North, Big Picture Shows and Visitor Behaviour
This week I have been undertaking some visitor behaviour mapping in the main exhibition space up at IWM North. I had reservations about how well I would be able to complete visitor behaviour mapping as the space is intentionally confrontational, with a want of making visitors feel ill at ease. You get lost easily, and are never quite sure where the exit is, or if you have come from the right or the left. There is a chronology, but it isn’t easy to follow, and visitors do get lost and distracted. The museum is really one wonkily-shaped large central dimly lit room with small ‘silos’ focusing on particular themes. So it was fascinating to see how visitors interact with the space, what behaviours they display, and which objects interest them the most.
One really impressive part of the visit is the Big Picture Show which happens on the hour, every hour. It stops pretty much every visitor in their tracks. And if I’m honest, I ended up doing a sort of auto-ethnography (Jane will hate me for saying that). You can’t help but be drawn in. As a brief announcement is made, the lights go out and the space is transformed into a 360 cinema with photographs and films being projected onto every wall, and audio being played; all focusing on a central theme. I found the experience to be stunningly effective. It was totally immersive, beautifully made and incredibly well executed. Powerful images and audio are a very important and impressive factor of the show, in particular the room acoustics was a big factor in creating a truly immersive experience, it surrounds the audience and allows them no choice but to listen and take notice. Absolutely mesmerising. The Big Picture Show commands attention. And quite rightly it gets it. I have now seen all the different Big Picture Show’s and each is quite chilling. The one that I found blinking back tears from is the effect war has had and continues to have on children from WW1 to modern day. It’s actually quite shocking. It was probably quite unprofessional of me, when I was trying to observe other peoples behaviours. However, when you see how other people are behaving you realise you aren’t the only one. Even the school groups are quiet and contemplative. The Big Picture Show certainly does its job. What should you do when you are trying to observe visitor behaviour, but you end up having a visitor experience yourself? Can you remove that emotional bias? Or does that just demonstrate the ability of a museum space to transform experiences? Or does that demonstrate my weakness as a researcher?
Also after two days in the same space, it’s really interesting the things you learn via osmosis when you are wandering around observing other people. I now know a lot about nuclear war from an info video about what to do in the event of a nuclear blast, all the words to it’s a long way to Tipperary, and how cool a 9 year old boy thinks a spitfire engine is. These are things I really didn’t expect to learn during this project. But interesting nevertheless!