AAMI Virtual Session Recap: To Touch or Not to Touch

Written by the Convening Committee: Deb Clearwaters, Alison Crites, Courtney Morano, Melanie Parker, Meagan Rust, Sarah Rasich 

On Friday, June 5th, AAMI hosted its first ever virtual session centered on in-gallery interpretation in the age of COVID-19.  The session, To Touch or Not to Touch, welcomed 56 participants from museums across North America.  AAMI would like to thank Robin Groesbeck, Director, Exhibitions & Interpretation at Crystal Bridges, for proposing the session topic to us.

Kicking off the Conversation 

What is the new normal? What are the new best practices for art museum interpretation in the era of COVID?

Robin Groesbeck, AAMI Virtual Conversation “To Touch or Not To Touch”

AAMI President, Swarupa Anila, Royal Ontario Museum, welcomed participants and took time to situate us in the context of the moment, acknowledging the incredible trauma, anguish and anger that is front and center right now in response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many more who have died or lost their loved ones to unchecked police violence within the nation’s culture of white supremacy. Swarupa added that the conversation for this online session offered an interesting inflection point to think about how visitor engagement intersects with questions of anti-racism work in our galleries. She also reminded attendees of AAMI’s statement about Interpretation’s role in anti-racist work. 

Robin Groesbeck then kicked off the session by articulating the purpose of our virtual gathering: “To provide an opportunity to connect with the art museum interpreter community, and to share questions and strategies that have arisen out of this very strange and challenging situation we find ourselves in. What is the new normal? What are the new best practices for art museum interpretation in the era of COVID? As the pandemic took hold and we closed our museums, we realized there is a need to invite members of our interpretation community to gather and share, and together, forge pathways forward. Crises often foster unforeseen solutions and innovations, and with the resourcefulness and intelligence of this group, we know we are stronger together.”

Learning from Participants

Next up, Keri Ryan, Curator of Learning and Interpretation from M+ in Hong Kong, offered her timely observations of visitor behavior at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and her own institution, both of which reopened to the public for several weeks during the month of March. It was encouraging to hear that these museums, even with reduced capacity, saw strong attendance. Whereas the Hong Kong Museum of Art removed all touchable interactives from the galleries, M+ decided these interpretive elements were too important to the visitor experience to eliminate. M+ staff developed new cleaning and maintenance protocols and were heartened by the number of visitors who felt comfortable engaging with touch elements.

A poll during the session asked participants where their institutions had landed on the subject of touchable interpretives as part of their reopening plans. Only 6.3% of those polled reported plans to have all hands-on interpretives accessible but with additional cleaning, while 18.8% noted they will have some available but with modifications. The rest plan to either pull/cover them entirely (41.7%), are still undecided (25%), or selected a combination of options.

We dug deeper into what internal decision-making processes look like during COVID in a post-session survey. Respondents cited lack of budget and competing institutional priorities as the most common barriers to rethinking touchable gallery experiences in a creative way. Notably, just under half of those surveyed considered themselves key decision-makers in reopening plans, with the rest somewhat involved (33%) or only informed of plans made by others (20%). 

Forms response chart. Question title: At your institution, where do Interpretation staff  sit in making decisions about what the in-gallery visitor experience will be once your museum reopens?. Number of responses: 15 responses.

In small discussion groups during the session, participants shared how their individual institutions were adapting in-gallery interpretation, including what decisions have been made, what new strategies are being explored, and what’s still undecided. After 30 minutes, participants rejoined the larger group and each group reported on the key takeaways from their conversations. Highlights included:

  • Interest in haptic and foot activated technology
  • Increased capabilities of mobile sites & renewed appeal of QR codes
  • Expanded audio use in places like gallery lines due to capacity limitations
  • Questions around accessibility: following principles of universal design; barriers to smart phone and internet access
  • Increased font size on labels to avoid congregating 
  • Interpretives in the form of physical takeaways, such as response cards & branded pencils
  • UV cleaning

Participants also shared resources they were considering or found during their research, such as platforms that could stream social media posts as a method for visitor response and clear face masks that solve accessibility problems raised from staff wearing face coverings. We have compiled a list of these resources in a Google Sheet. We hope that this sheet will become a collaborative space and invite you to share resources with members of the AAMI community here.

Wrapping up and Moving Forward

AAMI President, Swarupa Anila, closed the session by observing that the comments and ideas shared by participants ranged from very specific, targeted solutions to bigger picture issues such as accessibility and resource allocation. Reiterating the importance of using the time after museums reopen to observe visitors and talk to them directly about their experiences and expectations, she noted “engaging [visitors] in solution- building goes to some of our underlying values of responsiveness and participatory work.” Instilling agency in visitors to participate in reimagining what gallery spaces can look and feel like in a post-COVID world not only will infuse our work with new ideas, but also will help build and deepen trust and reciprocity between museums and our audiences.

Be on the lookout for future AAMI sessions on this topic and more!

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