Friday 9 May 2008

They were the only ones in the room

Quite a few months ago, I briefly blogged SFMOMA's online project for their Olafur Eliasson show - a kind of virtual visitors book for people to record and share their experience of the exhibition.

Last month, I had a chance to hear Peter Samis from SFMOMA speak about the project, in one of the most open and generous presentations I've heard. As Samis explained in his talk, Eliasson wanted to put the visitor's voice, rather than the curator's, at the centre of the dialogue around the show (sorry - that's a terribly art-history-essay sentence, but I'm sure you know what I mean).

For Eliasson, the visitor's experience completes the work. The objective of the virtual visitors book was to "encourage visitors in their own critical process of self-observation". The site included some multi-media interpretive material from the Museum, but the point was to engage the visitor to build the discussion of the works.

So, people came, they saw, and they wrote. And what they said was a mixed bag. But the key point for me in Samis's presentation, in his own words, was this:

We said our piece in our multimedia voice(s)
We opened the blog door to let visitors voices in
... And we left

They were the only ones in the room.

SFMOMA staff didn't respond to the comments on the blog. I find this fascinating, and not totally unexpected. It's one thing to get people talking to you. It's quite another when you suddenly realise you might have to talk back.

If you're looking at ways to engage (with) your visitors online, I'd really recommend Samis's paper, which gives a description of the why and the (technical) how of the project, an analysis of activity on the blog, staff's feelings about the visitors' comments, the kind of insight into your visitors you get from this sort of project, and what you could do with that information. Slides from his presentation (which you can follow pretty well without reading the paper) are on Slideshare. And some great notes from another attendee are here.

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