Despite the chilly New England weather, I took my motorcycle out of winter hibernation this week and took off for an hour-long ride through rural, cranberry bog-littered towns. Listening to nothing but the wind in my helmet reminded me of why I love motorcycle riding and museums: it’s the opportunity to be alone in my thoughts.
On the bike, there’s no radio, no possible cell phone interruptions, and no passenger conversation. It’s just me, observing the road, enjoying the scenery, thinking. My morning ride today took me past 250-year old cemeteries and barely-standing colonial homes, white churches and stone fences — all artifacts of our south shore Massachusetts — no interpretation, and most enjoyably, no interactive computer monitors encouraging me to “dig deeper” into the content, or to “share” my observations with others.
In designing museum exhibits, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is the slow disappearance of the bench and of the empty space. There’s a requirement for a minimum number of benches in museums, to accommodate accessibility concerns, but that’s typically where it ends. There’s little effort to provide seating areas and visually clutter-free spaces simply for visitor comfort.
I recently came across this wonderful blog, devoted to visitor comfort and seating in museums and similar public spaces, called “Please Be Seated.” The blog has three years of interesting content. Their introductory post states that the importance of seating areas in museum is simply, ”because these are intrinsically good characteristics of any space and because visitors will be encouraged to return.”
Art museums have always been good at benches — at providing plenty of them, at placing them in calming areas, and at having different types and sizes. But in science centers, children’s museums, and other often loud and crowded museum facilities, spaces with comfortable seating and empty walls — allowing visitors to take a mental break between exhausting exhibits — are rare real estate.
We need to get better at that. As exhibit designers, we need to slow down, stop filling every square inch of our projects with “cool” stuff and interactive “experiences,” and imagine ourselves visiting the museum, periodically needing a bit of downtime. We need to educate our clients on the importance of empty or simple exhibit spaces — calm transitions between deep content and dynamic designs — and encourage our clients to preserve those spaces (because when someone on the team comes up with another neat idea, or wants to add yet more “interactives” or artifacts, those areas of respite and seating will be the first things sacrificed).
Museums aren’t just about filling our eyes and ears with as much stuff as possible. They’re not just for educating and entertaining. When they succeed, they allow us to stop, think, and contemplate.