Worlds within worlds: Immersion and museums

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

On remaking the world.

I have a long-standing and deeply held belief that if the world doesn’t fit you, you can either choose to remake yourself, or remake the world. The first choice sounds easier, but seems to me to be far less satisfying. The second choice can appear hard, but isn’t. If you want a job that doesn’t exist yet, find a way to start doing it, do it well, and eventually someone will probably pay you for it. Almost every job I’ve ever had, and certainly all of the interesting ones, have come not with a job description, but with just doing (usually for free, at the start). And thus the world is remade a little; the boundaries are redrawn to fit what they didn’t before. There is no reason to accept that the way things are is the way they can, should, or will be.

This week I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How disruptive imagination creates culture, a book Seb Chan recommended me some time ago and one that fits quite perfectly with my view that the world is there to be remade. It’s a lovely book and an interesting read about the creatures in myth and life who do not fit within the existing social structures and who therefore find ways to move and change those structures (aside: it’s providing some inspiration for my IgniteMCN talk next week).

Of particular note is Hyde’s discussion about the nature of those social structures, and the communities that make and preserve them. He writes (pg 216-217):

For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as it always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed…”

There is an act of shaping, of drawing boundaries between what is in and out (always at play in museums, in the acts of curation and collection); but then there is also an act of reinforcement and preservation. It is not enough to draw demarcation lines; they must be solidified in rules and conventions. This is how a community recognises itself as ‘community’ in order that it can function rightly in the world it has created.

Last week, Elizabeth Merritt wrote a post discussing the defining characteristics of visionaries versus futurists, which I find interesting in this context. In it, she enunciated a role for the Center of the Future of Museums in helping “museum practioners, as a field, describe [a] shared vision of the preferred future, and figure out how we can use our combined resources to make it so.” One step towards this “shared vision” (ie, the mutual shaping of a world by a community) was to invite museums to take a Pledge of Excellence, through which the shape is reinforced. The process is two step. The first is the creation of a world; the second is it’s preservation. (I do not in any way mean to suggest that those who do not take the pledge would be excluded from the community.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, fifty “young cultural leaders from around the world” are meeting in Salzburg this week to further develop their leadership skills. One of their tasks is articulating the instrumental and intrinsic values of the arts. The intention is that they create a shared vision around the creation and communication of value, but in light of Hyde’s discussion, I wonder whether any such vision can be maintained across a broad-spanning group of people from differing countries and cultures. Will a week together be long enough to establish the rules that would allow for the shape to be preserved? Crafting a vision is only the first stage in the process, and in terms of stability, its result might be more yurt than citadel (somewhere lovely to stop during a transition, but without the fundamental structures necessary to bunker down in for an extended stay).

In context of these musings, I’m now given to thinking about the paradoxes of creating rules for a society, and of breaking those same rules; about how worlds are shaped and maintained so that changes have more fundamental or radical impact than being merely superficial. It’s not just making a job that accommodates your own unique talents; it’s setting up that position as critical, so that if you leave, someone else then steps into the role. It’s not simply coming up with beautiful aphorisms about the changes you want in the world, but truly drawing, undrawing and redrawing the boundaries in a way that’s simultaneously disruptive and sustainable.

One aspect of Elizabeth’s post that I found intriguing was the embedding of notions of a “shared vision” into a discussion about visionaries (many of whom would be the very kinds of tricksters and trouble-makers who erode the boundaries of existing and established shared visions). It makes me wonder whether shared visions and visionaries are almost antithetical, or whether it is a visionary (singular) that creates the space for a vision (shared). Can the young leaders in Salzburg, many of whom must have come to attention because they stand out rather than fitting in, craft a joint vision when they each bring their own priorities and perspectives to the group, or instead will their individual visions be the more robust vehicle for change? And in either case, can they establish something lasting that has fundamental impact?

Finally, what does all this mean for museums in an age of disruption, particularly when there is call for change, innovation and building cultures of experimentation. Is it possible to create a culture where the established rules embrace the voices of dissent consistently? I cannot imagine it is. So what are the systems we need to establish that make room for both the drawing and enforcing of boundaries in order to create that a vision has enough strength and structure to be foundational, whilst still enabling those same boundaries to be undrawn and redrawn when they no longer serve their purposes?

