"If you get lost, I’ll be impressed”: An Exploration of Museum Maps
By Morghen Jael
Entrance and Coat Room
In November 2022, I visited House of Card, a temporary exhibit at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). I entered the building and collected a pamphlet at the front desk (as I tend to do), planning to refer to it during my visit and to take it home as a souvenir. Before unfolding it, I asked the front desk employee, “Is this a map? If not, do you have a printed museum map somewhere I could take?” They replied, “It’s not a map, just a guide to the exhibition. All our floors are open-plan, like this one. If you get lost, I’ll be impressed.” MOCA maps are, apparently, obsolete.
Traditionally, museum and gallery maps are hand-held documents meant to help visitors navigate the buildings’ public spaces. Increasingly, paper maps are being supplemented by digital ones, and digital maps are increasingly approaching the status of interactive smartphone applications (Lanir et al., 2013). Museum maps include varying amounts of didactic components alongside navigational information, so their boundaries of objecthood are blurred with other documents like city tourist maps and travel brochures.
The “Map” (Refer Back Here As Desired)
I will be “imploding” (Dumit, 2014) the museum map along two planes of sociotechnical interest: museum maps’ material (printed and digital) presence, and museum maps’ effect on the visitor experience (in terms of wayfinding and symbolic functions). These planes are useful to consider in tandem, because paper maps afford different visitor experience outcomes than digital maps do.
Additionally, museum maps operate differently as objects in the museum context (“in use”) than as ephemera-turned-souvenirs. In the museum context, maps are institutional storytelling tools and imply ideal visit styles. Taken home, these documents still display institutional logos and frame memories of the experience but are no longer navigational tools.
Preliminary Information Panel: Paper Maps Versus Digital Maps
Both digital and paper forms are called “museum maps,” as long as they are at least partially navigational. Palmer and Lester (2016) affirm the fundamental similarity between the types, describing digital maps as direct stand-ins for paper maps and as similarly “material.” However, the modes of access and use—holding paper in your hands versus viewing a file on your smartphone—significantly shape maps’ social and communication impacts.
Digital maps are often interactive. If smartphone Bluetooth location-tracking is enabled, the maps might have the ability to pinpoint visitors’ location within the museum or allow them to zoom in. These functions are both available in the “Map” tab of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts app, for example (Figures 1a and 1b). Digital maps can ideally provide “reliable and timely data on accessibility conditions,” among other real-time data (Nowak Da Costa & Bielski, 2018). However, the appropriate technological infrastructure must be present and operational for digital maps to work; a loss of internet connection, for example, would make many digital maps inaccessible (“Comparing Digital Maps Vs Paper Maps,” 2021).
Figure 1. Author’s screenshot of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts smartphone app. 2022.
Despite the potential interactive advantages of digital maps, Anastasiadou and Migas (2016) identify an enduring appetite for printed tourist products. Paper guides are “ingrained [...] in the tourists’ psyche” and their “material presence” is associated with generating excitement for upcoming attractions (p. 125).
Featured Exhibit #1: Maps as (Designed) Wayfinding Tools
“Wayfinding”—navigation and intentional negotiation between spaces—in museums is inherent to the visitor experience, and handheld museum maps are a primary tool facilitating it (Faherty, 2019; McIlwraith, 2018). Most simply, museum maps reduce situations of being lost and mark the location of essential building features, such as washrooms and elevators.
Less obviously, museum maps impose suggested pathways. Landau (2010) describes how museum interpretive planners aim specifically to develop tools (like maps) that encourage visitors to “travel purposefully to destinations where they are likely to learn the most, and to move about in fairly predictable ways” (para. 1). Occasionally, museum maps impose pathways explicitly, with a numbered sequence. More often, museum maps suggest pathways implicitly, by visually featuring key exhibits or artefacts that visitors will be tempted to seek out (Figure 2) or by displaying abstract spatial sequences (“FL-01” then “FL-02” then “FL-03,” in Figures 3a and 3b).
Figure 2. Author’s photograph of the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec visitor’s guide. 2023.
