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interaction

Across the social sciences as well as some of the technical sciences like CSCW or HCI there is great interest in “interaction”. Studies explore interaction between systems, interaction between human beings, often called “users”, and systems, interaction between two or more people and much more. In 2011, together with Will Gibson (UCL/IoE) I co-edited a Special Issue of Symbolic Interaction (Vol.34(3)) concerned with different ways in interaction features in symbolic interactionism. The introduction to the Special Issue can be found HERE. Below is the Table of Content of the issue:-

Symbolic Interaction Vol.34(3)

                   Interaction and Symbolic Interactionism (pages 315–318)

Dirk vom Lehn and Will Gibson

    1. “Scissors, Please”: The Practical Accomplishment of Surgical Work in the Operating Theater (pages 398–414)Jeff Bezemer, Ged Murtagh, Alexandra Cope, Gunther Kress and Roger Kneebone

       

      Book Review

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Last week, I have attended a fascinating workshop organised by Mathias Blanc at the Louvre-Lens and Meshs in Lille. The workshop forms part of a project Mathias runs in cooperation with the Louvre-Lens and their current exhibition “The Le Main Mystery“. As part of the project “Ikonikat” Mathias and the team developed an app run on tablet computers that encourage visitors to the exhibition at the Louvre-Lens to mark-up areas of painting they have seen. The traces that people leave on the iPad are an interesting novel form of data to understand what people consider to be relevant when looking at paintings.

lenain

The workshop included participants from Austria, France, Germany and Great Britain who in teams worked on data gathered with Ikonikat and with video-cameras in the exhibition. In their subsequent presentations the participants drew on their respective expertise in art history, eye-tracking, image analysis, and video-analysis. The presentations led to fascinating discussions about the relationship between looking at and seeing art and the scientific, social-scientific, and sociological analysis of exploring museums and looking at works of art. I used my slot for a short discussion of relationships and differences between visitor research, investigations using eye-tracking and studies of social interaction in art museums.

Visitor Research has long been defined by studies using quantitative measures to assess the effectiveness of exhibits in attracting and holding people’s attention; the best-known measures are attracting and holding power – for a discussion of the relevance of ‘time’ as a measurement for visitor research see the Special Issue in Curator: The Museum Journal Vol.40(4) [1997]. In 1976, Harris Shettel, now a classic in visitor research, published a study in which he explored the attracting and holding power of exhibit elements. For the purpose of the study Shettel placed a camera behind exhibits to capture visitors’ eye movement. In a way, Shettel’s innovative research can be seen as a precursor to recent studies using more complex eye-tracking equipment.

Eye-Tracking is used by visitor researchers as well as by art historians to identify the elements of paintings (or other exhibits) that people’s eyes fixate for a measured time and where they ‘jump’ (‘saccade’) from there. The result are images transposed onto paintings that show the movement of a spectator’s eyes across a canvas. The analysis of these images allows researchers like Raphael Rosenberg who participated in the workshop to compare spectators’ visual behaviour with art historical theories about the form and content of paintings. Over recent years, eye tracking studies have moved out of the research laboratory into museums and are increasingly interested in how other actions, such as speaking, influence looking at works of art.

As the response by Gregor Wedekind revealed art historians are not in agreement about the use and usefulness of eye-track within the discipline. Not only is the technical effort of eye-tracking studies large but also the outcome at times seems to reflect knowledge about works of art and their form and content that art historians have held for a long period of time.

Sociological Interpretation of Pictures – Save for the scientific analysis of looking at art  conducted by art historians and cognitive psychologists, in sociology there are strands of research that has emerged in light of Alfred Schütz’s phenomenological analyses. For example, Jürgen Raab presented the phenomenological analysis of pictures and Roswitha Breckner presented objective hermeneutics as two methods designed to reveal contemporary people’s interpretation of images.

Social Interaction in Museums has been investigated for more than two decades. Whilst earlier research in Visitor Studies considered the presence and actions of people in museums as ‘social factors’ since the mid-1990s research originating either in socio-cultural theory (Crowley, Knutsen, Leinhardt and others) explores how what is being looked at and how experiences and learning arises at exhibits are the result of social interaction, talk and discussion. These studies often have a particular interest in people’s ‘learning’ from exhibits and therefore, for example, compare the content of people’s talk with the content of exhibitions.

 

Change of Perspective: Visitors’ Point of View

The approaches exploring people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions can be described as ‘scientific’ or “formal-analytic” (Garfinkel & Sacks 1974). Researchers taking the perspective of the scientific observer categorise and measures the behaviour. They often consider behaviour as a response to the physical, visual and social environment.

For long, interactionist research has  challenged the scientific view of ‘behaviour’ and developed theories and methods to investigate ‘actions’ and their social organisation from the perspective of the ‘actor’; how do people produce their actions at particular moments in a situation? In developing ethnomethodology Harold Garfinkel proposed to eliminate the distinction between the scientific and the actor’s perspective. Thus, he radicalised interactionist and related approaches who argued for a theoretical change in perspectives and asked for a practical change of perspectives. As researchers we are not using typologies to describe people’s actions but we are interested in the practical organisation of people’s action. In other words: we are interested in how an action orients to a prior action, and how the action provides the context for a next action (Heritage 1984).

Audio-/video-recordings  provide access to this recursive interrelationship of actions as they are produced in front of exhibits. Rather than using a formal-analytic scheme to categorise action video-based studies of interaction (Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff 2010) examine in detail the moment-by-moment emergence of action. They examine the (social) organisation of people’s talk, gestures, bodily and visual action and their orientation to the material and visual environment. In museums, this means that they are concerned with revealing how people who, for example, stand at a painting look at the piece in concert with each other, use talk and gesture to jointly examine a particular exhibit element together and provide each other with ways of making sense of the object. Rather than considering action to be stimulated by exhibit elements, as visitor research has often argued, video-based research that draws on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology inspects how people orient to each other and how they systematically embed aspects of the environment in their action and interaction.

 

Implication of Video-based Research in Museums

Visitor research is a largely applied field of research. From its origins it was concerned with assessing the effectiveness and to inform the design and development of exhibits. and exhibitions. However, by considering the material and visual material to be external to people’s action and interaction and conceiving it as a stimulus of action visitor research ignores the social organisation of action.

By focusing on the ways in which people organise their action and how they contingently intertwine their action with material and visual aspects of the environment, video-based studies that draws on ethnomethodology can inform, for example, the design of information resources deployed in museums and galleries. This requires systematic studies of how people orient to labels and paintings in art museums, how they use information provided in labels in their examination of works of art and in their talk and interaction with others. They can show that labels as well as novel interactive systems and devices are not only information sources for individual users but that the technology as well as the information displayed on them often become a resource that people embed within their interaction with others and that they use to influence and shape each other’s experience of art.

References

Bachta, R. J., Filippini-Fantoni, S., & Leason, T. (2012). Evaluating the Practical Applications of Eye Tracking in Museums | museumsandtheweb.com. In Museums and the Web. San Diego, CA.

Bitgood, S. (1993). Social influences on the visitor museum experience. Visitor Behavior.

Bitgood, S., & Shettel, H. H. (1996). An overview of visitor studies. The Journal of Museum Education, 21(3), 6–10. http://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.1996.11510329

Breckner, R. (2010). Sozialtheorie des Bildes : Zur interpretativen Analyse von Bildern und Fotografien. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. http://doi.org/10.1177/0263276404047415

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring “Interactivity”: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63–91. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312707084152

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klein, C., Betz, J., Hirschbuehl, M., Fuchs, C., Schmiedtová, B., Engelbrecht, M., … Rosenberg, R. (2014). Describing Art – An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Effects of Speaking on Gaze Movements during the Beholding of Paintings. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e102439. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102439

Knoblauch, H., Schnettler, B., Raab, J., & Soeffner, H.-G. (Eds.). (2006). Video-Analysis: Qualitative Audiovisual Data Analysis in Sociology Methodologies of Video Analysis. New York: Peter-Lang.

Massaro, D., Savazzi, F., Di Dio, C., Freedberg, D., Gallese, V., Gilli, G., & Marchetti, A. (2012). When Art Moves the Eyes: A Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Study. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37285. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037285

Raab, J. (2008). Visuelle Wissenssoziologie. Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (Erfahrung – Wissen – Imagination): Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (1. Aufl.). UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH.

Shettel, Harris H. 1976. An Evaluation of Visitor Response to ‘Man and His Environment’. Report no. AIR-43200-7/76-FR. Washington, D.C.” American Instituts of Research.

vom Lehn, D. (2010). Examining “Response”: Video-based Studies in Museums and Galleries. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 4(1), 33–43.

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin Suisse de Linguistique Appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2014). Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Harold Garfinkel und die Kultursoziologie. In S. Moebius, F. Nungesser, & K. Scherke (Eds.), Handbuch Kultursoziologie: Band 1: Begriffe — Kontexte — Perspektiven — Autor{_}innen (pp. 1–10). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-08000-6_66-1

vom Lehn, D., & Heath, C. (2016). Action at the exhibit face: video and the analysis of social interaction in museums and galleries. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15–16), 1441–1457.

 

The Next Bison: Social Computing and Culture

Are online reviews fair? Consider these reviews of a small printer, the Canon Pixma MG6320 on the Consumer Reports website. At the time I am writing, there are three reviews, and all three writers gave it one star out of a possible five—the worst possible rating. The review titles are:

  • “Piece of junk”
  • “Unreliable and unbelievably expensive”
  • “The worst printer ever.”

 On the other hand, on Amazon.com the same printer currently has 464 reviews, and it gets an average of four out of five stars. Sample review titles include:

  • “Amazing printer”
  • “Made a great gift”
  • “A very good buy”

There are also negative reviews of course (“I wish I could give it minus stars”), but the consensus is four-star positive.

What is going on here? You could speculate that it’s just a matter of randomness and numbers—the three reviews are too small of a sample to matter, and…

View original post 872 more words

the below I posted earlier on the SSSI Blog

http://sssiorg.wordpress.com

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“I have no universal cure for the ills of Sociology. A multitude of myopias limit the glimpse we get of our subject matter” (Erving Goffman, 1983: 2)

On September 27th, a conference was held at the University of Cardiff where participants discussed the influence of Goffman’s concept of the “interaction order” on sociology and related disciplines. Four speakers, Paul AtkinsonGreg SmithRandall Collins, and Susie Scott explicated the origin, application and further development of Goffman’s concepts and analytic devices.

Atkinson delivered a performance that would better be shown as a video-clip than summarised in a written paragraph. He began by highlighting that Goffman’s interest was interaction as it happens and he demanded from his students to “go out and uncover something”, rather than to concern themselves with theory and concepts. By drawing on short video-clips from masterclasses for a tenor Atkinson illustrated some of the aspect of the “interaction order” and highlighted that for Goffman it was important to unpack the intrinsic properties of situations without attributing them to individual participants. This of course is not unproblematic as situations are loaded with a history that can hardly be understood from the situation at hand alone. The sociologist therefore needs to embed themselves within situations, make observations and conduct interviews to be able to understand the events. Thus, they will be able to make sense of how the participants refer to and draw on the history of the situation to go about the action at hand.

Smith illustrated his talk “Interaction Order Controversies” with photographs he had taken on the Shetland Islands where Goffman had gathered the data that form the basis for his PhD and for what we know today as “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” It is the original PhD thesis where Goffman uses the term “interaction order” for the first time. Then however it took until 1982/3 before he again uses the term to highlight the myopia of contemporary sociology. In the time he deployed concepts like “copresence” and “small behaviours” to denote the organisation of conduct in situations. Aside from exploring the origin and use of “interaction order” and related concept in Goffman’s writings Smith also discussed how the concepts sits within the micro-/macro debate that has been ongoing since sociology was founded as a discipline. Aside from talking about Goffman’s work, Smith also talked about Goffman as an academic who at his time was one of the best paid sociologists in the USA; he obviously was very much aware of his value and was able to use it to advance his career.

This leads us to Randall Collins’ talk who drew relations between Goffman and Garfinkel as well as to other areas of sociology that often are described as macro-sociology; Giddens to mention but one representative, used Goffman and Garfinkel to underpin his structuration theory. In his talk Collins drew attention to some curious aspects of Goffman’s work, such as his heavy reliance on codes of conduct as resources for his studies whilst at the same time in the 1960s young people were distancing themselves from just that order and the related rituals described in these books. He pointed out however the richness of Goffman’s work and how he addressed the micro-/macro-question by explicating the ingredients of interaction rituals and their link to social structure; for instance, he showed that different people deploy different greeting rituals, wear different clothes etc. displaying their ‘place’ in society. Collins, of course, is very well known for his studies of violence and conflict. In his talk he showed how that research links in to Goffman’s studies of interaction rituals in that people when being violent manage the impression they give of themselves.

