A lot of work has been done on how to increase visitor engagement with museums and cultural heritage sites.
However, not much has been done to create intimate experiences – for pairs or small groups, who already know each other – that leverage and strengthen personal connections as well as engagement with the museum. Here we offer a few examples of what has already been learned.
Back in 2002, a prestigious research centre developed Sotto Voce, a simple audio-visual guidebook that allowed pairs of visitors listen in on information that the other had chosen to listen to. Some used this ‘shared listening’ to learn about their partner’s interests as well as pursuing their own. This made them bond over what they perceived as a ‘shared secret’. It also reduced conversations in the galleries themselves, reducing distraction for other visitors, but encouraged conversations after they left the exhibit. Other visitors used the guidebook to ‘check in’ on their partner, which helped them coordinate their visit without interrupting each other. A decade later, a project conducted at Speke Hall invited people with learning disabilities to take time responding to the site in their own ways. In the course of several workshops, they created interactive artefacts representing their experiences with Speke Hall. These objects were eventually showcased at the site. In this case, the positive intimate experiences took place outside the context of the regular exhibition, but their outputs enriched the experience for later visitors.
A series of recent investigations into personal interpretations of museum visits within small groups also used workshops to provide space and time for thoughtful encounters. These projects, led by researcher Lesley Fosh, used gifting as the mechanism for developing intimate experiences in a museum setting. Her workshops led pairs or small groups of friends through the process of photographing objects they felt their partner(s) would like to receive. They then annotated these objects with text and music. The partner(s) received their personalised gifts on a smartphone and used the gifts to guide their movements through the museum. Later stages of Fosh’s work focused specifically on how this kind of technology can help small groups to navigate through the museum together comfortably, minimising the time and energy that many (often parents of young children) spend keeping track of faster, slower, or easily distracted members of their group. The intimate social element of all of these projects is arguably the most important. Also, the lack of attention to social elements can cause problems, as evidenced in the MuseUs project. MuseUs was an example of ‘serious play’ whose intention was for visitors to create their own personal narratives around an art exhibit. This smartphone app allowed visitors to select the artwork that they felt best matched an emotion, poem, or question posed to them on their smartphone screen. Their responses generated an art-viewing profile based on MHKA scores (an established rating method in fine art). Others in the same group could view each others’ choices and scores. The researchers intentionally avoided making the experience into a game-like competition, but they did not make any alternative use of the shared information, either. In the end, they noted that one of MuseUs’s greatest weaknesses was the fact that it did not make more of its social element. Based on the small body of work on intimate experiences in a museum context, we believe that intimate experiences can develop engagement while avoiding two major pitfalls: isolating visitors in a bubble of technology, or turning the museum into a generic background for a game.