The Infinite Museum: An innovative digital platform to transform the museum visitor experience

Timothy Berg, Ball State University, USA, Erin Bretz, Ball State University, USA, Alyson Walbridge, Ball State University, USA, Kayla Gurganus, Ball State University, USA

Abstract

The Infinite Museum is an innovative Web application that offers museum visitors short, creative, and unusual prompts to get them thinking about the art in museums in new ways. The tool helps visitors connect their own experiences to their encounter with art and offers a powerful model for how to rethink the museum visitor experience. This demonstration and paper show how the product is used and give people a sense of the power it can unleash in a museum visitor.

Keywords: Education, Experience, Creativity

1. Prologue

The Infinite Museum was created as part of an immersive learning seminar for undergraduate students at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, a special program at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where students take no other courses but this seminar and immerse themselves in a project that has several requirements: it must have a community partner, it must produce a product, and it should require some creative inquiry from the students and faculty member. I had an idea to produce a Web application that would help visitors to art museums experience the art in new and unusual ways: to treat the museum experience as a kind of performance art. The students began the seminar with only these requirements and this framework of an idea. Together we built this new tool.

2. The project

The Infinite Museum (www.theinfinitemuseum.com) is a responsive website (an enhanced website built on WordPress that behaves like a native application on mobile devices) designed and written for the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Once there, users find more than 1,500 short prompts to help museum visitors engage the art at the museum in new and unique ways. When they find a prompt they like, they can go where the prompt directs them, usually to a specific work of art (though some prompts direct them to a gallery or even the museum in general), have the experience suggested by the prompt, and then see what happens. They can respond to the prompt within the application for others to see or via social media. They can save favorite prompts for enjoying again. They can suggest new ones for the museum staff to add to the program. It’s a pretty simple organization and concept, but that simplicity belies the kinds of transformative experiences that can happen with these prompts. Here is what the opening page looks like:

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Figure 1: opening screen

Press the enter button, and in you go. You’re then taken to a random prompt. If you like that one, go for it. If not, press the “Onward” button and get a new one. Repeat until you find one you like. Here are some options to give a flavor for the range of prompts one can encounter here:

The strange:

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Figure 2: a strange prompt

The silly:

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Figure 3: a silly prompt

One encouraging personal reflection:

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Figure 4: a reflective prompt

One that creates a mood or atmosphere:

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Figure 5: a prompt that creates a mood or atmosphere

And, finally, another more deeply personal one:

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Figure 6: a personal prompt

The first part of this last prompt could be taken as a little silly, but the second sentence hits with a powerful, personal force. Now the visitor is potentially thinking about their personal characteristics, what affects them and how; they may even think about the connection between these big life issues and their domestic environment. Has your family ever gotten off-balance at the kitchen table? Tables don’t usually send a person off into deep personal reflection, but this prompt makes that happen. This is the kind of disjunctive thinking I aim for in my teaching and that was a hallmark of this seminar: putting two things together that don’t usually go together in order to create new meaning in the world. We were creating multiple lenses: some silly, some serious, some traditional, some a bit bizarre. All of them were designed to help people see with fresh eyes.

We also wanted to upend and augment the commonly held notion that there is a proper way to think about art, that one needed to be informed about the history and culture of an artist or people, or that one needed to be trained in art history. One effective way to get students into a difficult text or idea is to help them find their personal connection to an idea or image within it. In this application, we ask people to start where they are, and many of our prompts are written in ways that get people to reflect on their own feelings, ideas, history, and viewpoints.

We also felt, and tested, the idea that many people don’t want to commit to a tour. Tours have their place, but they’re often too prescriptive. They tell you where to go and what to know about the art. While it’s true that people bring their own thoughts to the tours, we wanted to have a more playful experience that would be responsive to their needs and time commitments. When visitors find a prompt they like, they can spend as little or as much time with it as they wish. The level of commitment is up to them. Some days, I wanted to do multiple prompts and link them in my head; other times, I had only a few minutes and could then do one prompt, have an uplifting or unusual short experience, and go on with my day.