The final talk was delivered by Susie Scott whose interest in Goffman is known for example through her work on Total Institutions and Shyness. In her talk she elaborated on four facets she sees in Goffman: the hero, the detective, the villain and the magician. She brought these four images of Goffman to life by referring to her research on shyness, intimate deception,  and others. At various points her talk showed close relationships to the points raised by the talks by Atkinson, Smith and Collins. In particular her reference to Goffman the villain linked nicely into Smith talk that touched on the sometimes not easy character of Goffman and his very well known ‘unusual’ behaviour at social gatherings.

The presentations together with the discussions during sessions and in breaks showed how relevant and influential Goffman still is for sociology. As time goes by his influence is growing beyond sociology and reaches into performance studies, management and marketing as well as into various areas engineering including the design of virtual worlds and social networking sites.

The conference was organised by Martin Innes and William Housley. A Twitter stream accompanied the event managed by Robin Smith. With the #socsigoffman you can trace some of the information of the event.

Recent Articles in Symbolic Interaction related to Goffman

Phil Strong: The Importance of Being Erving

Susie Scott et al. Goffman in the Gallery: Interactive Art and Visitor Shyness

Chris Conner’s Review of Stigma Revisited

@dirkvl

There is an interesting piece by the Nobel Prize Winner (2000) Eric R. Kandel in the New York Times.Titled “What the Brain Can Tell US About Art” Kandel’s piece contributes to discussions about art that have been going on for at least a decade now in the ‘science of the brain’. I remember vividly coming across Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article “The Science of Art” that pursues a similar argument as Kandel’s essay: by studying processes in the brain we can learn something about art itself. Kandel discusses some aspects of the emergence of this idea by briefly discussing the concept of the “beholder’s involvement” or “beholder’s share” as developed by Alois Riegl of the Vienna School of Art History, the teacher of Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich.

As part of the argument Kandel suggests that the brain completes  incomplete information s/he has received from the outer world. Interpretation of art therefore is a cognitive process through which the ‘beholder’ “recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps”. Furthermore, he argues that because our brains develop in much the same ways we are able to “see the world in pretty much the same way”. He thereby lodges intersubjectivity within  individual brains and presumes that intersubjectivity is a result of processes in the brain. Whilst he acknowledges that individual differences between people exist due to their individual life experience (“memories”) he ignores the situation in which people encounter works of art or other objects and how the specifics of that situation influences how people make sense of the pieces.

One situation in which people often encounter works of art are exhibitions in museums and galleries. When they examine a piece they are often with friends or acquaintances and in the presence of other people who spend time in the same gallery at the same time. The actions of all these people are perceiveable by all those in range and influence how they explore the galleries, what they look and for long and how they see and make sense of it. In museums, the individual spectator or ‘beholder’ is a myth that we rarely meet. For example, people stop at and examine works of art together. They stand with a companion side-by-side and sometimes, ‘independently’, at least for a short while, look to the piece. As their eyes cross the canvas, for instance of a famous Rembrandt portrait, something like Kandel’s version of interpretation might happen. But often already after two or three seconds one of them will refer to and comment on a particular exhibit feature that then for a short moment becomes the focus of the interaction between the pair. They briefly talk about the feature and then either return to an ‘independent’ inspection of the piece or leave the exhibit to continue with their exploration of the museum elsewhere.

The short moment when the two people align their perspectives to look a particular exhibit feature together and discuss it is when something is produced, momentarily, that we might call intersubjectivity. It is not lodged inside the people’s brains but the product of their oral and bodily actions. A moment later when the action stops the intersubjective sense making of the piece dissolves and the people continue their visit of the museum.

When calling the examination of the piece prior to the interactional engagment ‘independent’ I did not presume that the actions at the exhibit-face were arising separate from each other. Rather while the eyes cross the canvas of the painting the visitors are aware of each other and attend to even slight changes in posture and head direction as well as even to slight movements of the legs and feet that may display or foreshadow a shift in activity. ‘Independent’ and ‘individual’ therefore are not appropriate terms to describe even those moments when people  stand and look at exhibits while standing side-by-side without talking.

Essays like Kandel’s or Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article reflect how we think about looking at and interpreting art. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” has become a folk description of aesthitic judgments. Interestingly however the statement is often used to account for differences in aesthetic judgment and not to display intersubjective agreement about aesthetics. Kandel’s point also resonates with us as readers who sit there individually ‘interpreting’ a text that in this moment is not available to others. I read the piece in an armchair while nobody else was around in the house. Imagine the article printed on a large poster or series of posters and being read by people in pairs. Maybe like those visitors facing Rembrandt’s portrait they would stop half-way through, discuss and maybe disagree about Kandel’s claim that intersubjectivity arises in our brains.

