Co-creating with museum visitors

Our visitors, role playing New York City visitors. So meta.

Every year 5th Ave, Manhattan, NYC, shuts down to cars and other forms of traffic, for the Museum Mile Festival. It’s Summer, and it’s a lovely time to be out. People stream across Central Park, and own the street. World class museums that line the strip open their doors for free, and run programs for families and parties for adults. It’s known as New York’s biggest block-party but what’s really wonderful about it is that many thousands of people show up to be inspired, to learn about art, history, science, design, and culture in the city. And from a museum worker’s perspective, it’s an important day to be on the ground, meeting and greeting new and existing visitors, and making sure they have the best experience they possibly can.

This year, my team were deep in production for the New York at its Core exhibition, the first permanent exhibition to tell the 400-year story of New York City’s history, but also, raise important questions about where the city is headed, with a new space called the Future City Lab. The Lab is all about visitor interaction, where they respond to key challenges the city faces with speculations about the future. One way we invite visitors to do this, is by virtually designing a future park, building or streetscape in select neighborhood sites across the five boroughs. As visitors work on their creation, they are given feedback on key metrics such as how sustainable their design is, and how expensive their features are to build. There is also a qualitative feedback mechanism built in, where people in the game, like any good New Yorkers, start to give their opinion on what’s happening in the neighborhood. It’s a little SIMS like, and injects a bit of personality and humor to make it fun.

During our initial production planning phase, the team started to look at how we might gather assets of people to populate our visitor’s creations. Video assets from stock libraries are ok, but we quickly concluded that the types of people tend to not represent the diversity of New York City. We thought about hiring actors to play different ‘characters’ for different object assets we would create to populate the scenes too. We talked about how we wanted visitors to see themselves in these scenes, and that’s when the idea landed, why don’t we literally include visitors? Museum Mile was coming up and the museum was guaranteed to be crowded. Could we set up a green screen and invite visitors to participate, to play themselves, as ‘future’ New Yorkers and be featured in a new permanent exhibition about the city? Everyone was excited.

We produced collateral for all the info desks around the museum, ‘New Yorkers Needed’.

I set about immediately with my media design partners at Local Projects to organize the logistics of a green screen film shoot with hundreds of visitors during the busiest time of year in the museum. Yay! Thankfully, Local Projects took care of the film set, hiring in the green screen, lighting, sandbags, props, and a production team. On my end, I organized the space, a team of museum volunteers and visitor coordination throughout the event. The Multimedia Producer on my team, Nate Lavey, took care of the filming, working with Art Directors from Local Projects to get the right framing and cover a diverse shot list. I worked with our PR and Marketing team to get the word out about the event in advance and to follow up on media opportunities after the event.

On the day of the event I was a little nervous. Would anyone show up? Would people want to participate? Is the concept too abstract to get across at this point in the design phase? Mostly, is the whole thing fun? You know that feeling, when you are too close to something? That’s what was happening, the inner monologue of doubt. And there is no better way to escape it than by meeting and greeting hundreds of visitors, and talking to them about the digital experience, about the plans for the exhibition, and seeing how they react.

This shoot was a blessing, and it came just at the right time. Why? Because the whole event was incredibly energizing. Visitors were streaming in to our space, watching a mockup of the concept we’d set up, asking questions about the exhibition, and showing much enthusiasm and curiosity for it all. I was amazed at how many people wanted to participate, (we had to turn many away sadly, as our signup sheets filled up) and everyone said they were excited to come back in the Fall to see themselves in the gallery. From a UX perspective, I felt that I got the answers I needed to my initial high-level questions about the experience. From a marketing perspective, visitors got to do something fun and unique on the night, and for those that couldn’t participate, they were able to watch the open set, and talk with a variety of museum staff who were involved with the exhibition––curators, collections managers, digital, and marketing. We finished the night flush with hundreds of new subscribers to our main email list and we’d done a good, word-of-mouth thing that everyone felt positive about.

In addition to it being a great process, I know that the outcome — the product itself––is much better than it would have been had we not included visitors in the shoot. Seeing real, everyday New Yorkers, from all walks of life, inhabit the park, building and street scenes, lends a critical authenticity to what could otherwise be a more cartoon-like world. When the Future City Lab opened for preview events I was pleased to demo the game with visitors, and one of my favorite things was to let them know that people there, are real.

Interacting with the game in the gallery, as New Yorkers walk by.

New York at its Core is now open — drop by for a visit and create your future city vision.

Read: DNAinfo’s coverage of the event

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Storytelling and content strategy for exhibition and experience design.

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Renae Mason

Renae Mason

Storytelling and content strategy for exhibition and experience design.

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