The prompts are given completely randomly; when visitors are ready to move on, they simply touch the “Onward” button. This randomness gives the experience a more playful feel. It also helps that because the prompts can be so different, the juxtaposing of several experiences in short order allows for unique experiences as a person tries one, gets some insight, then moves to another shortly afterward and has some very different insight. That closeness in time allows them put the experiences together in surprising ways. It doesn’t hurt that the David Owsley Museum of Art is small but has a wide-ranging collection of art, from ancient Egypt to modern art, so it’s easy to quickly move from one type of art to another very different type.

In a similar manner, many people see art museums as social spaces, places to enjoy with friends and family. But unlike many other spaces where this happens, museums have an element of mystery to them in the art, which raises important questions. Art is at times strange and confusing. We wrote prompts that encouraged visitors to talk with their fellow visitors about both the art and the prompts. In doing so, they learned more about themselves, the art, and each other. We were inspired by some of Nina Simon’s experiences, recounted in her book The Participatory Museum, where she made human sculptures with a stranger in a museum. We hope those conversations, with friends or with strangers, will spark new insights about relationships of all kinds.

To increase the social effect, the application encourages users to respond to prompts and makes space for that to happen. Users can both contribute new lenses with which to view an artwork and can gain new lenses by seeing what others before them have said. On each prompt page, users can see a space for previous responses; they have to scroll down to actually see the responses. This way, they don’t have their initial experience with a work of art colored by a previous user’s response. Visitors can also suggest prompts to be included in the application, and museum staff will vet and publish them as long as they aren’t offensive or vulgar in some way. These interactive facets help make the Infinite Museum truly infinite.

In addition to these main features, visitors can search the collection by artwork, keyword, or gallery and find prompts associated with the work of art. This reduces the playful randomness, but we deemed it a useful secondary feature to help the museum education staff and docents use the application with specific programs. Users can also create a profile to save their responses and can favorite prompts they like to come back to later.

We ended up writing more than 1,500 prompts for the initial release in December 2014. More will come as more users contribute and as the Owsley Museum staff adds more prompts for future special exhibits, something that is already happening. Most prompts direct users to a particular work of art. When there, they can think about the prompt as they face the artwork, and most prompts require closer looking at the art. We tried to extend the average time spent by most art museum visitors well beyond the eight seconds usually given to a work of art. The more time we spend with a work of art, the more we get from the experience.

About a third of the prompts at the initial release are what we called general prompts, meaning they weren’t tied to a specific work of art but could be used with any work in a particular gallery, in the Owsley Museum as a whole, or in any museum in the world. They encourage visitors to see the museum itself in new ways or to play (respectfully!) in the museum. There is an example above, and instead of the work of art we showed a photograph of the Owsley Museum exterior. Here are some further examples:

“In limbo. Look at the negative space between artworks. Draw a picture of the gallery you are in, emphasizing only the negative space.”

“Had a hard day? Wish you could escape for a couple of hours? Pick a painting into which you would want to disappear.”

“Find a work of art that reminds you of someone you know. Pinpoint exactly why it does.”

During a field study to New York City, we tested some of these general prompts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (among others), and the results were successful. We’re now working on collecting those general prompts into a small, pocket-sized book that could be sold in any museum in the world.

There’s also a frequently asked questions page, a page about the product, and pages introducing our team members. More than all of this, however, the Infinite Museum is a tool for playful engagement with big ideas, for deep thinking about art and life, and for sharing those insights with others.

3. Relevance to other museums

Maybe this sounds like a fascinating way to engage museum visitors, but you’re probably asking, “What’s in it for me?” My goal in this article is not simply to alert you to this particular application. I’m hoping it can be a model for a new way to engage visitors in other museums, but it isn’t necessary to build an application like this (though contact me if you’d like to learn how!). The technical side wasn’t terribly difficult. What takes time is writing the content, and I had a team of fifteen people doing so. Instead, let me outline some ways of adapting this approach in your institution.