Essays and books like Kandel’s (2012) “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousness in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present” are fascinating reads. However, I wonder when the time will come that this kind of brain science will leave the laboratory and be made relevant where ‘the rubber hits the road’ or where people with brains, bodies and the ability to communicate and interact face works of art.

The design of systems to support people’s navigation of exhibitions often draws on concepts and theories about visitors’ movement through exhibitions. In reference to relevant literature it makes inferences about people’s interests in exhibits by the ways in which they navigate galleries and at which exhibits they stop and for how long. Thereby, designers and museum managers often talk about “visiting styles” and refer to a French paper by Veron and Levasseur (1991). Therein, the authors apparently, I haven’t read the paper, use an analogy from the animal world to describe four types of visiting style: ants, fishes, butterflys and grasshoppers. These types are seen as ideal types and it is argued that mixed styles of navigation are common. In fact, as Opperman and Specht (2000) suggest in reference to Bianchi and Zancanaro’s (1999) conference paper “the classification of a visitor is no longer made stereotypically by describing a visitor uniquely as one of the four animals, but as an estimation of the ‘degree of compatibility between the user’s movement pattern and the four stereotypes’ at a given point in time” (Bianchi and Zancanaro (1999) in Opperman and Specht 2000: p.132). From this typology probabilities are derived regarding people’s navigation pattern. This allows for the fact that visitors might change their visiting style ‘mid-fly’, i.e. as they navigate and exhibition. For example, a fish who has spent relatively little or no time with exhibits in one gallery, may encounter a gallery with objects s/he is more interested in and therefore spends more time with, thus turning into an ant.

This concept of visiting style links the  way and speed in which people navigate exhibitions to their level of engagement with exhibits. Underlying this concept of museum visiting are conventional measures of visitor research, i.e. the stopping and holder power of exhibits, coupled with theories of learning, such as the late Chan Screven’s (1976) goal-referenced approach that link assumptions about ‘learning from exhibits’ to the time people spend with exhibits. Using this approach it is possible to argue for technologies that promise to extend the time of people’s engagement with exhibits because according to theory, it leads to cognitive development.

A different but related kind of typology has been developed by John Falk (2009) in his book “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience”. Here, Falk proposes to link visitor behaviour to people’s motivations  grounded in the identity. His argument is more complex than the typology discussed above. It can be seen as an expansion of earlier work by the same author where he together with colleagues investigated visitors’ agenda for museum visiting.

As Veron and Levasseur’s (1991) typology Falks differentiation of visitors in types represents a classification scheme that in reality cannot be found in this way. It is an attempt to bring order to a messy social world and seems very useful for museum managers and marketing managers because of this lack of messiness. They can use such typologies to make decisions about exhibition programmes or technologies to be deployed in their galleries.

Such theories about museum visiting however largely ignore the reality of visitors’ experience of museums. They neglect what people actually do in museums, how they approach, examine and depart from exhibits, and how they make experiences of exhibits and generate experiences for others. This neglect is grounded on related research that is primarily interested in the individual visitor or in groups and families that are considered as social entities rather than as dynamic social processes. Researchers see the origin of actions, such as the approach to an exhibit or the departure from an exhibit, in either the visitor’s motivation or in the design of the exhibit. Yet, save for very few exceptions these researchers rarely look at how people draw each other to examine exhibits, how they encourage each other to inspect objects in particular ways, how they generate experiences for each other and how they occasion each other to move on.

By investigating the details of people’s action at the “point of experience” where the action is and where the action can be observed, researchers see how people produce experiences of exhibits in interaction with others. Whilst on the surface these details appear to ‘messy’ a closer look reveals that they are systematically produced and intelligibly orderly. Visitors in galleries behave in intelligible ways and their action becomes observable and reportable as museum visiting, without them requiring theoretical typologies to make sense of each other’s action.

It would seem that basing decisions on detailed knowledge about what people are actually doing in museums would provide decision makers in museums with a safer footing than theories about visitors’ actions. Are there any museum managers or designers out there who use detailed observational or video-based research to inform their decision making?

 

For related research go here

 

References

Bianchi, A. and M. Zancanaro, Tracking Users’ Movements in an Artistic Physical Space, in Proceedings of the i3 Annual Conference: Community of the Future, Octo- ber 20 – 22, 1999 in Siena, M. Caenepeel, D. Benyon, and D. Smith, Editors. 1999, The Human Communication Research Centre, The University of Edinburgh: Edin- burgh. p. 103 – 106.

Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press Inc. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Museums-Identity-John-H-Falk/dp/1598741632

Heath, C., & Vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. doi:10.1177/0263276404047415

Oppermann, R., & Specht, M. (2000). A Context-Sensitive Nomadic Exhibition Guide, 127–142.

Screven, C. G. (1976). Exhibit Evaluation: A goal-referenced approach. Curator, 52(9), 271–290.

Véron, E. and M. Levasseur, Ethnographie de l’exposition: L’espace, le corps et le sens. 1991, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.

vom Lehn, D. (2006). Embodying experience: A video-based examination of visitors’ conduct and interaction in museums. European Journal of Marketing, 40(11/12), 1340–1359. doi:10.1108/03090560610702849

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin suisse de linguistique appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2013). Withdrawing from Exhibits: the interactional organisation of museum visits. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility: Language and the Body in Motion. Berlin: de Gryter.

There is an interesting discussion about linearity of exhibitions over at Nina Simon’s Museum2.0. Ed Rodley (*wave back*) has added his own take on this discussion on his blog “Thinking about Museums“. Ed highlights the relationship and between on the one hand the physical or geographical organization of exhibitions and on the other hand the narrative organization of the content of exhibitions. He kindly refers to my own post from a couple of week’s ago where I was trying to explicate some of the advantages of exhibitions that physically organize their exhibits in a linear way. Such an organization suggests to visitors where the next exhibit is and by glancing over to people standing there, can assess when it is opportune to move on without pushing or nudging the others to leave that piece.

In a way, my studies highlight the delicateness of people’s exploration of these spaces and how polite and respectful they conduct themselves when moving through these spaces that are in Lyn Lofland’s Words “A World of Strangers“.  Yet, what I implied to say as well was that whilst we may not know the other people who explore the museum at the same time they are not ‘strange’ in the sense that we couldn’t make assumptions about the trajectory of their actions. By monitoring, maybe only from the corner of the eye, what others are doing, we can assess their engagement with an exhibit and align our actions with their state of engagement; for example, when the person at the ‘next’ exhibit takes their glasses off and makes a step backward we can presume that possibly they will withdraw from the piece. Moreover, by having observed where they have come from we can also assume where they may go next and thereupon prepare our next action. Thus, in museums with a linear organisation of exhibits that we often find in art galleries and in history (of art, science or culture) museums, an “organized walking” can emerge that Tony Bennett refers to in his “The Birth of the Museum” and that some have described as “museum discipline”; Stefan Hirschauer, for instance” talks about the silent shuffling through galleries in his study of the famous (or infamous) “Body Worlds” exhibitions.

Many exhibitions these days however lack such a visible linearity. For example, for years now exhibitions have been organized in thematic clusters. These clusters contain a number of exhibits that somehow make up the theme of the cluster. We find these clustered themes in particular in science centres. They are predominantly made up of hands-on and computer-based interactives that engage visitors for considerable time. These interactives are designed in different ways; some are configured like a challenge encouraging visitors to interact with them multiple time to see whether they can improve on their previous attempt, or to compete in the challenge with others. It therefore is never quite clear for others when a visitor or a group of visitors engaging with an exhibit bring a challenge to an end and move on, vacating the space at the interactive. This leads to curious forms of conduct in these clusters:

– Visitors standing behind others who interact with an exhibit can be seen as ‘waiting’ and therefore as applying some pressure on those engaged in an activity. Challenges therefore are brought to an end prematurely because of the pressure of others waiting behind

– Visitors may continue to interact with an interactive or display an involvement with an interactive because neighbouring exhibits are occupied by others and they do not know where to go next; they do not want to end up waiting without being occupied themselves.

– Visitors who are with somebody who interacts with an exhibit look over their shoulder and alert the ‘user’ to a neighbouring exhibit becoming available.

In these exhibitions therefore it is not obvious where to go next but the onward movement is often influenced by the ‘becoming-available’ of neighbouring exhibits. When Ed points to the difference between the geographical and narrative organization of exhibits, we can see that an organization of exhibits in a non-linear way might obscure the narrative relationship between exhibits. Visitors do not know anymore why they become involved with an exhibit now, other than that this exhibit has now become available. It would seem that the narrative gap arising from the non-linear organization of exhibits requires tools that make up for the deficit. Some exhibitions try to achieve coherence by providing visitors with information on text-panels or in other ways.

Some related research can be found here.