I’m curious what you think about the above?


Bruce to Daniel, 06 February, 2016

Dearest of Daniels —

Your opening challenge inspires me to end our conversation at this point. This has been a delight, good day, sir.

Oh, but we have readers or something. Okay, we’ve established mutual love and admiration (sincerely, even!) and presented that we have some reason to talk about this stuff. So. On to discourse.

It wouldn’t surprise me to realize that we have shared experiences that help form our fundamental perspectives on things. And, yes, I think that’s probably substantially more primal in nature than we realize. When I’m traveling through spaces, I’m always sort of aware of the how the physical space around me changes my perception of the overall experience. I like curling up in little alcoves and soffeted spaces, there’s that sense of protection and coziness and how much of that harkens back to the safety of a shelter carved out of the side of a slab of bedrock either by hand or nature? How different is this <> from this <>, you know? All of that to say that I think we certainly have shared visceral reactions based on millions of years of evolution and our reptile brain providing deep and distant triggers for how we experience things although I also realize that you were talking somewhat of our formative years as kids as well.

I suspect that we all share some common baseline of perceptions and that our experiences build up on top of that to further shape things.

Heh, I have to admit that we have another shared experience around the Disney bits in which you found it hard to suspend disbelief and wanted to think about how things worked. I did both. As a very young kid, I certainly recall visiting DisneyLand as a place unlike any other (and this was in the mid-70s before there were other competing theme parks and experiences). And I think the love of those experiences quickly grew into trying to read more about how those things came about. How were they designed, and what was the thinking, and perhaps, more importantly, how did they work? And that’s the point that I really grew interested because there was so much interesting material around the overall design effort and the pieces that were brought into play for people to experience an attraction. It wasn’t just window dressing but a wonderfully iterative approach to refining an experience and just because something didn’t quite exist like that, there was the chance to invent and create something from scratch.

In later years, I had a niece that was afraid of going to the Haunted Mansion. She ended up getting paired with me because Uncle Bruce was able to sit with her and explain every bit of the ride and peel back pieces of the curtain to help her realize that it was an illusion. We joked about the assorted markers in the graveyard and how they tried to tell jokes. We discussed the stretching of the entry foyer and how that worked. The use of lighting to reveal hidden objects. How Pepper’s Ghost effects made ghosts dance around the ballroom and so forth. If this were a fantastic story, I’d then tell you she went on to a creative career of making things, but no, mostly I just kept a young girl from being too scared and being able to enjoy a bit more of the experience.

Speaking of the Haunted Mansion, one of my favorite sites about how it all works is <>.

But, even in thinking about Disney, we share a common trait — we were picking apart the things we experienced and tried to understand not only how they worked, but also our reactions to them. And I find that I do that constantly when I’m visiting museums at this point. I am *always* looking around at things and seeing what the designer’s intent (or lack of it) was. I want to be aware of how I’m being gently coerced (or manipulated if we want to be snarky) into experiencing something in a particular way. I don’t want just the content or obvious things to be what coaxes me, I want to see layers upon layers of thought that *naturally* bring me to a given conclusion. Much like our primal selves had to employ multiple senses to achieve safety and shelter, I want to be aware how my multiple senses are constantly being engaged as well.

Okay, referring back to your note, you focused on creating some working definitions around public spaces, digital era, and use. I’m a fan of common ground, but I’m always a little suspicious when the immediate focus is on definitions (it’s an old debater’s trick (and you know how much I like to debate. :) ) That being said, and realizing that we’re just friends, I don’t see anything wrong with what you’re saying. Yes, experience is complicated and related to what’s around us, yes, that’s two sided and evolving, and yes, we’re early in what digital means.

One thing that I will add, though, is that I often think that the use of digital is a red herring. That we often treat digital as a noun and I usually think of it as just another adjective. That our behaviors and traits are pretty consistent and that the digital side of things is simply an adaptation of experiences that we want to have anyway. For example, while there is a lot of focus on creating a digital communication strategy, we need to regular communications strategy first that probably mentions something about wanting to have conversations with visitors before realizing that part of that can be implemented digitally (not to pick on communications, it was just an example that came to mind). Likewise, I think that’s true with our spaces — we need a plan for what we want to do and how we want people to experience those spaces long before we add the digital layer into the mix.

I think that’s a problem that we often struggle with. There’s the thinking of what the digital thing could be or it’s relegated to a box on a diagram in a plan rather than it being part of a larger holistic discussion of what the experience is. I can’t recall the last time I saw a brief that asked a team what the digital response could be to “creating a welcoming experience that allows visitors to do x” rather than “create a kiosk to display showtimes” or along those lines.

So, let me push back on your definition and go to more fundamental pieces — what’re the points of interstices in the first place? What do you find are effective ways of creating transitions for people? Why do some physical spaces serve as better transition points than others?

  • bw.

Daniel to Bruce, 13 February, 2016

Bruce- Wow! There’s a lot to discuss there. In the interest of picking up the pace a bit, I’m going to take issue with only one of the many interesting things you’ve just said- mainly because the whole rest of the conversation hinges on it from my perspective.

Frankly, I can’t believe I’m about to take this position because I’ve been arguing the opposite most of my career- but I’m less confident now that capital “D” Digital is actually a red herring. you say that:

“…our behaviors and traits are pretty consistent and that the digital side of things is simply an adaptation of experiences that we want to have anyway.”

I’m not so sure. There seems to be mounting evidence that there’s not so nearly so much consistency in our behaviors and traits as we like to think, and that our perceptions are structurally altered by the stimuli they receive. I’m sure you read Nicholas Carr’s columns, and subsequent book about the effect of digital media consumption on the brain. It seems increasingly clear that the biological structures that support cognition are constantly rewiring themselves. So yes, Digital is a verb not a noun- but it’s far from a red herring when it comes to planning an exhibition, designing a museum (replete with meaningful liminal spaces, which we’ll have to return to at some point soon), or writing a letter.

The experiences that audiences want are a fast moving target! A spatial narrative strategy that worked to deliver story “A” to audience “B” five years ago may not do so effectively today. I don’t think we can gloss over this fact.

Whether or not giving audiences what they want is living up to the high moral standard of our cultures great institutions is a whole other question…


Bruce to Daniel, 13 February, 2016

Ah, let me clarify. Too often our industry places an overt emphasis on digital as the primary term in describing something.

For example, we often hope that as we create a Digital Strategy that it can stand alone or that Digital Communications or a newfound thing. My point being is that I think we make a mistake when it becomes an outlier or add-on to the things we do. I’d posit that we have Strategic Plan for the organization first and that there should then be digital components to that Plan. Or that as we think about communications, we realize that we want to engage with people first and that, naturally, there should be a digital component to them. We even have the notion that we’re likely to have an exhibit first rather than creating a website or app and then we’ll tack on a publication or exhibit.

And, so, yes, we’re going to agree that there are *very* unique things you do as part of a digital experience — I totally embrace that. My point is simply that digital is integral to almost everything we do and is part of an operational attitude and growth. Not an extra or add-on or something that gets done at a later date. Even more to the point, it’s not something we easily excise as that expensive thing that should be lopped off in a budget process. It’s a fundamental tool in what we do.

But, yeah, how to *effectively* implement digital technique and experience and storytelling. Hell, we’re in early days, man. We have an awful lot of experimenting to do and evolution to go through before we’re *really* good at it.

I’m going to suggest that we don’t actually disagree on this. :)


Bruce to Daniel, 20 February, 2016

Daniel-san —

I know you’ve been sick and swamped over this past week, so let me advance our discussion a bit (and to queue up even *more* bits for you to respond to…).

Returning to the original questions posed to us:

  • What are good examples of museums that did a good/bad job of thinking about the visitor experience from a holistic viewpoint?
  • What new possibilities do you see for making the interstices as deliberately designed as exhibition spaces?
  • Have our uses of public spaces changed in the digital era?”

I’m not sure that any museum, off the top of my head (well, no, even with some considered thinking), does a singularly good job of thinking about the visitor experience from a holistic viewpoint. And, that sounds more dismissive of the efforts out there than I think it should — what I’m getting at is that most of our organizations have evolved and grown over time with multiple people responsible for the different elements that touch visitors. You’ll have curators & educators creating content, programming, and experiences. You’ll have exhibit designers thinking about galleries and spaces, you’ll have visitor services mindful of the front of the house experience, and facilities thinking about a slew of other details. Heck, even marketing and communications look at another facet of it all. While many of these departments will wind up to a VP or COO, the functions are still somewhat disparate. I certainly realize that there’s a ton of discussion and cooperation, but there are also handoffs in experience from one group to the next. That’s just the way we’ve functioned.

Seb Chan (hi seb!) was recently appointed Chief Experience Office at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. I’m curious to see how their experience evolves as his work looks across this particular view of what visitor experience means. But, on the whole, I think this is a *somewhat* new approach for our field, this notion of a single person responsible for the holistic view of everything.

