I’m feeling better. 

While at the 2009 Museums and the Web conference in Indianapolis this past week, I caught the tail-end of an “unconference” session on the topic of — you guessed it — stranger talk in museums (and prompted by our very own Jason –  props to him).  Four or five other people were participating, including Nina, and the discussion was really great and energetic, and going all over the place.  Lots of interesting questions were being asked: what kind of furniture arrangement is most conducive to talking?  Why isn’t there EVER adequate seating in galleries?  Did you know that a certain frequency of sound causes humans to automatically look at its source?

So, you know, I decided to pipe up with my own question.  Piping up is what you do at a conference, right?  My question: does a profound need for strangers to talk to each other in museums truly exist? — And I blathered on, trying to seem less snarky & negative (I’m not!) — I mean, are there really legions of strangers out there, hapless, just begging for us to engineer museological ice-breakers?  Are people that desperate to talk to strangers, and do they need our help — in the form of kooky games, weird seating arrangements, stuffed gorillas, glowing touch screens, flashing projections, or blank sticky notes — to do so?

Ugh.  Was I being lame?  I think I was being lame.

The guy next to me, who was from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, blinked a few times and then responded.  He didn’t attempt to argue that, yes, people need help being people (which they might), or that museums have a responsibility to facilitate that humanity (which they might), or even that science shows people learn more when they talk it out (which it does).  He simply expressed that, in his opinion, it was a good thing for people to be having a good time – talking, laughing, mingling – in a museum.  It was good for the people, and it was good for the museum because the people, and ultimately (hopefully) their communities, would associate the museum with good times, and therefore, with value.   Those in the “unconference” nodded their heads affirmatively, and I found myself nodding, too.

The discussion went other interesting places, but that exchange was what stuck with me.  I feel a lot better about the utility, if not the necessity, of facilitating stranger talk in museums.  I can get behind helping people have a good time in museums, and, as talk and being social are symptoms of good times and happiness, I can get behind the idea of strangers talking in museums, too.

This is where I think I was getting hung up: I was primed to think of facilitating stranger talk in museums as a task that necessarily involves a gimmick, a contrivance, a rig of some sort.  We have this assignment: design an exhibit to get strangers to talk to each other.  I felt on some level, I think, that our charge was to trick unwilling people into doing something they didn’t want, or weren’t inclined, to do.  Ok, we have no content and no money, so how do we lure these people into conversing?  What can we do to dupe strangers into fulfilling this requirement?  Do we put out food, change their habitat, give them stuff to play with?  Faced with the challenge of our group creating something so brilliant, so seamless, so sneaky that it got complete strangers to have a conversation, I was having trouble seeing why the effort might be worth, well, the trouble.  Especially for your average museum, which has trouble enough already.

The “unconference” session reminded me that, duh, people like to have a good time, whether or not they’re in a museum, and talking to new people about interesting things or ideas is one way to have a good time.  From now on, I hope to approach this project and this class without letting myself be paralyzed by the task of coming up with the most ingenious way to rope people into talking to each other, and more enthusiasm for making an exhibit that is conducive to the less-scary, but genuinely important, activities of having a good time and talking to new people.

NOTE: I’m editing this entry rather than commenting because I wanted to include two links, and I can’t figure out how to accomplish that in comments. I hope that’s ok! – KF

Alex, I love this post. You’ve put your finger on something that had been nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, too, and I very much like the redirected mindset of facilitating and encouraging a good time rather than coercing people. Although our experiments at the zoo were a wonderful way to begin the course and get us thinking about the intricacies of stranger interactions, I’m not convinced that we helped anyone have a good time by playing tic-tac-toe. So I’m all for embracing this way of framing the task, and kudos to you and your Imperial War Museum friend for speaking so eloquently on the matter. (By the by, I remember having a surprisingly good time at the Imperial War Museum with my parents — for a bunch of pacifists, we found it surprisingly non-jingoistic, and the exhibits inspired a great deal of conversation, both at the time and later.)

BUT (oh yes, there’s a but), sorting through this level of my issues with the goal of “getting strangers to talk in museums” allowed me to focus more clearly on another level that bothers me perhaps even more. Sometimes I don’t want to talk in museums. And it goes deeper than that: I don’t want to listen to other people talk, either.  For people who want a deeply intimate, contemplative, or even spiritual experience in a museum, don’t-talk-if-you-don’t-like-it isn’t a solution.  You still have to hear other people talk, and that can be excruciating.  Nina hits on this theme in a post about being an elitist jerk: “For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now.”  In one of my favorite articles, Caring for Your Introvert, Jonathan Rauch says that introverts “tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking” and they are “driven to distraction by the semi-internal dialogue extroverts tend to conduct.” Introversion does not imply a lack of social or conversational skills, nor any disturbing antisocial behaviors.  What it does imply is the need for personal space, for mental breathing room.  Museums can be a wonderful place to seek and find that stillness and quiet.  For introverts, not-talking can be a symptom of having a good time.  I hope that we can find a way to respect that even as we facilitate the conversations that make extroverts happy.

Alex and Kathryn, great blog posts and comments (I like this editing that allows for links in comments -JH). You guys have done a brilliant job of separating out the differences between coercing people to talk to each other and facilitating a good time. And further, exploring the difference between introverted and extroverted ideas of a good time. This reminded me of Judy Rand’s exhibition class last quarter and the different learning styles (4-Mat Learning, VTS) and thus approaches museums must take to in order to accommodate different kinds of learners.  Ultimately, I think exhibitions are about people learning something and we can facilitate learning by providing a good time.

So perhaps we want to come up with a learning objective. What do we want people to learn from our exhibit? OK, we would like people to learn that they have valuable advice to share with their fellow students who are graduating (I’m just throwing this out as an example). Now, how do facilitate this learning objective though conversations or a good time? And, what experiences can we create that accommodate different kinds of learners within this conversation?