Can social distancing still be a social experience?

In May of last year, a friend and I attended the ‘AI: More than Human’ exhibition taking place in the Barbican. The exhibition consisted of many artefacts and objects confined to glass cases, combined with tangible interactive elements. One section in particular resonated with attendees, a small pit containing Aibo – a robo-approximation of a puppy created by Sony. Capable of creating vague dog-ish sounds and gestures; Aibo caught the attention of all passerby’s.  Visitors would cram around the table to get the opportunity to physically interact with Aibo; stroke his head, play fetch, shake his paw to name a few commands. The mutt would visibly show affection at the thousands of daily guests for taking the time to show some love.

12 months later and the thought of touching an object that has been in the hands of the public for weeks all whilst in the close company of complete strangers sounds somewhat outlandish. Indeed, the global pandemic of Covid-19 has plunged everyone into an obtuse dystopian sci-fi scenario that wouldn’t feel out of place from the AI exhibition. As lockdown begins to ease, people are left questioning this “new normal” through a cloud of confinement and ambiguity. Museums, alongside nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, will be forced to adapt to new protocols that will diminish the spread of the disease. This all comes despite next to no preparation or flexibility in the run-up to lockdown. With no obvious endgame or certainty that a post Covid-19 world will allow to return to existing habits and lifestyles, museums are beginning to find new ways of reaching their audience – in the home. This has been somewhat of a challenge, as museums attempt to provide engrossing content that will captivate guests from the comfort of their Instagram stories. There have been many attempts to reinvigorate this concept (a Smithsonian entomologist and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are inviting users to an ‘Animal Crossing’ livestream event to discuss the games insect population), with many museums opting to allow visitors to attend museums digitally, including the Natural History Museum and the J Paul Getty Museum. In the first few weeks of lockdown, live talks, digital archives and virtual tours have truly taken over our inboxes and social media feeds – but is this enough?

When you visualise a museum, you imagine a physical space. Maybe it’s a bustling array of interactives, or a collection of artworks against a simple white background. Both of these share the dominance of a physical space, the context of the pieces in the larger picture. Arguably, this feeling of grandeur and purpose is responsible for making museums the hub of knowledge we have come to appreciate. With this in mind, here at MET Studio we believe it is vital that we design experiences that adapt to the new social distancing criteria. This is easier said than done, as these experiences can not be bombarded with tape as to not dilute visitor enjoyment. Subsequently, we must embrace some form of distancing measure to ensure that guests feel comfortable in attending these experiences. Finding the perfect balance between these two factors will bring guests into a situation where they still feel they are receiving an uncompromised experience, whilst still adhering to safety measures. 

So how is this achieved? At MET Studio we are experts of crafting experiences and communicating content in effective and meaningful ways – the challenges faced by Covid-19 is no exception. As part of our constantly evolving approach to design, MET Studio are now offering to assess and reimagine both large and small installations that can adhere to the constantly developing world. At MET Studio we always create bespoke solutions tailored to our briefs, our clients and audience requirements. As the world changes our solutions must change with it and we are here to help our client’s meet this challenge and ensure success.

Written by Ewan McDermott, 2D & Graphic Designer at MET Studio

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