Venturing to a museum is an act of curiosity and bravery. Just as starting to walk down an unfamiliar path can evoke feelings of danger as well as adventure, entering a museum can be both intimidating and thrilling.
Through exploring artefacts, reading panels, talking with docents, or engaging with the latest digital technology, visitors engage their curiosity to collect information and construct knowledge. That sounds like a tidy, predictable process, but in reality, the learning process can be frustrating, uncomfortable, emotional, and scary.
“Learning is a messy, complicated business. Imagine yourself standing before a dark, ominous doorway. Through it you can glimpse something previously unimagined, but entering and crossing through entails a risk – anything might happen. Not passing through, while safe, means you will never know what’s on the other side.” David Didau, The Learning Spy
At the core of this statement is the idea of a threshold, doorway, or liminal space, and its place in the process of learning.
The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines liminal as:
1. relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold: barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response
2. relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition
The liminal space is that point of uncertainty, unknowing, tension, reflection, and waiting. It is the threshold that gives rise to change. This space is an essential element of the story arc, where the transition leads from conflict and rising tension to transformation, climax, and inevitable change and resolution. By focusing on the liminal space, the process of learning can transform a place of waiting into a place of reflection and anticipation.
By understanding liminal space, we can create museum experiences that resonate with audiences and help them learn. How people move through a literal or figurative liminal space, that point of transition, has the potential to reframe norms, touch emotions and open new perspectives for learning. Through this process, museum experiences have the potential to elicit an emotional response that leads to behavioral change. From the pre-museum to the post-museum visit, the in-between time alters the visitor. The significance of this liminal space within the museum has the potential to unlock new perspectives on digital experience design.
The physical design of spaces creates liminal space: standing at the threshold and passing through doorways changes your perception. An article in Scientific American posits that your memory of your experience deteriorates by passing through a doorway. When creating digital experiences, the liminal space may be a virtual threshold, but the psychological response may be just as strong. How do we harness the new awareness gleaned from a liminal space, while also being aware of psychological limitations? Is there a case for digital experience design that is less about progressive disclosure through deeper dive for information, and more about memorable interaction within one layer of experience?
The TeamLab exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia teaches visitors about the meaning of Asian characters without any words, only through cause and effect triggered by motion detection. “Touching” a symbol that triggers an effect within the digital experience: One character causes rain, another a rainbow, another a tree to grow. This cause and effect is slow and deliberate, and the effect is mesmerizing. Rather than a deep dive of layered experience, it is intentionally focused and uncomplicated while at the same time memorable and thought provoking.
Although liminal space is a place of transition, it can also be a place to dwell and reflect. Spatial design can encourage visitors to pause at these points of transition. Digital artists create liminal environments through collective motion, lights and sounds, transporting participants from their everyday reality to a meaningful shared experience. A project that we just finished, for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, focuses on how to provide meaningful distraction for visitors to the Emergency Room at the new Tech Acute Care centre in Vancouver. The exhibit, created with Aesthetics Group, is intentionally focused on a lighter didactic touch, leaning towards a meaningful artistic experience.
While in this liminal space, waiting in the ER, sick kids and their families can focus on ‘anticipation’ instead of ‘waiting’ by exploring this unfamiliar environment of the undersea world. By immersing the visitor in the moment, the experience uses the liminal space to redirect attention towards this unknown underwater world. Once there, the visitor’s curiosity is triggered and learning can happen in unexpected ways. The hospital also includes exhibits created by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Royal BC Museum, Vancouver Aquarium, H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, UBC Museum of Anthropology and Telus World of Science, and playrooms themed for the Whitecaps and the Canucks.
- ‘The salience of liminal spaces of learning: assembling affects, bodies and objects at the museum’, Dianne Mulcahy
- ‘Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums’, Carol Duncan
- ‘Non-Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’, Marc Auge
- ‘Rethinking liminality: built form as threshold-space’ Anda Sfintes
– Jan Beringer, Experience Lead