Some notes and observations from my museum excursion

James William Yoon james.yoon at
Fri Apr 24 01:48:47 UTC 2009

As part of Fluid Engage, I went to a couple of museums to get my head in the
museum experience, to look at how museums used space and wayfinding (or
not), and to pick up museum maps where available (fodder for thinking about
the map authoring tool).

I made a few notes and observations during my excursion.

Design Exchange

- Relatively small museum with a focus on industrial and architectural
- Three exhibitions typically on display
    - Two small, but free, exhibitions on the main floor
        - The museum's main floor is connected to large finance-related
business buildings, which brings in some traffic from there
        - One might think the free exhibitions would be a great lunchtime
attraction, but there was low visitor volume in the free exhibition on a
Tuesday at noon (three individuals, myself included)
    - Main paid exhibition on third floor
        - *Zero* visitor volume in main exhibition (just me!)
- No visitor maps available, nor any floor layouts or anything of the sort
on walls or panels
    - Museum is seems small enough that there wouldn't be any significant
orientation or navigation problems; I don't think most people would be able
to get lost in the space
    - Signage was enough to find one's way around, though some signage was
confusing or difficult to interpret (see photos)
- Main exhibit currently "What has architecture done for you lately?"
    - Exhibition was designed and developed in-house (and will be traveling
to various museums afterwards)
    - Exhibition was laid out into distinct, separate subspaces (roughly
half a dozen), each with its own theme: "Architecture + Environment",
"Architecture + Economics", "Architecture + Health", etc.
    - Subspaces were laid out such that there was only one path through the
exhibition (i.e., prevented any possibility of missing a subspace, and also
allowed for sequentiality)
    - Individual subspaces large enough to allow for individual exploration
(vs. deterministic sequence of experience via the layout)
- Types of media/content used in exhibition:
    - Objects, artifacts (esp. architectural models) w/ labels
    - Slideshows (the old kind, with the mechanical motor that rotates a
    - Lighted LED + glass displays
    - Pithy quotes and statements in large type on walls
    - Posters
- Valiant attempt at interacting with the visitor
    - Part of the exhibition involves the visitor writing their thoughts on
a post-it note and putting it up on a large wall of "thoughts" (there were
none, until I put one)
    - Another part involves the visitor taking labelled ping-pong balls, and
placing them in the most appropriately labelled bucket
    - Intriguing, tendentious thoughts and questions on walls, (seemingly)
intended to inspire/fuel debates and discussions

Art Gallery of Ontario

- Relatively large museum with a focus on artwork
- Many exhibitions on at once
- Segregated spaces of the museum (European, Canadian, Contemporary, etc.),
though pieces do overlap between the spaces. Some pieces are also
"intermixed" between the spaces to create contrasting juxtaposition, to
encourage the visitor to "think" (or so the tour guide claimed)
- Museum map available
    - Provides floor-by-floor layouts of the space, as well as where
specific collections reside
- Different spaces of the museum have different atmospheres. For instance,
the older European art space is dimly lit (possibly due to conservation
considerations of the older artwork?), in view of no windows, with dark wall
colours, standard ceiling height (~10'). The contemporary space is brightly
lit, with white walls, and high vaulted celings.
    - Visitors are distinctly aware of entering one space versus another
even without signage
- Side note: cameras weren't allowed for taking photos of artwork (because
of copyright issues, I was told), but were allowed for taking pictures of
the interior architecture of the building. But I was stopped by security
three times (different floors each time; no sense in getting caught by the
same security guard multiple times) for taking pictures of signage (because
it wasn't architecture, I was told).
- No audio tours as of yet (soon though, I was told), though there were
scheduled tour guides to guide you through the space and collection
- Everything seemed to have a label or a name: the staircases, the
promenades, the atrium, etc.
- On the map, small niches of specific collections were labeled by a three
digit number. These numbers were printed on the walls of the space in a
surprisingly tiny, we-don't-want-you-to-notice-this-number font. Matching
the space on the map to the space in front of you was a bit of an annoyance
for me.
- Observation: it's a big museum, with lots of small pockets of space.
Exploring without consulting my map led me to lose track of where I was
spatially within the museum, though I never felt "lost" per se.
- Types of media/content used in exhibitions:
    - Objects, artifacts (esp. paintings, sculptures) w/ labels
    - Panels of text with commentary (esp. on the art, or the artist)
    - Audio track commentary: some artwork was supplemented by a nearby
telephone w/ touchscreen base. Visitors picked up the phone, and picked a
commentary track on the screen to listen to. Different tracks were
commentaries by (mainly?) non-museum authorities (e.g., the artist, expert
critics, etc.). Alternatively, visitors could use their cellphone to call a
number by the telephone to listen to the same commentaries

I also had a few ideas that popped into my head while walking around the
museum for location-aware mobile maps:

- Idea: despite never being "lost" (or maybe my pride isn't allowing me to
own up to the fact that I really was at some points), I did lose track of
where I've visited and where I was presently. A location-aware map that
automatically marks where one's been in the museum would allow the visitor
to see what spaces (or pockets of spaces) that he/she's missed or have yet
to see.
- Idea: for class field trips or children in general, one could make a game
out of "collecting" artwork (via 2D barcodes or otherwise) in a scavenger
hunt type of way. Children could then take home the artifacts they found
(virtually) (also brought up by Jason at MMI)
- Idea: sponsorship/funder information when passing into areas (value-add
for the sponsors). E.g., "this area was funded by...", "artwork in this area
was donated by..." (inspired by nameful sponsor/donation plaques on the wall
of the AGO)
- Idea: context-specific "did you know?" pithies when you enter areas
- Idea: link objects, collections, spaces, etc. to items in the gift shop
(for increase in gift shop revenue). E.g., if you pass by an artist you
liked, the device would give you a list of gift shop items you might be
interested in, and perhaps even point you to where in the gift shop those
items are, or prepare the items for pick-up in the gift shop

I have a few photos of the exhibitions, museum space, and signage as well
that I'll pass around in my next email (ones that I didn't get caught

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