Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

Resting at MoMA. Photo by Just Karen

How long can you spend in a museum gallery before you need to sit? Do you visit exhibitions with friends or family who take a lot longer to view artwork than you do? (Yes, mom, I love you, but even I, the museum professional, cannot read every word in an exhibition as you can.)

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space?

At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, we recently explored these questions in a rather thoughtful way. I must give most of the credit to the wonderful team of staff members that did the “heavy lifting” on this project. The manager of special events led the charge, and we were joined by the coordinator of academic programs, the membership manager, and the director of development and external affairs. (One thing I think we do really well at the Nasher is collaborate across departments like this.)

We have this space at the Nasher that we generally call “the computer alcove.” It is a nondescript area where there’s been a long wooden desk with 4 computers, some tables and chairs (furniture that is also used in our cafe) and access to an outdoor terrace. Students and general visitors check their e-mail at the computers, but not much else. Sometimes, during the school year, we see Duke students studying there, but not all that often, and we knew it could be much more than it was.

We wanted to offer our visitors several things in this space:

  • An inviting/welcoming place to sit and relax
  • A place where Duke students can study and work – ideally we’d like to be a destination spot for studying and hanging out
  • A place where staff can have informal meetings
  • A place where people can talk on their cell phones
  • A place where visitors can engage in a hands-on activity and/or explore supplemental reading materials

First, our manager of special events looked at the existing space with a critical eye and asked this question, “What can we do with what we currently have to make this a nice environment?” There were MANY simple things that instantly made the area more inviting. These included:

  • Raising the shades so people could see the terrace outside (and know they could go out there if they wanted)
  • Cleaning the terrace on a more regular basis
  • Moving the artwork on the terrace close to the windows, instead of at the far end of the space
  • Opening the umbrellas on the terrace so the space looked “open” instead of “closed”
  • Arranging the furniture in a more pleasing way – this included thinning out the amount of furniture and spreading it out a bit more

It was amazing to me just how big a difference simply raising the shades made. It’s important to remember that we all become “blind” to our museum environments. The more familiar we are with a space, the harder it is to see how it could be off-putting or unpleasant.

For the last weekend of our special ticketed exhibition “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) we rented some fun furniture as an experiment. We knew there were going to be a lot of people in the museum, and we wanted to see what effect the furniture had. It made a huge difference.

The Nasher Museum’s alcove/lounge with mobile interactive and rented orange furniture.

We had a summer intern track use of the space over four days. She started tracking before the furniture arrived, and once it was installed, the number of people in the space shot up. Around 20% of all visitors to the museum used the “lounge” over the fours days.

To me, that’s a big number. That means one in every five people spent some time there. And, most people spent an average of 15 minutes in the space. Our intern also interviewed people to see what they liked about the space, why they had come over in the first place, and what else we could do to make it more inviting. Many people said they wanted to know exactly what they were allowed to do there. This was especially gratifying to me, since I had suggested we put signs in the lounge that read “Welcome to the Lounge. What can I do here?” and then list all possible activities. Some in the group thought that was too limiting, but it seems like people want explicit information (something that’s not surprising.)

Sadly, we had to return the rental furniture, but we are now on a mission to find some permanent furniture that will be inviting, but also work for special events, be durable and not ridiculously expensive.

I am looking forward to continuing to track the use of the space, and find creative ways to make the museum an inviting location for all our visitors. And I re-ask my starting question to spark some conversation, and to hear more about what spaces you might have or be developing at your museum:

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space? What can they do there?

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