No. It doesn’t distract from the art.
Megan DiRienzo, Detroit Institute of Arts, USA
AbstractTired of face-palming yourself when you hear a museum traditionalist lament the death of aesthetic experience at the cruel hands of interpretive elements that distract from the art? This paper will present compelling evidence from the Detroit Institute of Arts supporting the idea that digital engagements—displayed just as prominently as the art, with the art—are crucial to providing seamless aesthetic and learning experiences for museum visitors.
Keywords: exhibit design, interpretation, digital engagement, distraction, aesthetics, experience design
The aesthetic conundrum
After observing visitors using video interpretation in the exhibition Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Shelley Bernstein (Vice Director of Digital Engagement at the time) informally estimated that eighty percent of visitors spent the majority of their visual energy hunkered over iPods instead of looking at art. Bernstein expresses conflicted feelings about her observations: “On one hand, I wish I had seen more visitors engaging directly with the works, but on the other…I have to recognize that everyone will engage in different ways and that should be welcome.” (Bernstein, 2008).
The ambivalence Bernstein describes is familiar to any of us who have attempted to scaffold visitor engagements that strike a balance between learning and aesthetic experience. I’m a great admirer of Bernstein’s work towards integrating technology into the art museum. I chose her 2008 blog post as the launch point for this paper because it represents the reasoning exhibition teams often use to justify the separation of technology (or any interpretive materials) and art in the galleries.
Bernstein’s observations also demonstrate that visitors are hungry to learn about art. Their hunger is so strong, in fact, that they will forgo looking at art—and even physically struggle—in order to devour compelling content. So, does this mean that museums should sequester digital tools away from art so that visitors can have their aesthetic experiences and learning experiences neatly and comfortably compartmentalized?
The Victoria and Albert Museum calls this approach to exhibition design the “separate functions model.” It operates under the assumption that learning and looking should be separate experiences in order to accommodate a wide variety of visitor viewing preferences (McIntyre, 2003, 7). This means stowing interpretive media (such as videos) away on small devices, or sequestering them in dark viewing rooms in order to prevent disruptions to the visitor’s aesthetic experience while still providing content. This model also operates under the traditional and long-standing assumption that art alone inspires aesthetic revelation, and anyone—with or without comfort or previous knowledge of art—can achieve it if left uninterrupted while viewing artworks. Limiting distractions is a crucial tenant of this model (Gilman, 1918; Adams, 2002).
On the surface, the separate functions model appears to be an ideal compromise. However, this compromise is rooted in the preferred viewing habits of museum staff rather than visitor data. The separate functions model also stagnates the development of elegant design solutions, and as this paper will argue, actually has the potential to inhibit aesthetic experiences by separating looking from learning (Bedford, 2014; Dewey, 1934). The deep visitor engagement with objects that can result when exhibition teams consider objects and content one unit—an interwoven catalyst for deeper and more meaningful museum experiences—remains largely unexamined.
What we think visitors want versus what we want
Critics of integrated interpretation fear the idea of a museum overrun with zombie-visitors and flashy technological gadgets overpowering the sacred aesthetic space of the art museum (Simon, 2011; Cameron, 1971). And more often than not, the critics of interpretive elements as a distraction are industry insiders. Museum insiders tend to be reverential learners—those who prefer to experience an object free from any distraction including crowds and signage (Graburn, 1977). John Falk defines a similar type of visitor as Professional/Hobbyists. Typically, Professional/Hobbyists are art experts or have a deep familiarity with art. They are well-versed in discipline-specific terminology, and are comfortable looking at art without the help of interpretive materials (Falk, 2009). However, this small population of visitors, which includes museum staff and volunteers, board members, scholars, and cultural critics, has a disproportionate influence upon how museums present works of art. This is problematic because their opinions are not informed by data concerning visitor behavior and motivation, but rather the assumption that their personal preference for viewing art without the distraction of interpretive elements is universal.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) designed an entire study around the question of distraction after the 2001 reinstallation of their British Galleries, which included an unprecedented number of interactives in front of or near related artworks. They found that only six percent of visitors expressed negative views about the interactives, which included “visitors who didn’t need interactives, couldn’t use the interactives, or were worried that other people might not like them.” (McIntyre, 2003, 2). Likewise, the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) found similar results from the 2007 reinstallation summative evaluation published in 2013. Although visitors were not asked if they found the interpretation distracting, very few visitors brought up the topic on their own, with the majority of interviewed visitors reporting that they found the interpretive elements helpful (Selinda, 2013).
