Physics + Museums

"Museum visitors are surprisingly mobile: They move through a space in zigzagging patterns. One might even humorously point out that this is not the sort of walking in a straight line that police officers ask for when they’re conducting a sobriety test.  This is the erratic track of people who are intoxicated.  While rooms with a certain shape seem to affect patterns of movement, people make different choices and move differently.  Some people like to turn left, others right; some people like to move in small increments along a wall, others to move across a room and back again.  (With regard to people who move in opposite ways, I’ve always been impressed by how quickly my wife and I lose each other in a museum.  Before cellphones, we would part ways in the first five minutes and it would often take two or three hours before we found each other again.)" "In essence, physicists have found ways to describe and analyze events that are not specifically predictable, but that, when they’re repeated over and over again, turn out to obey recognizable principles. What would we find, Andrew asked, if we simply mapped the movements of visitors through a museum? What kinds of patterns would we find if we gathered enough data? Could we discern a recognizable pattern that had a shape? What would these patterns of movement reveal about the act of looking?

The preliminary results of asking these questions are provided by the three diagrams in this post. Perhaps there are studies of this sort that have already been published, but I haven’t come across them. Admittedly, Andrew’s diagrams are not precisely accurate—he worked freehand, without exact measurements—but for that very reason they have a wonderfully expressive quality: I must confess that part of what appeals to me about them is simply their beauty as drawings. Even without knowing what they’re about, we can sense that they contain information and they record something mysterious and interesting. In fact, what they record is not difficult to explain."

Read more here at the Smithsonian Blog.