February 13, 2013  |  Behind the Scenes, Events & Programs
Invitation to Explore: The Challenges of Getting Visitors to Touch the Art
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View of MoMA Studio: Common Sense from above

If you came through the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building at MoMA this fall, you probably noticed MoMA Studio: Common Senses. You may have taken a closer look, perhaps intrigued by one of the installations or by one of the activities. The design of this MoMA Studio was particularly engaging and full of opportunities to interact with the installations.

You might think that such a multisensory space would not only have visitors flocking to it, but engaging with it. After all, how often do you get a chance to play with art in a museum or be inspired through hands-on experiences developed by artists?

Aside from the challenges of the location itself—away from the galleries and unknown to many MoMA visitors—the installations within Common Senses presented their own set of obstacles that veered from their original aim to inspire visitors to engage instinctively. One of the things we have learned with each new MoMA Studio is to remain open to the ways visitors might or might not engage, and to shift goals and expectations accordingly.

Although eye-catching, the aesthetic of Common Senses actually deterred some visitors from interacting with its components. Observational and interview data indicated that while visitors appreciated the look of the space they were worried about messing things up. Essentially, visitors were doing what they’ve been trained to do in art museums: not touch the art. Many visitors were observed admiring the installations and keeping a respectful distance. As one visitor commented, “I know it’s supposed to be interactive but I’m not sure how to interact with what I see.”

Adult visitors look at the Reggio installation in Common Senses

While the possibilities for open-ended experiences in Common Senses were abundant, adults exercised restraint while exploring the space, and were slow to touch or manipulate the materials. When visitors started bringing children to the space, however, Common Senses became the hive of activity it was meant to be. Children engaged effortlessly, creating structures out of found objects and blocks with little or no direction. If left uninterrupted, many would have continued creating for hours on end.

But how do you engage adults in a space like this?

Visitor research carried out in Material Lab last summer indicated that an initial greeting and brief orientation to the space by a facilitator had a positive impact on the experiences visitors had, and helped families explore all the activity zones. But Common Senses was not meant to be a family activity area and facilitators were initially hesitant to approach or interrupt visitors, believing that they needed time and space to reflect on the installations and soak in the atmosphere. Would explaining to visitors what Common Senses was all about, unprompted, seem intrusive? If visitors had questions, surely they would ask?

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Engaging visitors through more active facilitation

After three weeks, rather than risk having adult visitors come and go without engaging with the space, it was decided that facilitators should greet visitors upon arrival and orientate them to the space. Facilitators began pointing out the different installations, explaining that everything could be touched, and in some cases even demonstrating the different ways visitors could interact with the materials. In addition, they deliberately left the space looking more “lived in” rather than as a pristine display.

While these strategies didn’t solve every problem, they had a positive impact on the overall visitor experience to Common Senses. Timing and tracking studies indicated there was a direct correlation between the amount of time visitors spent in the space and whether they were greeted or not. 54% of visitors who entered Common Senses were not greeted. Visitors who were not greeted by a facilitator spent an average of 16 minutes in the space. Only 19% of visitors who were not greeted by a facilitator either approached the researcher or a facilitator to find out about the space. Those who were greeted spent an average of 27 minutes in the space.

While engaging with art is often associated with quiet reflection, it’s clear that a little bit of social contact can really enhance that experience for visitors. Even in interactive spaces, sometimes we need to verbally and physically invite visitors to explore if we expect them to participate and engage in meaning-making.