Relaxation in free-choice learning: the use of natural elements
Free-choice learning is a major drawcard for some visitors to museums, zoos and aquariums as it contributes to lifelong learning and if done effectively can promote a long term increase in visitor numbers. However, some learning experiences can have more than just the surface response to learning facts and cause an emotional response changing beliefs and behaviours.
In Jan Packer’s 2008 study on exploring visitor experiences at the Queensland Museum, she undertook a qualitative study through use of exit interviews. It sets out to understand a framework of how settings link to experiences which links to benefits. The 10 questions that were used try to understand the emotional response of the visitors after visiting the museum, including did you learn anything about yourself, what did you gain and has it changed the way you think about yourself, all which are deeply personal questions.
The exhibition in question, Life and Death in Ancient Egypt: Keku’s Story, was a temporary paid exhibition from 2005-2006 which included many ancient Egyptian artefacts such as Keku the mummy. However, only 30% of the total participants (60) visited this exhibition and the other 70% of participants were included in the results of the experiment.
After analysing the interviews, if a certain theme was mentioned from one of the questions then that was added to an overall percentage to each idea. The main themes that were mentioned and connected to are expressed in the final framework. What interest me about the results of this study is the final framework is that it should be very individual to the wants and needs from the visitors as to generally why they are at the museum on that day.
The framework displays a direct relationship between ambience and relaxation and comfort and relaxation, which in some cases is based on being unhurried and the museum acting as an escape. While I agree with the experience influences the relaxation and same too with the ambience, I question to what extent that the exhibition and museum adds to relaxation comparing it to other free-choice learning experiences, with a total of 43% of the visitors commenting on the ambient conditions.
Natural lighting in exhibits
In the past most museums that I have gone to are typically dark with limited natural lighting often due to the implications that natural lighting has on many artefacts often LED and other artificial lights are used. Personally I find that natural lighting and natural textures in a room to be more comforting leading to a greater sense of relaxation. Daylight in a room connects visitors with the outside world which makes them feel comfortable. But due to the delicacy of the exhibition in question I am presuming there was limited natural light in the exhibition – I cannot find a photo from the 2005-2006 exhibition although a similar one held in 2012 at the Queensland Museum it has limited natural light, although has sufficient lighting, it not to cramped and has high ceilings creating a larger space.
Lighting is a major part of a Danish phenomenon called hygge. Hygge translates roughly to give courage, comfort or joy and is highly practiced around Denmark and is thought to add to the happiness of those practicing it. To include hygge in your life a number of practices can be used such as changing lighting patterns (less fluorescent lighting and more candles and low light lamps), connecting with nature through bringing woods and other nature elements inside and being surrounded with those you love.
Museums can often lack in allowing natural light into a room and have sharp fluorescent LED lights in them creating a harsher light that is less hygge. Although lighting is an important factor in museums with it highlighting parts of importance the sharp bright lightening does not always give a feeling of relaxation. There is also an obvious lack in natural textures i.e. light woods and plants within some museums.
A major drawcard at the Otago Museum in the Tropical Forest which is bringing the outside in and connecting with nature in a way that cannot be done elsewhere in Dunedin (with warmth and colourful butterflies). The use of this for me is calming and a way to connect with nature and become relaxed especially in the colder months. The use of plants, wood and natural light increases the sense of calming and demonstrates hygge.
So my question for you regarding feeling relaxed is when comparing a nature exhibitions such as the tropical forest with history type exhibits with limited natural elements which makes you feel more relaxed?
People vs ambience
We have previously been taught about people attracting people within museums, this is a factor especially in interactive environments with museum staff often instigating this. I watched this in action a few months ago at the Otago Museum with a staff member talking to a child and their family about what do to in terms of interaction in the Pacific Cultures gallery. Having a visitor interacting with or even looking at a specific exhibit can increase other visitors to go have a look which will generally create a louder environment. This is an important finding of Packer’s research with many visitors citing that crowding and noise detracted from the ambient conditions. While this is true for some people, it is hard to achieve on the museums end to create these ambient conditions. From reading the objectives of museums such as Otago Museum (as seen in their annual reports), one of their main goals is ways to increase visitor numbers. If a visitor’s experience was considered to be relaxing due to not being hurried around the exhibit, then is the museum fulfilling these objects? A delicate question then comes up about increasing visitor numbers but keeping the same level of relaxing and ambience which maybe not be achieved simultaneously.
So while the visitor experience differs from what the visitor wants from the museum, the overall message and connects made should not be taken at face value. When designing a museum or completing a study like the one in question a number of further questions need to be raised. These include what are your visitors after, what else is there to offer nearby and what is their purpose? considering these factors will help create an environment best suited to what your visitors are after or can gain from their experience.
If what your visitors are after is an ambient experiences then is limiting natural light and natural resources the best way to achieve this or are you better using the resources you have access to creating an environment that will create a change in their psychological well-being?
Hygge - Meik Wiking’s book:The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well
Packer, J. (2008). Beyond learning: Exploring visitors' perceptions of the value and benefits of museum experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal, 51(1), 33-54.