Visitors getting creative at the Natural History activity station
Carnegie Museum of Art shares its historic building with Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While these are two entirely distinct museums with separate staffs, boards, and programs, for many Pittsburghers the sprawling building we occupy is simply “The Museum” where one can see paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and contemporary art installations, as well as mummies, bugs, butterflies, dinosaurs, and dioramas representing diverse aspects of the natural world (all for one price of admission!).
The Forum Gallery is an art museum space located just off the entrance lobby shared by the two museums. Typically this gallery is dedicated to small, changing exhibitions of contemporary art. Most recently, our curator of contemporary art Dan Byers installed an exhibition in this gallery of art from our permanent collection on the theme of nature that he titled Natural History, making a purposeful play on our sister institution’s name. We took this opportunity to push our interest in participatory engagement and to collaborate with our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History to address the important topic of art and science as two ways of exploring the world.
Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky challenged us to find a way to overcome a major practical problem with the Forum Gallery space: how to get visitors to enter a gallery that is often obscured by a large wall that blocks the light from the large lobby windows nearby. We also wanted to:
- Inspire visitors to engage in active looking: notice, reflect, react, and respond to the works of art and to the interdisciplinary quality of the exhibition.
- Reassert the “forum” aspect of the Forum Gallery by motivating visitors to share their own ideas and interpretations of the artwork with other visitors in physical and virtual formats. This coincides with the identification of 20- and 30-year-olds as an audience targeted for growth in attendance.
What could we put in the lobby just outside the gallery to:
- Capture the attention of visitors and alert them to the exhibition behind the wall?
- Offer something fun and appealing to do that required entering the exhibition?
- Inspire visitors to look, think, and respond actively to the works on view?
SOLUTION: POST-IT NOTES? YES.
We wondered how to bring their reactions of the artworks from the gallery to the activity space in the lobby, and offer visitors some control over their interactions with the artworks. We decided to select 12 individual works of art from the exhibition, reproduce them as 2.5 x 2.5-inch post-it notes, and attach a stack of the small reproductions on the wall next to each related original work. (Who doesn’t like a mini version of something?)
Post-it note reproductions of works by: Mel Bochner, Paul Thek, Katy Grannan, Beatriz Milhazes, Ed Ruscha, Valeska Soares, Fischli & Weiss, Laura Owens, James Welling, Carsten Höller, John Divola, and Florian Maier-Aichen
The post-its would be used as the source material for visitors’ creative responses, allowing them to get their hands on the images—manipulating and modifying the works into something new. The activity was facilitated by the activity station set up in the lobby just outside the gallery. There, visitors encountered a large table with a long horizontal display board featuring a call to action at the top:
A friendly museum educator stood near the table to greet curious visitors; offer them one of five prompt sheets, a clip board, and colored pencils; and invite them into the gallery to begin their exploration. In the gallery, visitors enjoyed the art and selected one or more post-it reproductions and “curated” their arrangement on their prompt sheets adding captions, drawings, narrative…whatever the works of art inspired.
We tested five versions of the prompt sheets—some with instructions focused to the subject of the exhibition (artists’ takes on nature), others with more open-ended instructions designed to encourage a broader range of responses.
Below are some examples of the various prompt sheets and the kinds of responses we received. (You can also see more examples on our Facebook page.)
We posted completed prompt sheets on the display board with magnets and eventually provided stars and thumbs-up magnets for visitors who preferred responding to the work of other visitors to doing one themselves. We continually posted new completed sheets on our Facebook page and encouraged visitors to post them on their personal social media pages. In addition to the display board of recently completed sheets, we collected older sheets in two large binders for visitors to flip through, and placed one in the gallery and another at the table.
Our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History were eager collaborators. Together we identified locations in their galleries that resonated with the 12 focus works in the Forum exhibition. The scientific staff wrote and installed label texts in their galleries about the works of art from their perspectives. We provided a guide to these locations for visitors at the activity table.
Curator Dan Byers speaking at the Culture Club event for the exhibition
The exhibition was also the focus of one of our monthly Culture Club programs. After a short happy hour, Natural History museum staff joined artists and scientists from the community in lively gallery conversation about art and science with our curator and the public, and some completed activity sheets that were available at the station.
Over the weeks of the exhibition, visitors jotted down comments in a notebook at the activity table. Here are some samples:
“Awesome idea, super interactive—engaging!”
“It is great to feel more of a part of the museum!”