But, all of that being said, I think there are many many good experiences in our museums. There are fantastic exhibits, great programs, wonderful cafes, and even some pretty good lobbies. But, I don’t think it always needs to be solely with the needs of visitors in mind — I think where some of these places succeed is when they extend the character of the museum itself. If there is a coldness to this particular art museum, then feeling it all being bit distant through it and reserved (and not opining whether that’s good or bad for the moment), I think there’s some consistency of experience there and honesty. If another museum feels a bit frenzied and chaotic, then that being part of the visitor experience is also fine with me.

I do believe that there’s a sense of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in which we need to meet basic services — where do I buy tickets, where can I store things, where is the bathroom, etc — before visitors can move on to enjoy the diversity of the rest of the place. And, I think the environments that we create need to hint at these things basic needs and then the next layer of interest.

Years ago, I used to play a game with a friend when we went out to restaurants and bars. When we sat down, we’d do that initial looking around and based on the layout of the room and the architectural cues (and even how people were moving around) we’d try to determine where the bathrooms were located. We weren’t looking for anything so deliberate as signage but rather what were the subtle bits that provided the signal that we could respond do. There are always good examples of being deliberate in where and how to do something, but I’m always so much more fascinated by those moments where we’ve subtly guided people to a particular need or outcome. That wonderful funnel of experience.

Let me open this can for you — we had a side conversation at one point about that architectural book, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (and others) <>. I’ve always been intrigued by it, thinking that it’s possible to come up with a set of guidelines and libraries of experiences and design that we can draw from to guide people. And, appealing to my mind that craves a bit of hidden order (despite all outward appearances), I thought it was a great book in that it got me thinking. And thinking about patterns in other sorts of experiences. But, I know you *don’t* like the book — why not? What does it do to your finely honed architectural senses? Is it bogus to think about these patterns of experience across other disciplines as well? And, where does it go wrong when we think of interstitial spaces?

Cheers, mate. Hope you’re feeling better.

  • bw.

Daniel to Bruce, 21 February, 2016

Bruce —

Ha! Bruce, you WOULD bring up Christopher Alexander to bring me back to the writer’s desk! Sorry to have taken a hiatus.

First of all, let me state for the record that I actually don’t dislike the “A Pattern Language,” or “The Timeless Way of Building,” or any number of other of Alexander’s older writings. I am deeply skeptical of his more recent work (“the Nature of Order”, etc.) as it borders on the pseudo religious more blatantly than the previous work does. The old stuff is not really taken that seriously by mainstream architectural theory for a number of reasons, it’s a bit of a relic of a particular time and place. I happened to study with a few of Alexander’s friends, colleagues, and partners as a graduate student so my familiarity with the material is perhaps a little more intimate then the average architect- but it wasn’t really a part of my practice in the past. That said, I was pretty surprised to discover in conversation with our mutual friend Norman Lau a few years ago that that work has actually been influential in the computer sciences (which I’m sure you already knew). That information caused me to reconsider Alexander and though I’m not inclined to epiphany or conversion, I do see some of that thinking beginning to seep into my work.

Frankly, the older and more experienced one becomes as a designer, the more one realizes the importance of the portability of ideas as a cornerstone of practice. The notion of a pattern language really isn’t so much about particular design solutions to particular problems as it is about developing a functional design syntax among a clearly defined community. To that end A Pattern Language is solid gold. You’ll never convince me, however, of the universality of the particular set of vaguely prescriptive patterns in that particular book. Are there good ideas there? Of course! But they were not at the time meant by Alexander or anyone else who worked on the project to become a bible for all subsequent building, which is how that book is often perceived by the general public. If the last half of the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that decentralized truth is the only truth!

Moving on, I actually do think a few institutions are doing above average jobs in the “Holistic Visitor Experience” department. Two fairly divergent institutions that pop immediately to mind are the Natural History Museum of LA County, and Somerset House. These are two totally distinct kinds of public entities, on different continents, having wildly different programming, wildly different missions, and of course operating with fundamentally different funding models. And yet, these two share a significant commonality: a progressive attitude towards visitor experience coupled with a complicated and problematic historic infrastructure. Somerset House is a late 18th century behemoth, NHM a patchwork quilt of Beaux Arts and later wings- but both offer a similar spatial texture. Large, somewhat unexpected gallery spaces, connected by inexplicably small and odd circulation paths. It’s funny in a way that this is the case, since both are relics of architectures that lionized order. Time undoes the best laid plans, as anyone trying to get anywhere in DC can attest!