Figures 3a and 3b. Author’s photographs of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Toronto)’s Thomas Demand - House of Card exhibit guide. 2022.
Museum maps represent space and perspective in different ways. A common design technique is the use of “floor plan” diagrams: depictions of just two dimensions, taking a floor-by-floor “bird’s-eye-view” of the museum (McIlwraith, 2018, p. 55). The maps from St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum (Figures 4a and 4b) use a colour-coded floor plan technique, evoking the sprawling horizontal grandeur of the site. Another technique is “axonometric” design: depicting three dimensions of the museum and helping visitors understand “how different floor levels [are] connected” (McIlwraith, 2018, p. 53). The guide from the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec (MNBAQ; Figure 2) is a loosely “axonometric” map. Its design encourages vertical movement between floors, emphasizing the coherence of each of the museum’s “pavilions” as separate entities.
Figures 4a and 4b. Author’s photographs of the St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum visitor’s map, front and back sides. 2022. Map printed in 2018.
Maps can also be analyzed for their “topographic” or “thematic” styles (Medynska-Gulij, 2003). Museum maps are typically representations of indoor spaces with level floors, so “topographic” communication is often downplayed in favour of the “thematic,” which uses “pictorial symbols” to represent the location of exhibits and access features like staircases and elevators. The distinction is blurry, though; the MNBAQ visitor guide (Figure 2) does convey an abstract topography in its demonstration of different floors stacked on top of one another. Finding the text “Inuit Art” on the MNBAQ guide and observing that it is closest to the top of the page indicates to an astute visitor that they can expect to find the Inuit art exhibited on the uppermost floor of the building.
Museums—and the interpretive designers who create their maps—expect some basic visitor capacities, which are implied in the maps’ design features. There is a QR code on the back side of the MNBAQ map (Figure 2), for example, with no alternative method for accessing the cited programming (“Learn more about the museum’s architecture”). The assumption is that visitors have smartphones and internet access and that they know how to scan a QR code. Another example is museum map “pictorial symbols,” which are apparently “intuitively grasped even by those who are inexperienced” in using topographical maps (Medynska-Gulij, 2003, p. 50). This intuitive grasp, however, is dependent upon cultural context (Maisel & Ranahan, 2022) and upon recognizing the purpose and function of a museum map in the first place. Sometimes maps with creative designs that stray from floor-plan and axonometric traditions can be difficult to discern at first glance.
Finally, Grabler et al. (2008) describe how printed, handheld maps “are static representations that cannot adapt to the needs and tastes of the individual tourist” (p. 1). The personalized “adaptability” of a navigation tool like a digital museum map is something way-finders may be coming to expect in an era of GPS, automatic location identification, and smartphone apps mediating many of our activities.
Featured Exhibit #2: Maps as Narrative Tools
Museum maps are representational; they represent the layout of the building, as well as iconic artefacts and highlighted exhibits. Anastasiadou and Migas (2016) describe how tourist brochures, a category of documents closely related to museum maps, participate actively in the “staging and visual representation of place” (p. 123). Museum maps highlight for visitors what the institution and its staff consider most important or interesting about their collections (via featured images, like the MNBAQ visitors’ guide [Figure 2]). More subtly, the maps convey cultural authority and imply that the artefacts or artworks found in a particular room are definitively meant to be found a) there and b) together.
Corroborating Anastasiadou and Migas’ perspective, Farias (2011) writes that tourist maps are “spatial devices playing an active role in the constitution” of the spaces they represent (p. 398). The maps—and their individual, institutional, or corporate creators—participate in demarcating what the supposedly visitable and worth-visiting spots are, potentially at the expense of other ones. For example, none of the museum maps in my collection indicate where to find museums’ storage rooms, which typically house a vast majority of museums’ overall collections (Kordic, 2016). Furthermore, the images included in tourist guides and brochures usually “tell us nothing about the actual experience of tourism” (Palmer & Lester, 2016, p. 237). Museum maps, for all their implied authority as navigation aids, do not convey “tourists’ embodied performances of space and place” (Farias, 2011, pp. 398-399): what it feels like or means socially to move through museum spaces.
