The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has four stories—floors—open to the public. On those floors, there are many more stories to experience in the other sense of the term: there are artworks with something to tell us, powerful performances to witness, multiple types of events to enjoy, many different kinds of learning, meaning, insight, fun, and serious contemplation to pursue. The question becomes how museum interpreters and educators can help audiences engage more satisfyingly with the museum and all that it has to offer. Susan Musich, Programmer of Education: Interpretative Practices, explains the story of how the MCA’s web application 4 Stories emerged as an exciting means to provide multiple levels of access to the MCA.
As museum interpreters and educators, we are always looking for new ways to share the artworks, and the stories behind them, with our visitors. One way we do this is through a new website developed through a partnership between the MCA’s Education and Publishing Departments: 4 Stories. The website allows us to present a wide range of interpretative information that speaks to visitors of all ages and invites them to experience contemporary art and culture interactively, whether they want to go deeply into a particular topic or skim the surface of the museum’s offerings in fun ways.
Unfolding the Foldout
For many years, the MCA’s Education department offered printed “activity guides” for families. These sheets, which were usually foldout fliers, focused on a single exhibition and provided ideas for how children might access the artworks more vividly. In other words, they did not consider the MCA as a coherent whole, and were exclusively geared towards young visitors. Recently, however, as notions of what a museum might do to connect audiences to art have expanded—as part of a larger initiative to provide more, and different, types of interpretive offerings to visitors—we began to think about how the digital platform might transform the printed activity guide. The result? 4 Stories, which, as its name suggests, presents a rotating selection of information from each of the museum’s levels: one “story” for each “story” of the building.
We imagine 4 Stories as a new kind of activity guide, a web-based, interactive, multimedia publication for all generations. It harnesses the capacities of the digital domain to support the many ways in which people learn. Some people look, some read, some listen. We sought to create a platform for all these entrance points into contemporary art and culture. The website fits with our move as a whole to increase opportunities for audiences to learn about art informally, through actively doing as well as passively viewing. The website mirrors our broader efforts to create social and participatory programs that provide a wealth of information and interpretation, but are not pedantic, or even traditionally didactic, in nature.
For instance, while 4 Stories has plenty of rich and informative content that relates specifically to works on view at the MCA, it also includes new elements such as a “Try this” section, giving visitors opportunities to engage with contemporary art and culture in unexpected ways outside the museum. This mirrors our efforts, not only digitally but everywhere, to add new dimensions to the experience of visiting the MCA: we have created new kinds of maps and timelines; we have set aside space for reading areas and created brochures, broadsheets, and “takeaways” for our exhibition spaces; and, perhaps most relevantly for the digital domain, we have vastly increased our use of audio and video.
One Museum, Many Stories
Another major shift in our thinking with 4 Stories was to focus on multiple exhibitions instead of just one. We conducted visitor research and found that people often come to the MCA as a destination, not to see a specific exhibition (our recent David Bowie Is blockbuster being an exception). Visitors to the MCA frequently asked why we did not have printed activity guides for all exhibitions on display. But including content from multiple exhibitions presented a problem for the print format since shows continually rotate in and out. How might we best retain the most beloved aspects of the printed activity guides—their ease of use, their wonderful design, their informative content—while addressing these concerns?
The more fluid and modular nature of the digital environment enabled us to address a far wider range of what was on view at the museum at one time and to make archival documents from the past more readily available. But we purposely made 4 Stories look and feel like current popular website designs, so that it echoed, in digital form, the feeling of familiarity, ease-of-use, and the other pleasures of our printed activity guides. The goal is not to create some disorienting breakthrough in digital design, but rather to use the digital to connect visitors to all that the MCA has to offer. An example of how the website achieves this emerged around the recent Chicago Works exhibition of Sarah and Joseph Belknap’s work.
To the Moon with the Belknaps
Artists Sarah and Joseph Belknap create eerie sculptures that reflect their interest in astronomy. Their works move between the science, existential personal experiences, and larger social and political meanings of outer space. They create “moon skins” from silicon rubber and simulated lunar regolith—a synthetic approximation of moon dust, more commonly used by scientific researchers. These sculptures end up looking like deflated models of planets. Thinking about how 4 Stories might allow visitors to engage with the art of the Belkaps, we decided to focus on the materials and processes the couple use for their Moon Skins. We assumed most people would not know what moon skins or exoplanets are, nor would they be knowledgeable about the particulars of the moons of Jupiter from which the Belknaps draw inspiration. So in 4 Stories, we provided information that was at once informative and accessible. Our goal was to give visitors more expertise and to do so in a fun and welcoming way that allowed them to connect not only with the final products produced by the Belknaps, but also with their choices, processes, and thinking as art makers.
With 4 Stories, we provided a journey not just to the stars, but also to … the Belknaps’ Chicago studio. Our digital production crew visited the Belknaps where they make the Moon Skins and we included footage from that visit so people could get a first-hand look at the processes they used in creating their artworks. We also included a link to the Belknap’s website for further exploration. And, with the help of colleagues in Family and Youth Programs, we developed activities so that visitors could continue their engagement with the exhibition at home through “Try this” suggestions, such as how one might notice or even create their own moldings of objects. We also included “Fun facts” about planets and a “Discover more” section with information for both the novice and the expert. Our design team enhanced the entire story with creative, colorful graphics that bring the information alive as multimedia material.
This was one example of how 4 Stories offers new ways for MCA audiences of all ages to enhance their experiences of the museum’s rich offerings online as well as in person. We look forward to continuing the digital capacities of 4 Stories to welcome visitors into the universe of contemporary art and culture. View every issue.