What Somerset and NHM (and I’m sure some others) are doing so well is taking advantage of all the leftover spaces. The interstices, rather than being ignored, are being used as opportunity spaces. At NHM there’s been a long standing (I don’t know the whole history but I would love to hear more about it from some of our friends down there) practice of mounting miniature exhibitions in the corners. The stairs leading up from the main halls house really delightful vignettes often nothing more than an oversized vitrine. The original entry rotunda, now an unreasonably grand exhibition hall vestibule, houses a number of “one-liner” cases tucked behind columns, with enticing and somewhat esoteric discoverable stories. In the right curatorial hands this much space is more than enough, especially in a museum that has such a diverse and entertaining voice.

Somerset on the other hand, has a much more dynamic and contemporary mission. And their building is HUGE. They have taken advantage of this to create a cultural center that’s got an insane variety of programming. Getting from one place to another can be a little daunting (I got very lost there a few years back along with our pal Traci Sym, wandering through and past an exceptional Alexander McQueen exhibition), but the variety of activities, objects, and people one might encounter when the place is busy make this part of the fun for the new visitor. The sheer micro-urban scale of the place is programmed with an appropriate level of micro-urban diversity. Set as it is in the center of London, this macro-micro mess of planning feels incredibly natural and authentic.

I guess what I’m saying is that to get holistic visitor experience right, from an institutional perspective, perhaps requires a balance between too little planning and too much.Lacking the progressive intent to create a holistic visitor experience, through and between proper exhibition spaces will obviously prevent new thinking, and yet fully planned and orchestrated spatial sequences would likely kill the opportunity for surprise. Like always, jazz is a great metaphor.

Ironically I think this notion might make a good candidate “pattern,” if we were inclined to create a pattern language specific to contemporary museum planning. Digital (a verb, I agree) problematizes the HELL out of this pattern though… more on that soon.


Bruce to Daniel, 07 September, 2016

Daniel —

Sigh, we had such an interesting conversation going and then there was that party back in the spring. We both did some things that we shouldn’t speak of again and now that those wounds have healed (literally), I think we should pick up where we left off — sort of in that awkward way that summer romances don’t continue the following year.

Okay, that’s more than a fair criticism of Alexander’s work. I thin there’s a part of me that’s always looking for some underlying hidden idea or premise about what and how things might work — for example, in the early days of e-commerce online, it was the layout of amazon that started to set the standard of how a commerce website ought to be arranged. And, over time, we see certain patterns form in our own digital museum efforts. A few years back, I was chairing the crit room at Museums and the Web in Korea and one of the sites submitted for review didn’t have an english version. Titus Bicknell, doing critiques with me, and I agreed to forge on ahead anyway and to our delight, we were able to see enough of the patterns of art museums online to do a fairly accurate review of the site. We knew where the collections were likely embedded. We quickly found the exhibits and in chronological order, etc. It’s interesting to see those patterns of consistency although I wonder sometimes are we just reinforcing the familiar as opposed to the better.

Allow me to perversely apply the same logic to our physical spaces because I have the podium here. I was recently playing No Man’s Sky, a PC game with a procedurally generated universe of 18 quintillion planets that you can explore. Each one unique with diverse flora and fauna. Until about the fifth planet when you realize that there is a crushing consistency to the experience because a few basic rules apply. There will be the same sorts of buildings on planets although skinned differently. There will likely be a few different kinds of animals, although skinned differently. And there will be different landforms and weather, but all eerily similar in experience. The mind dulls. And at some point, I started to wonder if this same sort of monotony is what our visitors sometimes experience in going to our museums. While the individual artworks are luscious and amazing, at some point, square room after square room with some sort of seating in the middle begins to be the same experience. Do our visitors experience the same dulling of the senses as the universe of No Man’s Sky. We’re quick to declare, “No! We tell stories! And craft experiences!” and yet there’s still some part of me realizes that there’s got to be some sort of threshold of variety that we need to cross in the bigger picture of things.

I love your examples of both NHM and Somerset House. I think those are the experiences that are compelling. The ones that break out of the pattern that we expect from our museum. The ones that don’t always have us exit through the gift shop but provide little vignettes and unexpected surprises. I want to delight in getting lost and not minding that I’m not quite sure where I am, that I’m able to embrace the adventure of the place. And, more importantly, I want to discover some little spot that makes me want to find my friends and drag them along to this crazy little thing in which I have found delight. There won’t ever be a time when the ideas and objects in our museum aren’t the core of our beings, but it’s how express those things and the ways that we are each unique that make it all really interesting.

Huh. So do we ever really disagree on these things anymore? ;)