What do I mean when I talk about interactivity?

One of the big things I’ve been researching is how museums approach audience engagement, and I’ve found varying opinions on the subject.

More often than not, the museum professionals I’ve spoken to have taken engagement and interactivity to mean highly interactive exhibits that usually rely on technology. And while the design of exhibits is a critical part of audience engagement, I’m usually taking interactivity a little more broadly.

Interactivity, for me, all comes down to how connected the museum is to the community it serves. Museums have had an unfortunate stereotype of look, but don’t touch. Be quiet. Read the information we give you and you’ll learn something. Let us tell you about this. History and Art museums fall into this most easily, and it’s understandable. These museums work with delicate artifacts, and the most straightforward way to present the information is to simply show the art with a small description of the piece and the artist’s or owner’s name. The burden of teaching, it would seem, rests on the museum that feels it is its responsibility to educate, and the burden of learning falls on the public, who feel it is their role to be fed information.

I’m reminded of one English class many years ago. We had been assigned a poem to read and interpret. I’ve forgotten the poem’s name, but the discussion we had is still clear. Most of the class came to the “correct” interpretation that the poem in four stanzas described the changing of the seasons, but one student said no, it’s about baseball. He described each line through this lens and I remember thinking that although I “knew” the poem was written about the seasons that he’s got a point. But rather than encourage this kind of interpretation, where we, the non-experts, are allowed to bring our experiences to the table, our teacher got into a heated argument with him over the poem’s true meaning, and she insisted his interpretation was wrong.

He did have a point, by the way. And I think that kind of interaction is also something we see in museums all the time. There’s an important part of the museum-audience interaction that I think is often missed: what do your audience members bring to the table? What do their experiences add to this exhibit? And the answer is not nothing. The answer is never nothing.

When I talk about interactivity, I am concerned with the mindset museums take: the social media approach to communicating with followers, the design of programming, and yes, the design of exhibits. But interactivity is also, I think, reevaluating the model of “museums teach, visitors learn” and maybe looking at a model where “museums learn, visitors teach.”