When is an experience too immersive? Exploring wellbeing and the museum

A young man wearing a black t-shirt wearing headphones listens to the Matisse: Life & Spirit audio experience at the Art Gallery of NSW.

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There was one distinctive moment that led Sarah van Haastert, Art Processors’ Business Development Lead, to want to talk on the topic of immersion and wellbeing at the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting. “I came out of a well-known museum completely exhausted,” she reveals, “and it really got me thinking about what it was about the show that made me feel so overwhelmed.”

She’s been looking into how design can positively affect a sense of wellbeing in the museum space ever since. “Not long afterwards, I was working with John Falk, a foremost researcher in visitor experience and author of The Value of Museums. Our work together and reading his book started to codify my idea of what leaves visitors feeling well and satisfied, as well as what is missing when things go wrong.”

At the recent AAM conference held in Boston, Sarah spoke about her learnings on the topic alongside Jamie Lawyer, Chief Experience Officer at the Rubin Museum of Art, and Tedi Asher, Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum. This is a glimpse into their discussion. 

Why wellbeing?

“We must prioritize care in museum spaces,” believes Jamie. “As a queer individual, I have experienced firsthand how a focus on wellbeing makes a difference, and I am constantly aware of the ways that I am welcome and unwelcome in spaces through language, interaction, design and more.” 

She sees that every moment of an experience is an opportunity to support visitor wellbeing. “Whether it is an interaction with a staff member, social media response, or an exhibition, it is our job to support, listen, and learn how to create experiences and museum spaces that are accountable to the needs of our visitors.” 

Elements of museum wellbeing

So what do we mean by “wellbeing” in a museum context? According to Falk’s research, it comprises four elements:

 

Personal 

You’re inspired 

You feel a sense of personal connectedness, appreciation, belonging, and harmony with the human and natural world

Intellectual 

You’re informed 

You feel a sense of surprise, learning and discovery, and a feeling of achievement

Social 

You’re connected 

You feel a sense of personal connectedness and belonging with the human and natural world and often to the group you visited with

Physical

You’re safe

You feel a sense of safety, health, and relaxation or restoration, and a feeling of being free of fear, anxiety or judgement  

 

On the flip side, an experience has not engendered visitor wellbeing if people leave feeling confused, without their critical thinking having been engaged, their group hasn’t come together, or they feel they haven't had a moment's rest. 

“If people leave an experience feeling well and positive—inspired, informed, connected and physically well—we won. They will either return or tell others about their visit, which is a great outcome for the museum, as well as for museums in general,” explains Sarah.

Every unique visitor, every immersive experience

How do you create that experience? It’s a far from straightforward question when humans are all so different. 

“Think about what happens when we engage with the world around us,” suggests Tedi. “Information about stimuli makes its way into our brains and interacts with different regions to influence cognition, memory and emotion. Then neural signals are sent out into the body, resulting in changes to motor behavior and physiology. These products of brain function contribute to sensations we have during an experience and give rise to the nature of our perceptions.” 

Though we all look at the same world, we each see it differently based on our own experiences, identity, biology, comfort with vulnerability and even our mood in that moment. “An experience is not just where you are. It is how you are interacting with a space physically and emotionally,” says Tedi.  “The same place could be different depending on your own state of being.” An experience then is what emerges at the intersection of an individual and their environment. 

An immersive experience goes farther still, enveloping the visitor to the point that they feel completely involved. Create an experience that is too immersive and the risk is that it considerably compromises visitor wellbeing. That’s why wellbeing is such a meaningful lens through which to consider decisions inherent in museum experience design today. 

Inspire, inform, connect, protect

When there is no universal perception, how is it possible to create universally positive immersive experiences?

“It’s about understanding visitors through the mechanistic lenses of perception, engagement and experience,” believes Sarah. “Every project is different so be aware of the four elements of wellbeing and filter your unique experience through them. If you don't consider them all, you won't achieve your aims and your messages won't land.” 

Frame your challenges through each state of wellbeing:

 

Personal 

Inspire 

Consider what you can do to create interest and promote curiosity while promoting personal power, and consideration of self and surroundings 

Intellectual 

Inform 

Consider what information will create awe and wonder and how you will communicate it engagingly to the diversity of people visiting 

Social 

Connect 

Consider how to connect visitors with each other and to their community, and create communal experiences  

Physical

Protect 

Consider the physical features of the space, the objects within it, the tone of explanatory text and audio, the lighting, sounds, smells, seating and space for decompression 

 

In action at the Rubin Museum of Art  

“Supporting the wellbeing of visitors and staff means first leading with care and empathy as you create experiences and content, whether online or in-person,” says Jamie. She explains how they approached the task at the Mandala Lab. 

“We wanted to empower audiences in their museum experience, so we provided a range of ways to examine a complex subject like emotions and see how they are showing up in their everyday lives. We knew our world was at a turning point and audiences were looking to museums in new ways. Our visitors over the years have always cited to us how the Rubin supported aspects of their well-being. So, we made it our priority to create an installation that supported them in ways that are meaningful for this moment.”

“We invited audiences to investigate specific emotions and imagine what they might be able to learn from them. Visitors have the space to develop new skills or ways of looking that might help them connect with themselves, one another, and the world around them in potentially new and meaningful ways.”

“There were many steps we took to ensure the wellbeing of audiences, including empathy mapping exercises, user testing, and more, but we wanted to make sure that our audiences never felt alone in their experiences and always had the opportunity to connect in some way to another visitor either physically or digitally.”

“Creating an experience during lockdown, we knew how important it was for audiences to feel seen and to be seen by others as part of the installation. We acknowledged that audiences would have varied reactions to the content we presented and it was important to not desire transformation from them, but instead to create conditions that invited them to engage in whatever level of personal discovery they chose to do for themselves.”

“For us, creating an opportunity that encouraged curiosity and self-awareness was our main motivator. Respecting, acknowledging, and cultivating a space for their personal wellbeing was at the center of the work we did. We knew we had to create space for a range of responses and in order to do that, that means respecting your audiences, their histories, their ways of understanding, and their ways of embodying knowledge.”

Getting started

We’ve all been so focused on safety in recent years that Sarah believes that where organizations fall down most is supporting visitors to achieve intellectual wellbeing. “Often curators and designers are challenged to prioritize content because they've been so embedded in their subject,” says Sarah, “but they're providing way too much information or expecting their visitor to read too much.” 

“For me,” reveals Jamie, “regardless of where you start, you will end up navigating all the states of wellbeing in some way if you are really solving for that singular aspect. I always start with personal well-being because it ensures staff are first designing with empathy and respect.” 

As museum professionals, we are accountable for the experiences we create and responsible for the safety of audiences. Now more than ever that requires a holistic understanding of our visitors and careful consideration of how they will experience the environments we create. ”Designing for the well-being of our audiences and providing visitors ways to feel healthy, happy, welcome, and comfortable must be the mandate for every organization and experience,” concludes Jamie.