I still have about 120 pages to go in Trickster Makes This World, and I have a feeling Hyde has an answer for me within his pages. But until I discover his take on things, I’d love your thoughts.

What do you think? How do those who wish to reshape museums disrupt existing structures (undraw boundaries) and simultaneously build and reinforce new walls (redrawing the line of demarcation)? Is it possible to create systems that make room for both?

Every organisation has a collection now

On Tuesday, I attended GovCamp to learn more about public sector innovation beyond the GLAM sector. As expected, the recurrent themes of balancing risk and innovation, benchmarking and measuring success and impact, and new ways of doing business that include digital as core were central. Although enjoyable, most of this discussion touched on ideas that I was already familiar with.

What I found interesting, however, was just how many of the concerns and questions that I (naively) considered to be largely the purview of GLAMs are being replicated beyond our sector. One presentation on the Australian spatial innovation data structure discussed linked open geolocation data for use in urban planning, emergency management, policy decision making and much more. In it, Helen Owens from the Office of Spatial Policy raised the question of stewardship of fundamental spatial/geolocation data, asking “who are the custodians of spatial data to ensure that it is authoritative?” Soon after, Julie Harris from the Australian Bureau of Statistics spoke about contextualising the ABS “collections”. Although I was aware that the ABS “collected” data and information, I hadn’t considered the implications that online, their data is a collection that needs contextualisation as much as that of a museum.

Monique Potts of ABC Innovation addressed the broadcasting organisation’s movements towards open collections, shared data and collaboration, with particular emphasis on educational content. Almost across the board, speakers address the recurring themes of context, connection, collaboration, and contributing to the global ecosystem of ideas. Many talked about the challenge of engagement and providing interactive and immersive environments online. Adam Carlon, from the Social Innovation Branch, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, spoke about the emphasis on engagement, better educational outcomes and place-based impact initiatives. Questions that to me once seemed particular to museums (if only offline) are certainly not so in the digital space.

Elizabeth Merritt recently wrote about the broken economic model of museums, proposing that:

the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.

But it’s isn’t only the visible and profitable parts of museums that are being replicated. Even collecting, preservation and public contextualisation of that which is collected is being repeated by a broad spectrum of organisations. Many public sector organisations far removed from the GLAM sector have collections and archives – of data or information – that they now want to preserve, contextualise and communicate effectively, specifically so that it can be repurposed and used to create new knowledge.

It seems to me that those organisations who have data at the centre of their collections are far better prepared for the making them useful and usable in the digital context than are museums, where minimal emphasis has been placed on making and maintaining good data. Beyond this, although authoritativeness was emphasised by the public sector orgs, trying to prevent or limit reuse was not. Multiple speakers mentioned the importance of making available remixing tools so that the data could be actively used. This is certainly an idea that is gaining momentum in our sector too, but I fear museums are pushing against a self-limiting legacy in our perspectives on these issues compared to many other organisations.

I keep returning to a recent post by Nick Poole, who wrote:

When we think of the challenges which confront museums, archives and libraries today, they are not simply challenges of marketing or presentation, funding or political profile. Nor are they challenges of how to ‘go digital’. They are challenges of relevance – our fluency with social media will define the confidence with which we step into the Connected Age. Our comfort with shared authority and interpretation will define the extent to which we empower or disenfranchise our users from creating and exploring their own connections. Our commitment to integrity and transparency will define the extent to which the coming generations will see us as part of the problem or part of the solution. Our deftness with open business models will define whether our future customers understand, and are willing to pay for, the value we can add.

The challenges of relevance are not merely limited to a fluency with, and understanding of, social media. Museums are not just trying to establish new conventions of display and publication online; they first have to break established ways of thinking about the use and value of their collections in an arena where good, remixable data is becoming increasingly emphasised. Koven recently reminded us that “As more and more institutions make their collections data available via APIs, we are effectively heading towards a place in which every museum will (theoretically) have access to every other museum’s data.” I’d argue that we need to remember that it’s not just museums who have collections, and not just museums who are making their collections data available. Everyone has collections now, so what we need to be thinking about is how our collections can and should fit into this context.

What do you think?