What if… different visitors actually saw different exhibits?

Well over a year ago, I came across this ad by the Spanish ANAR Foundation for the prevention of child abuse. For adults, this bus stop ad shows the image of a child and a message, “Sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” For those under four foot five, however, it shows a different image and an additional message: “if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you” and the organization’s confidential hotline number. It’s a message designed to be invisible to their abusers, invisible to their caregivers, visible only to them.

It’s an incredible ad, picked up by Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Gawker, and others.

The technology behind it is a lenticular lens, a newer take on an old idea. You’ve probably seen it before in 90s snap rulers and movie posters of that era. But this use, targeting viewers by their height, is new.

What could this technology mean in the museum setting? Well, we’ve already seen the museums placing kid-friendly content at kid-friendly levels. The best implementation I’ve seen recently is the Denver Art Museum. As an adult walking though the galleries, I’m sure I missed most of the extra interpretation for kids. I only noticed this fantastic tactile on my second pass through the Samurai section.

The Denver Art Museum, August 2014

The Denver Art Museum, August 2014

As you can see in the lower right corner of the picture, these boards are actually mounted along the bottom of the exhibit case, just off the floor. For the so-called serious adult viewers, the tactiles don’t interfere with their serious adult meditations. For the rest of us, they’re an amazing plus… that is discovered and brought to the conversation by the kids themselves!

When we talk about intergenerational learning in museums, we should be talking about mutual, concurrent, and complimentary discovery. We can do more than provide cheat sheets for the parents so that they can tell their kids what the exhibit means (although I’ve heard family groups ask for them). We can do more than script a kid’s experience and let the parents follow. Let’s highlight that each individual comes to the table with something to share. That their discoveries are unique, that conversation and sharing enhances the experience of both learners. Modeling this artificially highlights what happens naturally.

So, would this happen if visitors walked into a space where what they saw was actually different from what their companions saw: different interpretive panels, different explanatory graphics, perhaps even different wall colors, papers or patterns? I think it would.

How far we could push this… well, that’s a tech question. Imagine if I, at 5’3” visited the museum with my father, who is 6’2”. What if we each saw different things? How far could we extend the spectrum, adding content at everyone’s reading height from the lanky, basketball playing senior to the person using a wheelchair?

My best case scenario? People would be up on tiptoes or bending down to see more. Changing your level is so simple, but so rarely do I see it happen in a museum. But how much more can you find, looking at a sculpture standing, then seated, across the room, and from cross-legged on the floor? Looking up or askance at a Van Gogh, you see the peaks and valleys that are flattened and leveled when viewed head-on. How could this, as an experience, encourage new ways of seeing together for parents with children? New patterns of looking for individuals? Anything that promotes those behaviors gets an extra plus from me!

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3 thoughts on “What if… different visitors actually saw different exhibits?

  1. This is an incredibly cool idea. I love the DAM tactile panels – even without being able to do changeable labels for tech or budget reasons, the idea to put interactives and labels at multiple heights is great. Thinking about changing one’s viewpoint too – what if there were empty frames, magnifying glasses, etc. mounted at different heights as well, that would force you to stoop or stretch to see what they were focusing on?

    • I love that idea! We’ve been talking lately at PAM about places that call out the best selfie spots, (i.e. stand here to make it look like the pterodactyl is attacking you or to match scale with the Mona Lisa), but can we do the same for just “stand here to look”? What you’re suggesting, magnifying glasses and empty frames, would be great to do exactly that!

      • I like the ‘selfie spot’ idea as well–we’re planning an exhibit inspired by visual scale, and I think it would be great to identify spots elsewhere in the museum that would allow you to play with apparent scale like that.

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