Free Idea Friday: Get into it

Convincing museum visitors to look at a work of art for more than a few seconds can be a real challenge. We’ve tried a thousand different ways to engage them – interactive labels, mobile apps, docent-led tours, handouts, videos, and the list goes on and on.

I would argue that the reason these external additives don’t work as well as we’d like is because they treat the symptom of the problem, not the root cause. The symptom, of course, is the short stay time in front of the work. But, the root cause is more complicated. I think it is a combination of two factors. First, visitors are not sure exactly what they are supposed to be looking at. And, second, they lack a personal connection with the work. Our additive approach only addresses the first problem. We tell them what to look at, why it’s important and even why they should care, but how do we help them build a truly personal connection with the work?

What if they could step into it?

The Art Institute of Chicago has seen record attendance at Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, a buzz-worthy exhibit made even more popular by the accompanying replica room available through Airbnb. The excitement about stepping into Van Gogh’s world fueled record attendance. What if we took that idea a step further?

A little background…

Over the course of my career, I have spent countless hours staring into paintings with groups of college students, elementary school kids, docents and teachers. No painting has elicited a more diverse response than Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby. I’ve heard so many stories about what’s going on in this picture. Dramatic stories of love and betrayal. Mundane stories describing a lazy afternoon of leisure. Family drama. Baby mama drama. You name it. This painting evokes emotion and in each viewer it stirs something similar and something completely unique. But, if they were to just walk up to it on their own, without prompting, they might just look for 3 seconds and keep moving: it’s emotional power lost.

The Idea

Capture that emotional power and build a replica of the painting, allowing visitors to recreate the scene (and bring their emotional stories with them). Include signage that prompts visitors to take a specific role in the painting and prepare for it by carefully studying what’s happening in the picture. By preparing emotionally for the “role”, they will assess what the painting means to them – what’s going on in the picture – and take their place with purpose. Of course, they might also be silly, tell a crazy story or veer off course into an entirely different world. But, what’s the harm in that?

Pretend play is often a device that art museums relegate to preschool programs or find altogether unsophisticated. But, experience is what visitors are looking for – and what better way to experience a painting than to actually step into it? Throw out the art museum rule book and embrace the fun of it.

Extend the idea with supporting elements like these:

  • Allow visitors to submit interpretive stories (in the exhibit or online)
  • Create videos to share on your website and via social media to get the ball rolling
  • Invite local improv actors to act out scenes based on real-time visitor interpretations
  • Create the scene strategically to allow for easy, fool-proof photos and videos
  • Prominently display a hashtag and encourage visitors to share photos or videos of themselves (don’t forget to re-tweet, like and re-post this content)
  • Aggregate user-generated content on your website
  • Create content (blogs, videos, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram videos, etc.) that explores the emotional subject matter in the work and really honors what visitors have to say. Allow meaningful dialogue, even when it is hard or complicated. Keep it real.

This idea would be great for a Hopper painting, but it could also work for many others. Artists like Frida Kahlo, Andrew Wyeth, and Roy Lichtenstein have many works ripe with emotional intrigue. And, don’t get me started on Vermeer! Such a great opportunity there…


  • For Gear VR there's an app called "Dreams of Dali: A Virtual Reality Experience". It is breathtaking. Holy cow, talk about engaging. The only, and I mean only, downfall of an approach like this is there HAS to be a certain degree of extrapolation because the painting is you have imagine (and then model) what you think is outside the window of the Girl with the Pearl Earring. And that could upset about 2% of purists, but you've got the other 98% in your pocket. See a video of the Dali Experience here:
  • Despi Ross
    Thanks for sharing this, Jason! Such a cool piece of tech! Would probably upset 100% of purists, but delight 90% of visitors!
  • Lizzy Moriarty
    Totally love this blog! We are on the threshold of understanding works of art from within. VR will take us there and allow us to experience spatial relationships that the artist could only allude to in two dimensions. There is a really cool trip through Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" where you ride into the painting on the back of a fish. Get a cardboard headset and download it: This is a really good example of how VR can be used in museums and galleries. They have the content and plenty of it...
  • Despi Ross
    I can't wait to try this, Lizzy! Thank you for reading...look forward to connecting with you at AAM next week!
  • Tricia O'Connor
    Great article, Despi. Reminds me of a gift my sister gave me called the "bad boss." It was a small 3D figurine of a "boss" with his hands poised to hold one of many typical "bad boss" sayings (many of which I had truly heard). It was a fun little interactive desk gimmick but what you've laid out is quite rich.