Behavioural priming and museum visitation

Did you know that simply holding a warm cup of coffee in your hand when you meet someone can shift your perceptions of them? That you might judge someone as “having a “warmer” personality“, just because your first impression of them followed a shift in experience of physical warmth? In such cases, our understanding of that person has been primed by the physical conditions in which we encountered them; where priming is an “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus,” (Priming, psychology) or in which “the activation of one thought may trigger related thoughts.” (Priming, media)
(As if this isn’t a great reason to have first dates over coffee instead of alcohol…)

As spelled out in this article in the New York Times:

Psychologists say that “priming” people… is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

So I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during the last few days. How do museums prime their audiences and visitors for the museum experience? For having their minds opened, or even for knowing what is expected of them in the museum space? How do the sights, smells and sounds a visitor encounters upon arrival at your museum (or even before then) put them into the right headspace for curiosity and exploration, or learning? What role does a museum’s website play in this?

After a week of attending numerous museums, speaking with museum professionals, and participating in the immersive theatrical experience Sleep No More, my first impression is that I don’t think it’s something too many museums consciously pay attention to, or at least, not effectively or at a whole-museum level. There have been exceptions, however.

I’m going to start by talking about Sleep No More – a non-museum experience, but a worthy one that has already proved inspirational to other museum professionals. For those who haven’t yet heard of it, SNM is an incredible production (a dance? A play?) loosely based around Macbeth, which takes place over five stories in a warehouse (currently) in New York. The performance and performers move into and out of spaces in the warehouse, while you as audience (masked. Silent. Anonymous.) can choose whether to follow them, or instead pull apart and play within the fully-constructed and highly compelling ‘stage’ structure. The experience is hugely personal, layered, and thoroughly involving. It’s something I will no doubt refer back to in greater detail in coming posts. However, what I want to speak to in this case is the opening moments of the event.

The SNM experience starts well before the performance itself. For me it was with conversations with those who had been, but even without those, the line of people abuzz with excitement at the doorway to the building was more than enough to raise my heart rate in anticipation of what was to come. We were soon funneled 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. Then, almost directly upon entering, the audience (participants?) were greeted by staff and issued clear directions about the rules and the expectations of the night. Attendees were directed to where they needed to be, issued with masks to preserve anonymity, and briefed by two different actors/assistants about what the night would or could entail. All of this was done in character and costume.

Within the first ten minutes of arriving at the venue, I understood what was and was not allowed; was primed for the experience at hand in a way completely consistent with the coming performance; and all whilst building momentum and expectation for what was to come. And so when I found myself in a situation completely beyond my normal range of experience, I still felt completely and reassuringly safe, and pumped for the events at hand. My curiosity was piqued, my brain switched to ‘engage’.

In contrast, entering most of the museums I visited during the previous week was followed by immediate uncertainty while I tried to get my bearings and work out a) where to go and in what order, and b) what the particular rules were of each institution (was photography allowed, or not?). There was nothing to instantly prompt me to start my experience, or provide a scaffolding upon which I could begin construction of my visit – and I’m pretty comfortable in museums in general. But still, I was directionless, unclear about what I would, should or could see, and how to best go about that process.

The exception to this was at the Newseum. In the Newseum, there were ample greeters available at the door to meet me as I entered the space. When purchasing my ticket, the front desk attendant ran me through “the best way to see the museum” starting down the escalator to the bottom floor (helpfully signposted with a big “Start visit here” type sign), and then continuing up via the lift to the top, before winding downstairs again. I was directed to exactly where I could deposit my coat, and then shown the way to the “start” of the experience.

At the bottom of the escalator, I was again greeted and asked how long my visit was, whether I would be returning the following day, and whether I wanted to see a short video on the best way to experience the museum. Once the greeter found out that I could only attend that day, and only had a couple of hours, he pointed out to me what the likely highlights were that I might be interested in, and also ran me through what else was available.

It was a completely different experience from one I’ve had in entering almost any museum, and I found it hugely helpful. The advice was not prescriptive, but it helped give me bearings and allowed me to make choices about what I was most likely to find rewarding, given the short time period I had for visitation. As a form of priming to influence a response to later stimulus, I found it highly effective.

But beyond this, I think many of my responses (which were generally very strong, and quite emotional) to the objects on display in the Newseum were similarly in response to years and years worth of priming via media exposure to them. For instance, when I came across the fallen Lenin statue in front of the photograph of the same statue being tumbled, I instantly understood what I was seeing and its significance at a very visceral level. I could immediately connect this object with the event, its emotion and its importance, and bring all of those things into alignment with my own memories of watching footage of iconic statues falling. The story of the statue and the object of the statue were both far more significant to me for the deep way which they related to my earlier exposure to stimulus than they likely would have otherwise been. Something familiar in this object, and many others at the Newseum, triggered a very strong response for me, which I am intuitively sure relates – at some level – to the repeated priming and exposure I have had to the subjects/objects prior to visitation.

Piece of Lenin Statue from Fall of Berlin Wall

A study by Laure Zago, Mark J. Fenske, Elissa Aminoff and Moshe Bar supports this idea. They write:

Prior exposure to a stimulus generally facilitates its recognition in subsequent encounters. This experience-based phenomenon, termed priming, has been studied extensively and is believed to be one of the building blocks of learning and memory (Tulving and Schacter, 1990).

If this is the case, if visitors’ exposure to a stimulus before and whilst attending a museum influences a response to later stimulus, how can museums use this to create more meaningful visitor experiences? What can museums do, both on- and offsite, to activate and trigger responses in their visitors in the exhibition space? Can museums actually use this idea of providing prior exposure to stimulus online to facilitate a more instant connection or recognition of their objects on the museum floor? And is this something that museums already do when planning their exhibitions? If so, who does it well?

What do you think?