Post-Covid Touch in the City

Initial research documentation

During the initial weeks of fieldwork, I took many photos, videos and sound clips to research post-covid touch in the city.

Images I took with Flir thermal imaging equipment
Fieldwork – researching post-covid touch

Aims of the research

The research goal was to map the movement and touchpoints in the two galleries of the Transport section in the broader context of post-Covid touch in the city study.

As a family-friendly space filled with many interactive exhibits, the Explore and Making It galleries had to be adjusted for the safety of visitors. Many of the popular displays at the time of the research were closed or out of use. The goal of the mapping exercise was to determine how visitors used and behaved in the space with focus on touch with these restrictions still in place.

For the research, I used observation primarily. I stayed in the space for several hours and observed and mapped the flow of the foot traffic and how people interacted with the displays, and I took photos and videos when possible. I watched the floor from a higher vantage of Level 2 of the museum. I also created quick drawings of the space, identifying displays that attracted more attention from visitors. To identify changes of the visiting experience, I also used some references from my past pre-pandemic visits to the museum to compare the current visiting experience of these galleries with my historical perspective.

I also decided to create a few situations when I could test if the behaviours of the visitors can change based on my actions. I inspired my idea on an example of the contagion heuristic theory I read about in Quirkology by Professor Richard Wiseman.

Why I chose this method

I chose to practice participant observation when researching the movement and touchpoints of the Transport section in the Museum of Scotland because I wanted to get a first-hand perspective of the experience and blend in with the other visitors as well. I went to the space as a visitor and behaved like I was there only to look at the exhibits. I did not want to act suspiciously and make others feel watched or recorded, and I hoped that my presence as another visitor in the space would not alter their behaviours. I chose this method because I did not want to introduce strangeness or make my person noticeable. This approach, I hoped, would help me see the actual, unaltered behaviours of the visiting public.

However, my approach to the observation of the space stopped being a non-interventional process at some point. After I felt I managed to learn something about the behaviours of the visiting public from objective observation, I tried to disrupt their visiting process surreptitiously to check if my behaviour could probably affect theirs. It was not a scientific approach reliant on using the same technique, as I relied on finding an opportune moment and improvisation at each time. It was only possible with an individual visitor or small family groups of visitors. It was helpful to give me more perspectives of how people acted regarding post-covid touch.

What I did and how I did it and findings

Observation – first phase

Upon entering the Transport section, I started my tour as a visitor. I walked around, reading the display information, and watching the exhibits as a subjective participant.

Afterwards, I focused on observing others as an objective observer. I circled the area several times, sometimes watching from a distance, sometimes slowly following selected visitors. I was not approached by anyone or given asking glances, so I guess I managed to observe their experiences without raising questions even though I spent a significant amount of time in these galleries. I carried my phone and a notebook to take photographs, videos, and notes. I also watched the space from a higher vantage of the second level.

I tried to take notes on the changes to the displays, especially identifying the previously frequently touched objects and recalling my previous experiences of the space.

Past visits (before 2019):

Explore and Making it Galleries used to be filled with visitors with children. I remember it as a dynamic, crowded, and noisy space. I visited the space many times over the years when working in childcare with children aged between 3-13 years old. Many exhibits were used by adult visitors as well. However, in my solitary visits to the Museum, without children included, I usually spent less time in that section of the museum due associating it with increased foot traffic and noise. When visiting with the children, we often tried to play with every available exhibits. The favourites being the reflex game exhibit, car race simulator and robots displays. On busy days and when visiting with the children, the paths we took were random and dictated by the intensity of traffic around these interactive displays. Children often backtracked to their favourite interactive exhibits if they spotted an opening and a possibility to play and interact with the exhibit again.

Being a visitor (October 2021):

I tried not to amend my visiting experience, but I was already mentally preparing to map the paths and touchpoints in the space, even when trying to act as a participant. I walked in from the Grand Gallery and turned left towards the partially opened Explore section. I circled Dolly the sheep exhibit and then turned directly towards Making It gallery as the rest of the fenced of exhibits were too far to be of much interest. I spend more time in the Making It gallery, staring at an inactive Reflex game and walking clockwise. I was paying more attention to closed displays, floor markings, sanitizing stations placements than I would have before Covid. Interestingly, with most interactive exhibits closed and no children in tow, I spent more time reading display information than during my past visits overall. Being conscious of my health, I used a hand sanitiser from a nearby station. Despite one of the displays being inactive, I tried to check if I could press a button covered with a piece of paper and played with three other open displays located in the far corner of the Making It gallery.

Ambient audio from the museum
Transport section – classification of exhibits

During my visit to the museum, I identified working, partially working, and closed displays which used to be interactive before Covid-19 pandemic. I also marked placement of two sanitizing stations, floor markings and a closed off section of Explore gallery. In addition, I marked video displays and dynamic and non-interactive displays.

The path I took when acting as a visitor is marked by the red trail.
Research photos and the floor plan
Various photos I took during my research

Observing the visitors

From the observation of other visitors

Disruption – second phase based on what I saw during the observation

After identifying a good opportunity, I acted in front of the other visitors trying to disrupt their behaviour. This excerpt from Quirkology by Richard Wiseman was my inspiration to test the law of contagion:

Anthropologists and psychologists have long been interested in superstitions. One of the key categories of superstitious thinking is the “law of contagion”, which says that when an object has been in contact with someone, it somehow acquires their “essence”. Psychologist Paul Rozin and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have investigated how common such thinking is today.

They asked people to rate how they would feel about wearing a nice, soft, blue jumper that had been freshly laundered – but previously worn by someone else. As they varied the fictitious previous wearers of the jumper, it became clear how strongly people follow the age-old belief in magical contagion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the volunteers were unhappiest about wearing the jumper if they were told it had previously belonged to a serial killer. On the whole they would rather have worn a sweater that had been dropped in dog faeces and not washed – raising genuine health concerns – than a laundered sweater that had been worn by a mass murderer.

While the contagion heuristic is usually applied to personal possessions, such as objects left behind by the dead people, as a society we have been sensitised to the risk of touching items in the public spaces so much, that personally, I often felt strange reluctance when I had to touch a handrail or a shopping cart. Based on my personal feelings, I was wondering if people were still worried about touching objects in public spaces and whether my touching the exhibits could act as a deterrent or an invitation based on the behaviour they displayed. In case of people not touching the displays, I wanted to check if I could entice them to try touching the interactive displays. In case of people who were touching the exhibits, I tried to check if I could deter them by ‘contaminating’ the exhibits with my touch.

Examples:

I tried to identify people who were not touching inactive displays and not touching the interactive displays even when they were still open to use. When I could, I still tried to touch and press buttons on the active and inactive displays in front of these visitors to see if people reacted to my behaviour. In most cases (5 – no change), there was no reaction or remark made but two people also tried to touch the display after I moved on (2 – change), despite not having previously touched other exhibits in my presence.

I identified people who were touching displays when the galleries were not too busy. I tried to get slightly in front of them and touch a few displays as they witnessed it and then move on. It seemed that people were forgetting that only a moment earlier someone else might have touched the exhibits. In three cases of single visitors, after witnessing me touching the displays, people stopped touching the exhibits and went to use hand sanitiser as if I reminded about the coronavirus risk (3 – change). In four other cases, they did not alter their behaviour and they were all visitors accompanied by small children (4 – no change).

Sadly, only by interviewing these people afterwards, I could truly gage if my actions had any influence on them and have a better understanding of their own views of post-covid touch in the context of visiting a museum. The exercise was only an attempt on finding these moments of change, but it did not follow strict scientific approach and I only recorded the reactions from 14 attempts.

On this video we can see a male visitor who I followed because he was touching various displays. I managed to go ahead of him and ‘contaminate’ the Cogs display with my touch. He looked hesitant and did not play with the Cogs display after seeing me touch it.

Reflection on how the research could be improved

The goal of my research of visitors, behaviour in the Museum of Scotland was to determine how visitors used and behaved in the space with a focus on touch, to identify changes in the visiting experience and test if the behaviours of the visitors can change based on my actions.

To identify changes in the visiting experience, it would help my research if I had good data on pre-pandemic experiences. I used my own historical perspective and talked to members of staff but interviewing visitors who used the space before March 2019 and interviewing them after a return visit in 2021 would provide a more complex dataset of experiences.

In terms of mapping touchpoints, the use of a thermal camera could be useful to identify them. Behaviours of the visitors could also be mapped using multiple cameras or observers, which could provide more data than observation from only one perspective. I could not follow or time the pace of every person entering the space. In terms of my little attempt to examine if the behaviour of visitors can change, it is hard to determine if my actions actually affected the visitors; even when I thought they changed their behaviour, it could have been coincidental. A more rigorous method, recreating the conditions and including follow up could provide more reliable data.

From the standpoint of an aspiring interactive art designer, I am also inclined to think of solutions that would allow the visitors to enjoy the Transport section without the need to rely on touch-triggered interactions, such as the use of proximity sensors, triggers activated by feet and voice command recognition.

Who else has done something similar (in design practice and research)

To prepare for the research task, I looked at literature referring to behavioural patterns mapping, such as Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach. However, this book focuses mostly on product users.

I tried looking for specific research about visitors behaviours in museums and found a 2005 paper by Alessandro Bollo titled  Analysis of Visitor Behaviour inside the Museum: An Empirical Study. The method used by the researcher was also observation collect data concerning the non-verbal behaviour of visitors of museums. He wanted to identify elements with Attraction Power, Holding Power and Utilisation Time which affected the visitors’ experience. Based on his findings, he created possible paths and thermal maps of the exhibitions.

When trying to find some newer research, I found a Yoshimura et al. (2016) paper titled An analysis of visitors’ behaviour in the Louvre Museum: A study using Bluetooth data, which described an observation method relying on Bluetooth proximity detection of visitors. This method gave mainly results containing information about the spatial distribution of visitors and the timing of their visit, unlike Bollo’s paper, which focused on identifying elements of the exhibitions that attract and hold visitors’ attention.

In terms of visitors’ experience in the museum, I looked at wayfinding and behavioural research done by CCD Design & Ergonomics company on behalf of Victoria and Albert Museum. (https://www.designbyccd.com/portfolio-items/visitor-behaviour-and-wayfinding-research-for-the-victoria-albert-museum/) The designer used a mix of traditional observation techniques and interventions conducted over several days. They wanted to understand how visitors and staff used and understood the building. Based on their findings, they created alternative visiting paths for the museum.

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