Worlds within worlds: Immersion and museums

Posted on March 7, 2013

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There has been significant discussion in recent months about immersive experiences in museums. Seb Chan and Ed Rodley have both written on the subject in response to the site-specific performance Sleep No MoreElizabeth Merritt has asked what museums can learn from Derren Brown: Apocalypse, a two-part television series that immersed a single protagonist in a surreal ‘other world’; and Nina Simon wants to know “why aren’t museums great at telling… deep, intense stories? Why are exhibitions, which have huge potential as immersive, multi-platform narrative devices, so rarely used to that effect?” Clearly immersion is on our collective minds.

But what makes an experience or environment immersive? And why should museums care about using immersive techniques in their exhibitions? Perhaps the simplest explanation comes from Simon herself: immersion “takes you into another world.” It’s a concept associated with video games, virtual reality, and fiction, and is tied closely to the idea of flow; a form of completely focussed motivation. And, as Yellowlees Douglas and Andrew Hargadon note, it can be related to pleasure as well, which can come from “interactive narratives that build on both agency and complex, yet familiar, narrative schemas.” Immersion, then, offers museums a tool for providing challenging yet pleasurable experiences.

According to Jamie Madigan’s 2010 post on the psychology of immersion in video games, immersion can occur in a rich gaming story environment that has “multiple channels of sensory information”, “completeness of sensory information”, “cognitively demanding environments”, and “a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story.” However, per Douglas and Hargadon, the environment cannot be completely chaotic without opportunity for the individual to gain his or her bearings, nor entirely familiar, offering nothing new to surprise or challenge. Instead, the schema at work in creating the storyworld (whether fictional or otherwise) must be authentic and consistent, but also allow for wonder.

This rings true to my own most recent experience of immersion, which took place at the Australian National Maritime Museum on Sunday. It was my first visit to the museum, and I skipped straight past the galleries to the ships. It was on board the Onslow, a submarine built in 1968, that things got interesting for me…

Immediately upon entering the submarine, I started feeling light-headed. My heart rate went up, and I began having difficulty breathing. Even though I’ve never been susceptible to claustrophobia, being trapped in the narrow, tinny aisle of the submarine, unable to go backwards or control the pace at which I progressed forwards (stuck as I was between other visitors), my body reacted. Mentally, I knew I was safe. But my body was firing off entirely different signals.

Why did it react so? Why did my body believe it was in danger, when logic told me all was well? The submarine flooded my senses. It had a smell of ageing metals and dust; like an old hospital. The skinny corridors curtailed my natural movement. A soundtrack played through the speakers that – I’m fairly sure – included a siren to indicate that we were soon to dive. From the moment of entry, when I had to climb backwards down the angular metal steps into the sub, my whole body was tricked into believing that this world within my world was real – and a threat.

I was transported; caught in the universe of the submariners. It was one of the most affective experiences I’ve had in a museum context.

The immersion came from more than just engagement in their story however. When my body reacted so strongly to the submarine, it was in part because it felt transported from my usual safe (and sunlit) world into a universe of metal, war, and submersion. It was disengaged – separated – from the everyday, from the context of real life.

In November, when I wrote about Sleep No More, I observed that the audience was “funnelled down a long, dark corridor to enter the McKittrick Hotel; consistently being primed for the evening at hand, even whilst in the act of transportation from one place to the next.” I was thinking about behavioural priming; what a museum does to prepare the visitor for the museum experience. But I failed to truly note the significance of this tunnelled entryway. It was not a mere passage from place to place; it was also a device that transported me from the ‘real’ world into the richly detailed storyworld. The neutral zone of the tunnel forced a fission between my life outside Sleep No More, and the internal universe with its own rules and practices. With this distance, I could give in more fully to the possibilities and drama of the McKittrick Hotel and its occupants.

This is quite different from my average museum visit, where there is only limited demarcation between the story inside the museum and that outside; or in the spaces between exhibitions. Yet consider how a similar trope is utilised at Disneyland to set the audience up for their experience in ‘the happiest place on Earth.’ In a paper on Walt Disney’s use of ’emotional environments’, Josef Chytry writes* that Disney carefully calibrated the Disneyland storyworld to engage the guest in a total experience (emphasis mine):

For his emotional environment proper, Disney ensured that entry to the park would be substantively separated from outside reality. This passage was intended to induce in ‘guests’ the appropriate mood, so that once these ‘guests’ came into ‘Main Street, USA’ – another invention of Disney’s – they were ready for ‘happiness’.

The entire visit was choreographed to be affective; an emotional environment designed from the start to invoke a sense of wonder. (I know many museum types professionally disdain the Disneyfication of culture, but surely there are worse things.) Similarly, at Tasmania’s MONA, the visitor does not merely arrive at the museum from the street. From Ed Rodley’s description of his visit to MONA last year:

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy.

To which museum owner David Walsh responds:

 it’s a pleasure to see your reference to an ‘oracular cave’. The effort required from a visitor by ferry, to rise and descend, was intended to make one mindful of exactly that notion. You are, apparently, the first to see what to me was a transparent gesture.

Entering another world – a storyworld – requires that we unshackle ourselves from the real world, if only for a short time. The world of MONA is severed from that of the everyday by boat, and an oracular entryway. Even more than that, it is separated from mainland Australia, necessitating a significant journey to get there for all but locals; a journey frequently undertaken for the sole purpose of visiting the museum. (Maybe it’s more like Disneyland than Rodley gives it credit for…) Immersion also requires multiple channels of sensory engagement, cognitively rich environments, and strong and interesting narratives. Is such an approach always of value for museums? I don’t know that it is. But given that immersion can lead to flow, wonder and engagement, it certainly seems like something worth examining further. I certainly won’t forget my visit to the Onslow any time soon.

What do you think?

*unfortunately behind a paywall