Designing in Negative Space – Digital Media at Discovering Columbus

Today, on my way to work, I checked in on Foursquare at Discovering Columbus, visiting it in its final days before it comes down. As you can see below, it was described as an “art gallery.” That, in and of itself, is a fascinating notion. But what I want to explore here is the role digital media played to shape the experience of the visitor, not through what was offered by or created for the exhibit but through how it was designed to summon visitors to harness their own tools to mediate their personal experience of the space.

First, some background. In Columbus Circle, the center of the park is marked by its name sake, standing a top a towering pedestal so high he is well out of reach.

But here is what the approach now looks like, the statue covered in scaffolding. But what appears to be construction is actually a temporary art exhibit.

Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi produced Discovering Columbus for The Public Art Fund. Quote. Nishi “is known internationally for his temporary works of art that transform our experience of monuments, statues, and architectural details… For his first public project in the United States, Nishi has chosen to focus on the historic statue of Christopher Columbus.” What Foursquare described as an art gallery IS the art. Yes, in the center of the room is the statue of Columbus, up close and personal. But the temporary room you are sitting in, constructed for the experience, is the primary art, depicting a representation of a NYC apartment.

The TV showed CNN live, daily newspapers were on the side of the couch, and a book shelf offered an intriguing look at what the artist thinks a New Yorker might be reading (or pretend to read); and while the space is casual, its deliberate and constructed nature is reinforced by the many rules preventing you from touching it, and the guard reinforcing the rules. (He’s on the left enjoying the six-story high view):

So the experience of the piece is the surreal contrast between the America of the room with the America of Columbus, the temporal space between the two, and your shocking physical distance from the city around you.

And all that most people are doing is taking or posing for photos. Most stand in front of Columbus and mimic, mock, or respond to his forcibly formal stance. I watched people for about a half hour as they moved into the room and used their phones and cameras to mediate their experience. I did not feel they were disconnecting from the art but, rather, using digital media to shape their experience, participate with it rather than merely consume it, and coming to terms with the very oddness of the space. Processing through photography. There’s actually not much else to do there: you enter the space, have a singular experience, and then what? After chatting with your companions or other visitors, you’re almost forced to create something in order to come to terms with it.

You are not allowed to touch the statue. You are not allowed to sit in the windowsill. They could have easily said photography was not allowed. But they didn’t. And I was fascinated to observe how the design of the experience almost made it a rule than one HAD to create something in response, yet relied on visitors to both choose their medium of choice and supply their own.

Returning to the AMNH I wondered how we could bring digital media into exhibits in a similar way. Our new Our Global Kitchen exhibit invites visitors to use their phones to share thematically-related #CelebrateFood photos through Instagram, with the photos visible within the exhibit on a beautiful touchscreen display. But that wasn’t what I had in mind. #CelebrateFood does an excellent job explicitly inviting participation, then coordinating and organizing it. But how could we call for digital participation WITHOUT an explicit act, without any coordinating or organizing, yet design that interaction as a requirement.

Then it hit me. We just had. This month we opened the redesigned Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. And at the center of the exhibit, which often finds people lining up to pose for photos (just as I witnessed today with Columbus) is this awesome new seated statue, just begging you to take his photo.

And, as it turns out, we also explicitly asked, on YouTube at least:

I spend so much of my time thinking about how to map the affordances of digital media to educational objectives. Today was a great exercise – a sort of Zen koan – in thinking about designing digitally mediated museum-based experiences using not any particular tool but, rather, its absence.

In other words, designing in negative space.

Update (11/29/2012): I learned today that the 3D model I made of the statue has been featured on 123D Catch. Nice! You can see it here

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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