“All the artworks should have stickies.”
“This was transformational! Thank you so much! I hope more museums do things like this. How wonderful to be able to respond to art, to peruse and then participate instead of just keeping it all inside!!”—An English teacher
“It is a very great way for kids to connect art & nature…however it was a bit difficult for a 6-year-old to understand. (She did it anyway.) How about break it down for younger children?”
“What a wonderful resource for classes.”—A University of Pittsburgh professor
“People who did the responses are older than I expected.”—A college student
“I really like the post-its. I’m surprised I haven’t seen something like this in other museums.”
“I like that the art response of an 8 y.o. and the response of a 38 y.o. are so similar.”
—A college student
“We loved the post-it sticker idea, that way we can still share the artwork at home.”
—A mom & 2 small kids
“Great exhibit….post-it notes are great for children to participate and remember.”
- The post-it activity achieved our goals of getting visitors past the wall and into the gallery in huge numbers.
- Visitors really looked at and responded to the art. The completed sheets reveal incredible thoughtfulness, humor, and creative invention from visitors of all ages. We had very few “throw away” results.
- The variety of creative responses we received reflect the myriad perspectives of visitors to our interdisciplinary institution.
- We needed more display space for visitors’ finished sheets and space to group completed sheets to better facilitate rating and commenting by other visitors. Although visitors of all ages participated, a special “kids’ corner” on the display board would have communicated more easily that both adults and kids were welcome to participate.
- Some of the prompts were more successful than others, and some people used the sheets in completely independent ways, ignoring the prompt entirely. A few didn’t even incorporate the post-its (not that this is a bad thing). The “On the Edge” activity, which encouraged visitors to extend the images on the post-its beyond the frame was by far the most popular prompt. Many attracted to this prompt even connected separate works into a single composition. Also, a couple of the prompts were too similar, as visitors generally used them in the same way.
- Overwhelmingly visitors wanted a post-it reproduction of every work in the exhibition.
- Going forward we need better technology solutions on-site to help visitors and staff share responses as they are happening. We collected, scanned, and posted completed sheets to the museum website and Facebook page, and knowing that the sheets would be posted online was a motivator especially for 20- to 30-year-olds. We needed a way for visitors to share their work immediately on their own social media sites. Smartphone images didn’t read well given the limitations of screen size and the legibility of the artists’ writings and drawings.
- It would be good to have a way to gather metrics or track how (and if) visitors are sharing their creations on their own social media channels.
- Having the completed sheets attached to the specific artworks that motivated the visitors provides a clear context for the various interpretations and insights that will survive long after the exhibition is gone.
Overall we are happy with the results of this experiment, and we are busy thinking about some of the issues and opportunities related to this activity going forward—but we’d also love to hear from you. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please send me a note!: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- We’re curious about the sustainability of the post-its. How important is the novelty of the concept, or could we repeat this activity?
- Would it work without full-time staff support? If we changed the public display part could we make this an activity visitors can understand on their own? Was the chance to talk with the staff member a crucial visitor engagement connection?
- What questions or suggestions occur to you?
A LITTLE QR CODE EXPERIMENT
One of the works from the exhibition, Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Plant (Palm), was displayed just outside the gallery entrance, close to the post-it activity table. This conceptual work consists of a live palm tree situated in front of a wall grid measuring the plant’s (gradually changing) height and width in feet. During the exhibition we noticed that visitors and staff were taking their pictures near the palm tree, ostensibly to compare their height to the palm tree. We thought this might be a good opportunity to see if visitors would be interested in sharing their photos via social media.
Just below the object label we added a separate label with a basic call to action asking visitors to post their photos on our Facebook page.
The staff at the activity table asked visitors to share their photos. The label included the URL of our Facebook page as well as a QR code that simply led to the page to help save visitors time searching for us (in theory). While we did continue to see many people take photos of themselves and friends by the Bochner work, most did not share the photos with us online. Maybe it’s because the process required help from a friend or a nearby staff member from the activity to take a photo of the visitor? Maybe the tone or design of the label itself wasn’t noticeable or compelling enough? Maybe the QR code was a turnoff since it wasn’t really offering any additional content, and since most phones don’t even have QR scanners as a native app. In hindsight, scanning a code probably isn’t any easier than simply searching for our page or entering the URL. If we’re asking them to take the time to scan a code, there’d better be a good reason—lesson learned!
Still, we did get enough photos of visitors and some staff members to possibly beguile you with this animated gif: