Lemurs, Long Tails, and Museums

After watching Chris Anderson talk about the long tail at i-conference 2006 this morning, I returned to my office to find the following email message, re-posted here with permission:

Dear Peter,

In the preface to Ambient Findability, you question how readers located your book and why they did so. Here's how...

1. In my Conceptual Design course in George Washington University's Museum Studies Program, I had one day remaining to pick a paper topic. I decide to write about wayfinding in museums. It's such a vast topic that I can write an incredibly vague essay proposal without pushing myself into a corner and being stuck with an impossible topic.

2. I look online and discover that I've chosen an impossible topic. Alas.

3. I use JSTOR and EBSCOhost through my school's library and discover that peer-reviewed articles accessible to me may not yet have decided that "wayfinding" is a good topic to write about. In fact, academia debates that "wayfinding" is even a word. Ditto for "way finding" and "way-finding."

4. LexisNexis knows it's a word but doesn't think it deserves any critical discussion, just announcements that so-and-so company is going to re-do such-and-such hospital's signage. Boring.

5. I resort to actual books printed on actual paper. Big mistake. Searching for "wayfinding" in GW's library system leads me to a small set of books. Most of them are about computer programming. I pick up your book and decide that the lemur is cute enough that nobody will know I'm reading a book for techie people.

6. I also search for Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture, which you quote in your book. While it's apparently "available," it's in the dreaded N section. Oversized books. Nothing in this section is remotely organized because the books are all too massive to wrangle into a neat and organized shelf system. I sprawl on the floor and stand on my tip toes, but I fear that the Wayfinding Bible is, in fact, un-find-able.

7. At the check-out counter, the librarian stamps the back of all four of the books I'm checking out (the other three are for other classes) and looks at me strangely. "What?" I ask, thinking I have an $80 late fee. "Right here, right now, is the first time any of these four books have ever been checked out." We stand there in silence for a moment just to commemorate the occasion.

8. Ten minutes later in the Starbucks next to the library, I read about how unlikely it is for me to have found your book. I could have won the lottery instead.

There you go. That's how I found your book. Does that make you think twice about ever publishing a book in large format? Since this all just happened a few hours ago, I haven't read the entirety of your book. I plan to. I'm scanning through your borg/blog/thing right now and some of the links you've posted. Since you are currently my one and only source and I've decided I like both you and your lemur (and the new polar bear), I'm going to quote you. But do you think you could say something that applies to wayfinding within museums or museum exhibitions?

My essay is going to be about how the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum share the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in China Town, DC. It's one historic building (it used to be the Patent Office) holding two totally separate museums--each has its own staff and mission statement. Just walking around, visitors constantly pass through Portrait space as well as American Art space. The signage is bad (I frequently see people walk right past restrooms when they are looking for them) and they're still working on the central courtyard, so you can't see through the building because of all the scaffolding. There are so many entrances and exits, that you never know if you're on the G Street side or the F Street side, yet staff continously give you directions as if you know what intersection you're at when you can barely see outside. Neither museum has much of its own identity because of this mishmash and I'm not sure if anybody discerns any palpable difference when they pass through galleries belonging to different museums. The designers don't seem to have had much empathy for the user.

Do you think museums have been affected at all by the trends you talk about in your book? Museums are different from libraries and from the internet, but there is still a sense that visitors need to find what they're looking for -- or at least the time period, artist, or country. Their experience in wayfinding must profoundly affect their visit, their appreciation of the art and the time spent with their family members. How do you think wayfinding in museums will change in the future -- how should it change?

I would appreciate any kind of response you could give me.

Thanks for wading through this long e-mail. I plan on recommending your book to the other students in Conceptual Design. I may even mention that it has pictures. We'll check and see if they're ever able to find it by looking at the stamp in the back.

Have a fantastic day,

Erin Blasco
Museum Studies Graduate Program
George Washington University
Washington, DC

I don't know much about wayfinding in museums, though it seems there's great potential for geocoding and location aware devices to enhance the museum experience...so, can someone out there help Erin? What's the future of wayfinding in museums? You better reply quick, before her paper's due. Thanks!

I don't know if this will directly help Erin, but this is about wayfinding in a museumesque city:

Perhaps that's the real story: many of our environments, inside and outside, built and natural, will offer the "museum experience."

Whether wandering around London or scuba-diving along the Great Barrier Reef, we'll be able to subscribe to a multimedia tour (along with a few ads) to educate and entertain us.

So, knowledge about wayfinding in museums may become more important for designing outside of museums.


She could look into the wayfinding blog:

Tagline: Wayfinding is a problem-solving process by which people understand and make decisions about navigating architectural and urban spaces. The Wayfinding Place is a weblog collaboration of seven contemporary voices on the discipline of wayfinding within architecture, urban-planning and environmental design.


I'd suggest expanding your search beyond wayfinding or museums exclusively. Concepts that might be useful could include exhibition design, human factors, usability, traffic analysis, space planning, experience design, signage & environmental graphics, library sciences, (whew) and so on. Tons of case studies and papers out there...Google Scholar implores me this is true! ;)

And, while there may not be too many specific case studies of museum design, many of the concepts and principles are commonly practiced. I'd bet you could draw parallels from any place or thing that is designed to engage/capture people's curiosity.

On the business side, there seem to be a number of companies that specialize in museum design exclusively. Again, google is good. Many seem to be small, which is advantageous if you want to do a little cold calling. You might even have better luck interviewing the exhibition managers directly.

Finally, a loose brain dump of things that might be useful...Wildbur & Burke devote lots of pages in _Information Graphics_ mapping, interacting, and informing people (Thames & Hudson, 1998). Edward Tufte talks about designing a museum kiosk for the Nat Gallery in _Visual Explanations_ (Graphics Press, 1997, p146 - 147). Art Mobs remixed the MoMA audio tour with their own podcasts. Artist Janet Cardiff recently did an incredible audio installation which guided patrons from the Hirshhorn, down the Mall, and through other collections.

I've got links to most of these, if you can't locate them. You can email me using the link above.

The steve.museum project - http://steve.museum/ - is using social tagging (folksonomy) as a way of exploring museum collections, and have published a handful of papers. It's probably more relevant to cognitive wayfinding than physical, but it could be interesting to see what connections would happen if the two museums Erin mentions were to share a single folksonomy in addition to their shared physical space.

Maya Design's Carenegie Library project also seems relevant: http://www.maya.com/web/what/clients/what_client_clp_dyninfo.mtml