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  • Dr. Kiersten F. Latham

The Museum of Try This Out

Experimentation in Museums

Why don’t museums do more experimentation? This is the question I ask myself often (and a core purpose of the MuseLab). It seems that museums see themselves as places to disseminate information but rarely as places to generate it. This is highlighted by the fact that few research journals exist in museum studies. Why is this? My own guess is that (in the U.S. at least) we have had a long and narrowing trajectory towards the practical, and away from the conceptual (see my December 2016 blog post for more on this). There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing how to do various things in museums and to have basic, shared practices. But knowledge about the processes themselves is of interest, yet it is lost when museums do the work but do not share the reasons behind their work, or the frameworks and assumptions under which it was conducted. This is the nature of theory, the often invisible twin of practice―to provide a larger purpose or set of values, methods, or assumptions about processes or products. In museums (at least in U.S. museums) we have been reluctant to engage in a relationship with theory and the lack of experimentation is the result.

In the MuseLab, we commit many small acts of experimentation all the time. It is, after all, a lab, and this means it is a place to try things out, and to have the freedom to either fail or succeed. I realize that not many museums have that particular luxury. Recently, we wrapped up a larger experiment, and one I am very proud of because it exemplifies the layered purposes of the MuseLab. This is the story of what experimentation can look like in a museal setting.

The Story of Mona Lisa X 4

In 2015, I began a conversation with Dr. Andrew Pekarik, then of the Smithsonian, about his IPOP theory (IPOP= Idea, People, Object, Physical), a predictive tool based on many years of work investigating leisure experience preferences of museum goers (Pekarik et. al., 2014). He asked if we could test out the theory in a controlled way in the MuseLab. I said “but of course!” And that began a three-year journey of exploration and experimentation with IPOP in the MuseLab. What is so beautiful about this project is that it involves every single thing we put into the mission of the lab. It involves students, faculty, and professionals in the field. It involves coursework, student experience, research, exhibition, conference presentations, and a published research paper (and not to forget community enjoyment). And it involves collaboration across all of these. Mona Lisa X 4 was not just an exhibit that was done to test a theory. Rather, it was a research project that became a class project in two museum studies courses, and a catalyst and example of how research can be conducted and disseminated in a museal environment.

A bit about Mona Lisa X 4 Exhibit

To get an idea of what we did in the exhibit, I will give you a nutshell version. For about a year, Dr. Pekarik and his research partner, Dr. Jim Schreiber, and I met by phone to develop the research project and make it work for a course project. Then in Fall 2015, the students in the Museum Communication course were assigned the task of creating proposals based on the research design. There were eight teams and four areas to design (see sketch) for each of the four experience preferences: Idea, People, Object, Physical. Two teams were assigned to each of the four areas and tasked with designing, according to the parameters we gave them, an exhibit using the IPOP theory (see Pekarik et al., 2014) with the Mona Lisa painting by da Vinci at the core of the exhibit. The project involved seeing the Mona Lisa in four different ways, corresponding to the IPOP preferences. Students voted to select the four teams that would turn their designs over to four students in the Spring 2016 semester who were conducting their Culminating Experience project for the master’s degrees. These four students re-worked the four winning designs, then implemented them all into a beautiful and interesting exhibit. I facilitated the entire process (with much involvement from Drs. Pekarik and Schreiber) because this was a research project. The actual research began in Fall 2016 and ran six months. We enlisted undergraduates who needed research credits to go through the exhibit as our experimental subjects. More than 100 students participated. After first taking an online IPOP survey, the students visited the MuseLab and went through the exhibit, where their movements were timed and tracked, and then took an exit survey. The results were analyzed by Dr. Schreiber. In May 2017, we presented the project results to an appreciative and very responsive audience at the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) conference in St. Louis. We are now at work on a paper we intend to publish soon.

Experimentation in Museums: Persist

To wrap up this blog, I come back to my original question: Why don’t museums do more experimentation? One of the obvious reasons is logistics. It takes a lot of work to do research in a museum setting, far more than simply moving forward with installing a traditional exhibit. You can get an idea of how much time was invested in the Mona Lisa X 4 project from the above description. But just because something is hard to do is an insufficient reason not to do it. The value of this kind of work outweighs the effort it requires. I would like to see more museums move beyond the mere reporting of information (interpretation) and take a more active role in understanding how and why museums exist. In the end, it will enrich our museums, its employees, its visitors, and our field immeasurably.

Pekarik, A. J., Schreiber, J. B., Hanemann, N., Richmond, K., & Mogel, B. (2014). IPOP: A theory of experience preference. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(1), 5–27.