V&A’s research aligns with the DIA’s extensive summative evaluation of the new interpretive models used during the 2007 museum-wide reinstallation, which showed that interpretation actually increased the time visitors spent looking closely at works of art, especially if interpretive devices were placed in a way that encouraged visitors to read, watch, and look at the same time (Adams & Serrell, 2012). Looking and learning at the same time is conducive to helping visitors overcome any barriers to forging a deep connection with artworks: the ultimate goal of any museum trying to promote aesthetic experiences.
This circles our conversation back to Bernstein’s post, and the fallacy of the separate functions model. Finally, it leads us to the evaluation from a recent exhibition at the DIA which incorporated large-scale videos of dancers alongside works of art.
American dance at the Detroit Institute of Arts
For curator Jane Dini, it was impossible to imagine an exhibition about dance without dynamic movement within the galleries to accompany the static works of art. And because she believed that the act of dancing was as valid a form of artistic expression as painting on canvas, she rightly insisted that moving images of dancers be included in the exhibition’s interpretive plan. For the educators on the interpretive team, this was exciting because her enthusiasm tabled any discussion about the videos being distracting, and left the door open to discuss how these videos could help connect visitors with the artworks. The interpretive team (including educators, the curator, and a dance advisor) designed and produced the videos to fulfill three outcomes:
- Visitors will connect the dances they see with the gestures/images depicted in the works of art and with the living discipline of dance;
- Visitors will try some of the choreography depicted;
- Visitors will interact with friends, family, and strangers through movement.
These outcomes were nested within the larger exhibition outcomes listed below:
- be captivated by the challenge of translating and representing dance through static mediums;
- feel invigorated, enlivened, and comfortable enough to move their bodies;
- see how these artworks relate to dance culture in America;
- re-think how the dances and dancers depicted are relevant to their own lives;
- appreciate art as a way to engage emotionally and physically with the fleeting nature of dance performances.
The outcomes are important to note because within them, the exhibition team defined what an aesthetic experience could be for visitors. Emotional, physical, and personal connections became the scaffolding for deeper engagement with the artworks, therefore part of and supporting aesthetic engagement. The intepretive team specifically designed the videos and the groupings of artworks in tandem to support these outcomes.
The evidence in support of the exhibition’s visitor outcomes (outlined in a separate report) suggest that the exhibition as a whole impacted visitors more deeply than specific works of art or interpretive elements alone (Detroit Institute of Arts, 2016). Here are just a few visitor comments that support the idea that art and the videos worked together to promote vistors’ aesthetic experience:
“Very moving and broad treatment of theme. Native art moving. The dancers filmed tremendous idea, made it real. Everything was swaying; it made me want to swing, too.”
“I think the videos that really explained things. It gave the feeling of the movement of dance and also for the voice, too. I thought that was really important to humanize the dancer . . .”
“I think the videos were a very nice immersive way of connecting to what we’re seeing in the still art.”
“The videos spoke to dance being about life. I like dance and want to learn dances like tap and ballet. It’s happy and made me happy. It’s the happiest exhibit.”
“I loved the mixture of performance videos and artwork. . .”
“I think the videos were a very nice immersive way of connecting to what we’re seeing in the still art.”
“Multimedia added unique approach and added depth to the message.”
It is important to note that visitors were not directly asked what they thought of the videos in any of DIA interviews and surveys, but rather offered these responses in light of other general questions about the exhibition. But when asked which aspect of the exhibition they found most compelling, 59 responses cited the videos, while 66 cited the artworks specifically. If the videos had been a true distraction, certainly more visitors would have cited the videos as the most compelling exhibition element–or complained about them in some way. When asked if anything had a big impact on how they experienced the exhibition or viewed the works of art, virtually no responses suggested that visitors found the videos to be intrusive to their art viewing experience.
During the exhibition installation various staff members expressed concerns that the videos would overwhelm the artworks. To be perfectly honest, the interpretive team also had concerns because the sound from the videos bled between galleries. We adjusted the video timings so that each one played on a staggered loop, which eliminated some sound overlap. But the solution did not result in any periods of quiet within the galleries.
This is an interesting point because the overlapping music and narrations could certainly be described as distracting, not only to those trying to read labels or look at art, but to those trying to focus on any one video. However, even with the inelegant sound design solutions, the impact the videos had on how visitors perceived dance was deeply moving. Even visitors who did complain about the sound overlap or low volume still enjoyed the videos and thought they deepened their understanding of the art.
The tracking and time report provides further evidence that the videos were not a distraction from the artworks. Fifty percent or more of tracked visitors spent time will all exhibition elements, including labels, videos and of course, works of art. The works of art had the highest percentage of attention, proving that at least in terms of looking, visitors were spending just as much time or more time viewing art than watching videos. Many visitors were also observed looking around at artworks while watching the videos (Detroit Institute of Arts, 2016).
Curious to see how staff felt, already knowing that there were a few detractors, I conducted a survey to gauge how staff perceived the videos. Surprisingly, the statistics I gathered aligned with DIA visitor responses as well as the larger body of visitor research, demonstrating how most visitors prefer and widely use interactives and digital media within gallery spaces (and with little complaint of distraction). Moreover, even when it is a distraction of sorts, it doesn’t completely spoil the visitor experience, even for seasoned museum goers like DIA staff. However, I’m left to wonder how much more impactful the exhibition could have been if the sound overlap had been completely eliminated.
A challenge for broader thinking
My hope is that this paper challenges museum workers, especially those who find themselves on exhibition design and interpretation teams, to reconsider what an aesthetic experience is and how museums enable such experiences by encouraging learning and looking at the same time, through both intentional and integrated design approaches. Maria Mortarti offers a definition of such an approach in her 2014 article published in Exhibition magazine:
Intentional design is a whole systems approach to creating new or emerging exhibition practices or public projects within an institution. It draws from all the tools we have available—education, curation, interaction design, architecture, design thinking, traditional museum practice—and integrates them into a design context.” (Mortarti, 2014, 39).
I also hope this paper challenges all of us to parse out personal preference from our decision-making as we work to design experiences that truly move and engage people who visit our institutions. I will end with a lovely quote from Leslie Bedford’s book in which she analyzes how learning, design, and story are the key to aesthetic experience within a museum context:
Exhibitions are both education and art, and we can think about them from numerous perspectives. To reframe the conversation and see exhibitions as the unique medium they are requires using old language in new ways, bringing the imagination back to center stage. We must ask ourselves what it would mean to see exhibitions as aesthetic experiences, with imagining—as an active process, not a static noun—as the main activity. (Bedford, 2014).
If museums truly want to inspire deep engagement with works of art, they need to broaden their thinking about what a visitor-centered approach to exhibition design looks like. Instead of making compromises for imaginary audiences that in reality only reflect our own personal viewing preferences, museum workers should challenge themselves to consider the art object and the interpretation surrounding it a single catalyst for aesthetic engagement. Perhaps as a result, a new approach to exhibition design in museums would emerge, truly serving every viewer preference in ways yet to be imagined.
*Special thanks to Ken Morris, Ashley Mirasol and the data collectors who make up the DIA’s stellar evaluation team. Their research is integral to understanding how visitors engage with exhibitions. Special thanks to Stephen McLallen who advised on the production, editing, and install of the videos. And last, but not least, to curator Jane Dini, dance advisor Tommy DeFrantz, and the participating dancers whose vision and talent inspired this impactful project.
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DiRienzo, Megan. "No. It doesn’t distract from the art.." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 13, 2017. Consulted .