A flattened worldview

(Reading time: 1m, 46s)

The other day, I was talking with someone who said, “Our museum’s website is our front door …”

That reminded me of a topic I was meaning to write about — What if museum facilities presented the same accessibility issues or difficult experiences as their digital content so often does?

What if doors didn’t work for people of certain sizes? What if elevators took 10 minutes to move from one floor to the next? (Time is relative — 12 seconds for a page to load on a mobile device is an eternity.) What if signs or catalogs were printed in tiny font with low contrast and lines of text that ran 30 words long?

Catalogs seem to be thought of as a different species. Museums seem to view catalogs as a traditional product — they have a similar status as exhibits and programs. Digital content doesn’t seem to rank in the same way.

Is that because catalogs are usually more educational in some way, whereas websites are treated as informational?

Why is that?

I mean, I understand why — catalogs are like books, and books carry a certain status. A website is — well, it’s some brochure we made available online, and we pray to the gods we won’t have to deal with again for another few years. At least, that’s how it’s been for many organizations for much of the last 25 years or so.

The museum is seen as a product — the building and its spaces are treated that way, I mean; The physical stuff the museum produces, like catalogs, seems to be viewed as a product. But digital experiences, not so much.

That is a disintegrated perspective; It feels dangerous.

I’m not saying everyone thinks that way — it was a comment by a museum director that got me thinking about this, after all. But usually it takes at least some nudging to get people to apply this mental model — “What if this were a physical product?” — to their digital experiences.

We’ve seen how visitors can have a surprisingly flattened view of an organization — bathrooms can be just as memorable or share-worthy as the stories we construct. I don’t think we can or should treat every experience as literally equal, but it’s worth trying from time to time.

If the opportunity arises, try asking that question today as you wander around online. Ask yourself, “What if maps were like this? What if galleries were organized this way?”

Let me know if something strikes you as surprising or absurd or delightful.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle

Kyle Bowen