How can you construct an engaging visitor experience that does justice to the wealth of African art at the NCMA? How do you integrate the public’s different learning styles and multiple motivations for visiting the Museum with our curators’ knowledge of African art and culture?
Collaborating across Museum departments to connect the gallery experience to extensive audience research is like weaving complex patterns with multiple materials. Perhaps having a loom and piles of books on African textiles in our Education offices for the past year has resulted in a few too many weaving references. In fact my mind has become a bit warped thinking so much about textiles (Sorry, weaving humor).
The new installation of African art includes textiles throughout the space and a special gallery called Threads of Experience focused on African textiles with hands-on activities for all ages. Over a year ago, we formed a team across the Museum, including curators, designers, marketers, educators, and an external audience researcher, to think deeply about how we want the visitor to feel and learn in these new galleries. We then conducted audience research at key points through our planning to ensure visitor feedback is addressed.
Weaving the visitor experience into the fabric of our process was essential. Through an online survey of over 300 visitors, we established a baseline for what visitors already knew about African art and how they like to engage with works of art at the NCMA. The team then stopped about 75 visitors in the African galleries with more open-ended questions to extend what we learned in the online survey.
NCMA educators Jill Fox (center) and Courtney Klemens work with consultant Chad Weinard to select African textiles in the interactive Threads of Experience gallery.
We learned from our research that visitors want to learn about art in a wide variety of ways. In particular, younger visitors are much more likely to prefer hands-on, participatory experiences, as are visitors who come with children. Some people seek tech-based interactives, whereas others discover art by conversing with friends, family, or a Museum volunteer.
The interactive mirror in the NCMA's Threads of Experience gallery morphs visitors' faces with patterns in African textiles on view in the newly reinstalled African Gallery in East Building.
Essential to researching activities for this gallery were insights we gleaned from two visitor panels that represented key audiences: both families and adults without children. We learned from both panels how directions and examples of techniques along with activities were unnecessary and discouraged some from participating. Through the feedback from these panels, we decided to omit elaborate directions for both the collaborative loom and embroidery activities. Hearing “wow” from both four-year-old children and adults validated our choice to use technology as a hook to spark curiosity rather than to merely provide information.
By July 1 we will literally wrap up loose ends on all the activities planned for Threads of Experience and present the following:
An “interactive mirror” that transforms a visitor’s silhouette into patterned works of art, including textiles, beads, carved wood, and crinkled metal from objects in our African collection
A massive floor-to-ceiling loom installation created by Tactile Workshop in downtown Raleigh, where visitors can weave various recycled materials and high-quality yarns from North Carolina sheep and goat farms
Signage and language to help visitors look more closely and understand what they are seeing
Massive magnetic boards on which visitors can create patterns inspired by African art
A comfortable reading area created in partnership with Wake County Public Libraries
We welcome visitors to this fun, relaxing environment to explore African textiles through hands-on activities. Please share your experiences with one another in the gallery, and in the comment section below.
Michelle Harrell is acting director of education at the NCMA.
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