Have you ever been at an event, watched a movie, or played a sport and completely lost track of time and where you are because you are so focused on the one task at hand? If you have, you’ve been in an immersive experience. When I say “immersive experience” what I really mean is that whatever you are doing allows you to lose yourself in the moment.
Museums and galleries can do this.
Whether it’s being surrounded by beautiful objects displayed in crystal-clear cases, walking through an historic house where people lived 100 years ago, or watching a video projection with speakers blasting loud audio from all sides, museums and galleries can often make you forget your everyday life.
Part of the immersive experience is the sense of scale that you just can’t get from your computer, tablet, or phone. One of the best examples is the haul truck which can be seen from the highway. If you’re a local from the Lower Mainland of BC or the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, how many times have you driven by the Museum and seen the big yellow truck? Sure, it looks big from the highway, but you don’t realize it's the same height as a two-storey house until you get up close and your head barely reaches halfway up a tire!
Sense of scale also works the other way. Last summer I visited the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Much like Ellis Island in New York City, this museum displayed many objects that were brought by immigrants in their long travels to reach North America. Strangely enough, one of the most powerful objects was a suitcase. Usually when I think of suitcases, I associate it with the excitement of a trip or the annoyance of packing. At Pier 21 I looked at the suitcase in a whole new way. Think of a small suitcase – the little ones that you can carry as hand luggage onto the plane – how much can you fit in it? Can you fit all your worldly possessions? If you were limited to this one suitcase, what would you take and what would you have to leave behind? These are the things that many immigrants and refugees have to consider and I never realized just how small a suitcase was until I tried to imagine fitting my life into one.
An experience can also be immersive if a museum or gallery can engage all (or most) of your senses. Computers are limited to sight and sound; photographs are limited to just sight. The possibilities at a museum or gallery are endless. The first time I walked into Mill 3 at Britannia (led by an interpreter) I was immediately hit by a wave of cold air. I took a big breath through my nose and thought, “What is that smell?” As I followed my interpreter to the flotation demonstration, I looked down and noticed my shoes getting a little dusty. Listening to the presentation, I reached out and touched a piece of ore. I’ll admit that the only sense I didn’t utilize was taste, but I think I’m okay with not tasting copper concentrate – after all, Britannia is an industrial site so who knows what might be left over from the days when the mine and mill were running.
To lose yourself in a place, to see artefacts in context, to be surrounded by video and sound, or to walk through an underground mine is the value of museums. As a museum visitor, I find this more engaging and enjoyable than sitting on a chair and clicking through images on a website.
This is Part Three of the "Why Visit a Museum or Art Gallery" Blog Series.
Part One: Museums Cater to Multiple Intelligences
Part Two: Museums Have Experts
Part Four: Museums Can Encourage Social Interaction