We could also understand museum maps as examples of what Donna Haraway (1988) calls a “god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere” (p. 581). Museum maps implicitly claim to show visitors the entire museum and to portray it as both grand (especially in the case of multi-building complexes like the Hermitage [Figure 4a and 4b]) and as coherent or digestible. The maps plainly attempt to show visitors more than just navigational details—they often display choice images of artefacts from particular exhibits—but they cannot possibly contain all details, objects, or experiences of the museum being represented. Critical design and use of museum maps might involve countering the perception that these documents are “utterly transparent” (Haraway, 1988, p. 582), since they do shape and frame how we experience museums.
Finally, I return to the question of paper versus digital museum maps. Hale (2015) points out that paper maps, requiring more self-orientation in the geographic field and lacking the “tailored” features of digital maps, might prepare visitors better for “questioning what is shown or not shown” within their representations (para. 9). The paper map is a “traditional museum interpretation tool” (Lanir et al, 2013, p. 445), and it has a long history of facilitating museum narratives, but the narrative conveyed by its digital counterpart may, in practice, be even harder to scrutinize.
Side Room: The Gardiner Museum’s “Housewarming” Exhibit (Case Study)
My observations about museum maps as designed navigational tools and as institutional narrative devices come together in the example of the 2022 exhibit Housewarming. Although the Gardiner Museum did not offer printed maps at the front desk, the exhibit itself had a rack of printed guides for visitors to borrow (Figure 5). The exhibit comprised a life-size walkthrough house with rooms to navigate in a suggested sequence, so the printed maps were explicitly and meaningfully involved in the visitor experience. The simplistic “floor plan” style map at the top of the guide displayed a recommended walking route, with a legend describing the artworks in the numbered rooms.
Figure 5. Author’s photograph of the Gardiner Museum’s “Housewarming” exhibit guide. 2022.
There was a QR code displayed on the wall near the racks of printed guides, and scanning it with a smartphone camera took visitors to the Gardiner Museum’s website to download a PDF of the guide. Housewarming’s exhibit planners let visitors choose between a digital and a printed map; based on my recent observations, that choice is becoming increasingly rare.
Permanent Exhibition: Maps as Souvenirs
Museum maps can be considered “piece-of-the-rock,” one of several souvenir types identified by Rolf Potts in his 2018 Object Lesson. Piece-of-the-rock souvenirs are “physical fragments of the travel destination or experience” and are “usually found or kept at no extra cost” (p. 8). Accordingly, museum maps, when they are offered at all, are typically given for free at the entrance to the museum. If we consider museum maps in their most practical situation of “use”—navigation through a multi-room building—their removal as a souvenir amounts to taking home a “physical fragment” of the visitor experience. However, their perpetual status as narrative and branded documents lends itself to simultaneous categorization as other souvenir types: museum maps as “markers” that are “branded to the location” via logos, as “symbolic shorthand” in their condensed encapsulation of a potentially iconic cultural institution, and as “pictorial images” in their tendency to display photographs of key items in their collection (souvenir types quoted from Potts, 2018, p. 8).
The life that a museum map takes on after entering someone’s souvenir collection deserves an Object Lesson of its own. Here, I merely want to note the potential transition from map-in-use to map-as-souvenir.
Coat Room and Exit
The MOCA employee’s quip—”If you get lost, I’ll be impressed”—implies that at least some museums believe that visitors don’t need maps, especially not printed ones.
The following day, I stopped by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). While MOCA did offer printed guides that (very abstractly) resembled maps (Figure 3), the AGO was not offering printed maps or guides at all at that time. I asked the front-desk employee, “Just out of curiosity—do you have any printed maps in storage somewhere? Even old ones.” They replied, “Nope. None. Have a good visit.” Visitors like me might keep their old maps as souvenirs, but it appears that the AGO itself did not. Or maybe the employee, understandably, just didn’t feel like fetching me one on a busy Friday night.
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