  • The heart of this approach lies in the creativity of the prompts. We all have unique ways of approaching art. A museum staff, its docents, its supporters, and the surrounding community are all full of creative people with unique perspectives. We had a particularly creative student on our team who worked to develop meta-prompts for us, ideas to goad new prompt creation (“write prompts about food,” “write prompts about your first crush,” etc.). A museum education director could supply some sample meta-prompts for other staff members to use in order to generate ideas. Teams of staff members could sit before a particular work of art and, Visual Thinking Strategies–style, riff on ideas and generate prompts that way. You can then use these prompts in a variety of ways and add new ones as time allows.
  • The Owsley Museum put up about fourteen of these prompts on standard 8- by 10-inch cards on stands around the museum. They get people to stop and think about something odd related to a nearby work of art. That’s a low-tech way to do this requiring no coding or even electronics.
  • Prompts could easily be added into existing tours or other multimedia content.
  • Random prompts could appear on digital screens that may already exist in your institution.
  • Museum staff could create a series of prompts for a special exhibition and use them on cards, digital displays, or whatever works, at special opening night events, member-only events, and high-traffic times of the day or week. We had team members demonstrating prompts during one such event, and they drew other visitors into their orbit because they were doing something fun, and that fun was contagious.
  • Do you have an exhibit with work by living artists who will be coming to visit? See if they’ll write a few prompts about their work. You never know!
  • Education directors can use prompts, on cards or otherwise, as parts of specific events targeted to specific audiences. We used them at a “Friday with Friends” event where we displayed a prompt on a screen and solicited responses. The most compelling responses won tickets to an opera simulcast, and the event was fun and different.
  • In testing our prompts, we participated in an outdoor arts walk in Muncie and printed a large image of a maritime painting in the Owsley Museum with a prompt above it. Passersby were encouraged to add a response to the prompt using slips of paper and markers. We added the responses to extra space around the image. It was a big hit and encouraged strangers to talk to each other on the street about the art and their responses. Why not adapt this to particularly popular works of art in your museum? Monitoring that display at busy times might be a perfect docent or other volunteer opportunity.
  • Before we had a working Web application, we used simple 3- by 5-inch note cards to test new prompts each week. Why not write some prompts, print them on simple card stock, and let visitors pick them up and try them out?
  • Hold a special prompt-writing event for some of your more adventurous patrons. Focus on just a couple of works or a specific gallery. Add some wine, beer, and cocktails to the mix to loosen everyone up.
  • Reach out to creative writers in your community encouraging them to write prompts. There’s a long tradition of ekphrastic poetry and other writing about art; why not adapt that to short prompts?
  • Have you seen the Tate galleries in London inviting musicians to play in certain galleries or the poets the Museum of Modern Art has placed in front of certain works of art? Hold small events centered around a particular prompt and work of art. Treat it as a performance art event.
  • One student on my team really wanted to walk around the museum in a sandwich board with one general prompt on each side just to see what kind of response he would get.
  • Other students suggested we do a roulette wheel of general prompts near the entrance of the museum to pique visitor interest.
  • Add a general prompt to your museum maps, restaurant napkins, receipts, or any other printed materials visitors receive. When Chipotle added short essays to its bags and cups, it generated a lot of interest.
  • More than seventy-five of the prompts currently in the Infinite Museum application are potentially interesting to children. Add them to your events for that age group.

These are just a few random ideas. The heart of this entire project and application is to generate disjunctive learning experiences that allow visitors to put themselves and two or more new things together to see what happens. Any work of art is a lens through which to think about many things. Its infiniteness is part of the basic appeal of art. There’s always something new to see and think about each time we approach a work of art, because we are new each time, even if the art is a familiar favorite. The Infinite Museum’s prompts and the user responses that may appear with them help make each visit a fresh and exciting one, even for return visitors. Taking visitors from where they are and being open and flexible to respond to a variety of needs rather than a top-down tour approach, an application such as this can create interest for your museum, excite visitors, and encourage repeat visits. More than all this, however, is the potential it has to spark personal insights and transformations as part of the art-viewing experience.

If you use any of these ideas or adapt this approach, I’d love to hear about it. For that purpose, or if you have any questions about the process or the application, don’t hesitate to contact me at tdberg [at] bsu.edu.

Acknowledgements

This project was supported by an immersive learning grant from the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry at Ball State University, a public state university in Muncie, Indiana, USA.


Cite as:
. "The Infinite Museum: An innovative digital platform to transform the museum visitor experience." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 23, 2015. Consulted .
https://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/the-infinite-museum-an-innovative-digital-platform-to-transform-the-museum-visitor-experience/