Monday, 8 November 2010

The 'comfort' factor

It was in the book The Museum Experience, by John Falk and Lynn Dierking, that I first read about the ‘comfort’ factor, associated to the quality of the experience of visiting a museum. The two authors identify three contexts in the interaction of the visitor with the museum:

1. The personal context: previous experience and knowledge, interests, motivations and concerns that each visitor brings along and that define his/her personal agenda in what concerns the visit.

2. The social context: the type of group of which the visitor forms part, as well as, even in what concerns solitary visitors, the interaction with other visitors and members of staff, influence the visitor´s perspective of this experience and help us understand different behaviours.

3. The physical context: the architecture and ‘feeling’ of the building, exhibition design, shops, cafés and restaurants, WCs, areas to take a rest, are all factors that determine the quality of the visit.

Falk and Dierking consider that visitor experience is a constantly changing interaction among the personal, social and physical contexts. In what concerns the physical context, George Hein, in his book
Learning in the Museum, refers specifically to visitor comfort as a prerequisite in the construction of a learning environment and experience.

Who can enjoy an exhibition when they feel tired and cannot take a rest, when they are hungry, warm or cold, when they cannot find the WC or when its conditions are not as they should be? These are all apparently secondary elements, but significant for the quality of the experience we aim to provide, because they condition it.

I believe that we find the same three contexts in any cultural experience, the ‘comfort’ factor also having an impact on the quality. The author of O Blog do Desassossego published a post last month entitled "On Theatre", where we can read: “(…) The problem is that the plays are always an hour longer than they should. Generally, when it´s time for interval they should actually be finishing. But no, we go on chewing for another hour and a half a story that could be told in less time. And then I can´t find a comfortable position in the seat, everything hurts, I yawn and I only want to get out from there (…)”. The duration of a play, the possibility to know about it beforehand, the existence of an interval, the room temperature, the seats being comfortable or not are elements that determine the quality of the experience as much as, or for some people even more than, the quality of the play. I confess that once or twice I opted not to see the productions of Cornucopia knowing that, given the duration, from a specific moment onwards I would be unable to follow the action taking place on stage and I would be thinking of how uncomfortable the seats are, the pain in my legs and I would be noticing other people constantly changing position in search for some comfort. Also at CCB, I am always trying to get a ticket for an aisle seat, since there is not enough space for the legs of a medium stature person, as myself; I also don´t forget to take a jacket, as the air conditioning is usually cold. The same occurs when opting for a tier of benches on the stage of Culturgest or Maria Matos Theatre, where, apart from the lack of space for the legs, we are forced into a physical proximity with stangers that not everybody wishes for. (I let other people talk about the comforts and discomforts at the theatre where I work. I know they exist.)

There is another possibility still: when the long duration of a bad play contributes to our total discomfort: physical, psychological, intellectual. Last Thursday, the comfortable chairs of the main auditorium of Culturgest where not able to ease the total discomfort caused by the play
O Inferno by Mónica Calle. And while the evaluation of the quality of a play is always subjective, we cannot say the same about its duration (3 hours) and the lack of interval. Half of the spectators abandoned the room during the play. Those who resisted and didn´t leave, either because they enjoyed the play or because they felt ashamed to leave or out of respect for the actresses´s effort (which was clearly my case), they saw the director jumping on stage as soon as the play had finished. She acknowledged that half of the spectators had left, given the duration of the show, and then she turned and thanked the actresses. Extremely tired and upset, I thought her intervention was totally inappropriate. The director should have equally acknowledged that the play was too long and that there should have been an interval, giving the spectators, whom she forgot to thank, a chance to take a rest or…to run away, without regrets.

No comments: