This week my attention was drawn to an article written by Stephen Bitgood, a leading psychology professor at Jacksonville State University. In it, he discusses the orientation of casinos, and their deliberate attempts to disorientate their visitors in order to make them spend more time and money in them. He then compares the layout of museums and criticizes them, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for being so similar, instead heaping praise on the North Carolina Museum of Natural History for its simple geometric design and its easy, “shopping area” navigability. But is there really anything wrong with getting lost in a museum?
Obviously I am not advocating a funhouse museum filled with trapdoors, moving walls and those stairs that turn into slides that Scooby Do always falls foul of. But a non-linear orientation that allows the visitor to carve out their own narrative by twisting and turning through an intricate, yet natural web of exhibits will greatly elevate their experience. Neat, functional grids are ordinary, and a museum should be an extraordinary experience. Cities use grids because they make navigation simple for the people who live there, and point A and point B can be connected as quickly as possible. However the winding streets of Edinburgh’s old town provide visitors to the city with a far richer adventure than the endlessly repeating blocks of Glasgow city centre. Yes they may be frustrating for those who live there, but nobody lives in a museum. At the museum everyone is “just visiting,” and the purpose of this visit is to explore an interesting, out of the ordinary, environment, and they mostly want to take their time in doing so.
A museum should lift people out of the city anyway, elevating them above the sights and sounds of everyday life. Old museum building deliberately used to do this, that’s why they all had staircases leading up to the front door. When Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed New York’s Central Park in 1857, they deliberately did so without the use of straight lines. There are few straight paths and right angles in nature. Central Park was intended to transport the visitor out of the city and back into nature, to the much idyllicised American wilderness (you couldn’t even see the buildings through the trees back then). A museum should do the same thing; it should elevate its visitors out of the ordinary, into the out-of-ordinary.
The visitors should not be afraid to immerse themselves in the museum. Bitgood talks of how casinos mask their exits from the customers view, but you don’t need to always be in view of the door at a museum either. As long as it’s signposted properly it doesn’t matter whether you can see it or not. A museum has bigger problems if its visitors are constantly ensuring they have a visible escape route. A visitor should never be concerned with leaving, only with what they will discover next.
Bitgood is also critical of the over-prevalence of what he refers to as “choicepoints” in casinos. Their purpose in such establishments is to disorientate the visitor, preventing them from mentally mapping their surroundings and forcing them to spend longer on the casino floor, even when they are trying to leave. In a museum however, “choicepoints” are wonderful things. They help personalise the visitor’s experience, and create equilibrium within galleries, with people constantly weaving in different directions, following their own narrative paths.
This weekend I visited London’s Natural History Museum where they have in recent years refurbished their Volcanoes and Earthquakes exhibition. It is however, presented within a long corridor space, with displays down each wall and intermittently in the centre. The effect here is that you are confronted with two narrow channels and never more than two “choicepoints,” to go straight on, or to attempt to “slalom” between both. Granted it was an unusually busy day, but what I witnessed was that people, intentionally or otherwise, chose the former, tending to stick to a single channel, drifting through the exhibition within the stiff current of visitors. This for me is a gallery that would benefit greatly from allowing its visitors to snake, like lava, into the cracks and crevices of a more open, less linear environment, accentuating the unpredictable nature of its subject matter.
I do appreciate though that space is not always a given luxury, especially in older buildings such as that of the Natural History Museum, and even there my volcanic grievances were not perpetuated throughout. In the limited time available to me I visited the Creepy Crawley exhibition, a large gallery space split into four zones that the visitor can slink and sneak in and out of at their leisure, and stood in awe beneath the Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, where I could see objects and exhibits up on the balconies, down grand hallways and looming from behind the cathedral-like columns. It was overwhelming, it was disorientating, and it was amazing.
In order to send the visitor on an adventure, the museum must encourage them to explore. The Museum of Scotland Building, at the National Museum of Scotland, built in 1999 is very good at this. Everywhere you look there are small holes in the walls, revealing snippets of things to discover in other rooms. Sometimes you can even see through staircases to exhibitions on other floors and there is very rarely a clear line of sight to the bottom of a corridor. The St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life in Glasgow too, contains wonderful little architectural features that allow the visitor to see through “peep-holes” in the walls behind display cases, giving tiny glimpses of objects to seek out in adjacent rooms. In both of these museums the visitor is enticed, constantly by teasing sightings of further treasures for them to discover, and encouraged to seek their own pathways to them.
The reason Stephen Bitgood has found so many museums with casino-esque orientation is because, for me, they are better for it. The museum of course is not intentionally trying to trap its visitors, waypoints and exits will always be clearly signposted, but the visitor should be encouraged, just for a while, to ignore these, to voluntarily lose themselves in the museum. The important difference a museum and a casino should have though, is that everyone who leaves a museum, should do so with their lives enriched.