While visiting cultural institutions in person offers a perfect way to respond to artistic treasures and myriad installations of high importance, an online visit is increasingly becoming an integral extension of the overall destination experience. A normal pre-visit and post-visit habit, a stand-in when being there is not an option, the online experience today can also offer an extraordinary opportunity for rich and stimulating interaction and dialogue.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has launched a promising online comment area, offering visitors a new forum to share their face-to-face exhibition experience with museum staff and others, and providing additional opportunities for virtual visitors to share their ideas and responses online from afar.
In the popular exhibition Calder Jewelry at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through November 2, 2008), the online comment function actually replaced the written comment books as the Museum placed a kiosk in the gallery for visitors to share reactions. These comments are merged with the online comments to create a dynamic space for discussion. See them here.
“Staff and visitors are finding new ways to interact and communicate,” said Gail Harrity, interim Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The Museum developed this useful tool and rather than keep it to ourselves, we decided to further expand the dialogue by offering it to other museums.”
The Museum has a partnered with the Hunter Museum of American Art (HMAA) in Chattanooga, TN, to explore additional uses for the comment functionality. The two museums are jointly collecting data that compares visitor usage in a large, high traffic institution with a diverse collection and visitation to that of a midsized museum in a small city with a specialized collection and fewer visitors.
Rob Kret, Director of the Hunter Museum of American Art, said, “The Hunter Museum has a long-standing practice of including the voice of the visitor as part of the gallery experience. This concept really took off with the development and implementation of the Hunter’s Interpretive Master Plan in 2003. Until now, those conversations with our visitors have been “low tech” – using journals and magnetic poetry boards located in the galleries. We are excited about the opportunity to use emerging technologies and participate with exploring onsite and virtual visitor interactions.”
Added Bill Ristine, Webmaster at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “The comment interface aligns with the web user’s expectations of interactivity and visitor’s expectations in the gallery. It promotes more frequent and spontaneous interaction. In this way, a museum can better understand the needs of its visitors, make use of the responses as a valuable resource, and in effect expand beyond the physical walls of the gallery. Visitors (arriving in-person or online) can talk both to one another and museum staff, and even living artists whose works are on view can have the option to talk back.”
"The Hunter Museum's paper journals are very popular with visitors,” said Erin Noseworthy, Manager of Multimedia Interpretive Programs at the HMAA. “We frequently have journal contributors engage in dialog with each other and the museum. However, until now the museum's ability to respond has been very limited. The comment functionality allows the museum to better meet the needs and expectations of it visitors.”
The interactive dynamic offers art institutions valuable information to help validate curatorial assumptions or enable them to rethink their ideas about the public experience. Comment archives may also prove to be a valuable resource to general institutional planning.
Over the upcoming months the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be researching cost-effective hardware options to deploy comment kiosks throughout the museum. At the same time, the HMAA is exploring ways to utilize the functionality to encourage closer inspection and guided exploration of themes within art.