Monday, October 15, 2007

Matthew Barney Interpretive Content Study: "Waste of Brain Cells" vs. "A Great Experience"

Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint exhibtion at the SFMOMA was largely devoid of explanatory wall texts. However, visitors wishing to learn more about the symbolism in Barney's work could access a broad spectrum of information in the multimedia "Learning Lounge" attached to the exhibtion or listen to an audio guide on their cell phone or ipod (or rent the museum's audio guide for $3).

Randi Korn & Associates produced a detailed evaluation of museum-goers' use of interpretive media at Barney's exhibition, which is presented online in the paper Gaining Traction in the Vaseline: Visitor Response to a Multi-Track Interpretation Design for Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT.

The graph above, "shows the discrepancy between those arriving in the galleries already familiar with Barney and his work and those who have had no prior exposure; furthermore, it tracks members of these two groups as they use more and more interpretive offerings. Let’s call them initiates and non-initiates, with full cognizance of the ‘art world insider’ implications of those terms. Non-initiates who did not avail themselves of any resources left the show feeling ripped off. They rated it 2.6 out of 7, and their comments were on the order of, “Don’t go,” “”Don’t bother,” “Waste of brain cells,” and “It’s good for the loony people who like things that look like garbage on a polished wood floor.” But as soon as they used even one or two resources, their rating of the exhibition as a whole rose significantly, to an attitudinally neutral 4. They saw that something intelligent was going on that they could respect, even if they didn’t fully get it or connect. Their comments were more on the order of, “Due to lack of comprehension/ meaning/purpose of the work I was a little lost” or “I haven’t listened to the audio tour yet so I don’t really feel I get it all but I know that if I put effort into it, it would become more meaningful.” There is the sense of a cosmos in these remarks, of something to understand.

As these uninitiated visitors used three or four resources, they got initiated. A cognitive psychologist would say they got scaffolding. That doesn’t mean they came away liking everything they saw, but their exhibition rating rose commensurately, to 4.6. By the time they used five-plus resources, they were immersed in Barney’s mythic world, and rated the exhibition at 5.4, a level of stimulated satisfaction. They made comments like: “A great experience to learn more about the artist” and “Do the free cell phone tour – it gives good context and you get to hear from the artist.” The net gain with interpretive offerings was from 2.6 to 5.4 – more than doubling of the rating, and more importantly, an index of real engagement. (Of course with Barney fans, the gain is smaller – from 5.6 to 6.1 – but the numbers who use multiple offerings are significant.)"

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