The new AGO is a usability nightmare

I visited the new AGO today. And yesterday I started reading “Why we buy“, a wonderful book by Paco Underhill. One would think there is no connection between the book on shopper’s psychology and an art gallery visit. However, today when I approached the gallery and then roamed its vast rooms, I thought about the book more and more. Why?

When you approach the gallery walking down Dundas from the University Avenue, you start thinking frantically: do I go to the old entrance or did they make a new one elsewhere? Actually, the new entrance is marked with huge letters on the facade but you don’t see them as you approach from either direction on Dundas! The only way to see this sign is to stroll down the opposite side of Dundas along the whole length of the building, cross the road on the corner of Dundas and McCaul and go back to the entrance (that’s a lot of walking, and, besides, no one is likely to try and see the entrance sign from the other side of the road as they don’t yet anticipate the need for that – when you cross the road, you’d better think about crossing the road and not about much else).

So, your only hope is to keep walking, hoping that you will hit the entrance somehow. When at last you are standing in front of the actual entrance, you still don’t see the sign as it is very high above your head – you have to look directly up and squint, and you don’t do that in front of a building entrance unless you want someone entering or exiting the building to run into you. As Underhill remarks very astutely, when you are about to enter a store, you are looking for a door and you don’t pay attention to much else.

What on earth prevented the gallery management from putting a poster up one of the concrete columns (there is a lot of them along this facade) with the following message: “the entrance” and an arrow? This is a classical Underhill situation that he mentions twice, once with shop signs and once with product signs in store aisles. People cannot look sideways when they walk. They only may do that in familiar environments, but certainly not in the street when visiting an unknown place.

It gets “even” better once you are inside the gallery. You enter (squinting, as it is sunny and bright outside and twilight inside) and stop abruptly to avoid hitting the high wooden walls that guard a curving ramp leading to the… something that you cannot actually see from where you stand, because the abovementioned walls block your view almost completely. For the life of me I would not be able to guess where to go. Luckily for me, a nice security man directed me to the coat check. I wonder if he actually stands there throughout the day and greets and directs all the visitors to the coat check and ticket counter? That’s certainly nice, but wouldn’t it have been better to make the claustrophobia-inducing walls a little lower, so the entering visitors could see for themselves where to go? A little signage saying, “coat check – turn right, tickets – straight ahead” wouldn’t have hurted either.

Once you pass the ticket control line, you are at a loss again. You are in a huge, otherwise empty (if you don’t count a few seats and three lifesize cow statues in the corner) atrium. I believe that the infamous Liebeskind crystal started this style, a cross between a whitewashed mortuary and an aluminum hangar, and not much inside. But let us return to the AGO. Further ahead, in the next room or so you see something that looks like a classical painting. You look back and see more stairs on both sides and the back of the head of the ticket control man. There are no signs to tell you where to go. This signage challenged approach is starting to to get your goat. You can, of course, go towards the painting but then, as you see after consulting a map, you will find yourself in the middle of a huge U-shaped amphilade, so, to see both halves of it, you’ll have to double back. (More useless walking, and please note that at least some of the gallery visitors will be elderly people.) Now, I don’t know about you, but I certainly hate to go back through gallery rooms I have already seen, especially after a whole day spent walking. So, I consult the map and find out that the right way to start the gallery visit would be from either end of the aforementioned amphilade. To do that, you have to almost sneak back to the zone outside of the ticket control and then sneak back in, because that’s the way the floor plan is organized.

The first few rooms with the medieval art were pure joy. I wanted to stay there forever, moving around, peering at the facial expressions and folds of robes in the miniatures… peering… what the heck did they do with the lighting? These are miniatures, they need a lot of light, because you must be able to see the small details. That’s the idea about miniatures. They are, you know, really small. And putting them in lightless glass displays with dusty tops in dimmed rooms, or, even better, in an unlighted alcove where just some random shy rays of light arrive from the main passage (I swear!), kind of defies the entire idea.

And where are numbers or labels? There are none next to the miniatures themselves. There is something like an informational board around the level of my knees, small white letters on black background. The numbers are there! If you were good at puzzles at primary school, good for you, because, to get information about a piece that interests you, you have to do it in several steps:
i. Try to memorize the shape of the piece and its position among the other pieces.
ii. Find its outline on the information board at knee-level. Memorize the number next to the outline.
iii. Scan the information board back and forth until you find the description with this number.
Easy, eh? Especially for someone senior with an unbending back and usual eyesight problems. As Underhill explains, around the age of forty a normal person’s eyesight starts fading. The eyes actually let less light in. Shall I remind that a lot of gallery visitors (and probably a lot of prospective members and sponsors) are more likely to be of mature age? Underhill strikes again!

Here we should notice that there is no explanation for the exhibits, none whatsoever. What the heck are prayer beads, for example? They are not beads but golfball-sized objects opening like a pocket watch, with elaborate carvings inside. What did the people use them for? And what about these very beautiful, also carved, prismatic pendants? They are definitely too big and not flat enough to be worn around the neck, so what are they? You will never know because (need I remind?) there are no signs and no one in sight to ask.

You move on to another, this time brightly lit, room with wine goblets and Limoges enamel plates. A large glass stand in the middle of the room is devoid of any information whatsoever. Not even an information board, neither at knee level nor on the floor nor on the ceiling. You head towards the door and suddenly see a plastic holder with something like restaurant menus. Here they are, the numbers and descriptions! You are even ready to pardon them for not being in any particular order. The pictures for Limoges plates are about 1 cm in diameter, and it is really hard to tell one of them from another. To borrow a phrase from Underhill, I’ve seen better signage at a church bake sale or a kiddie lemonade stand.

The same story repeats in many other rooms. There are some pictures hanging next to each other, and their labels, if you are lucky, are placed on the wall in the corner of the room, all huddled together or stacked, and, if you are unlucky, you have to scout for a paper “menu” again (these might be hidden, for example, in a pocket on a side of a bench) and try to decipher which particular painting this small black-and-white “thumbnail” refers to. By the way, I wonder how hygienic these “menus” are, with their porous paper, especially in winter, when so many people will hold them and sneeze on them and otherwise get their flu viruses on them.

Shall I mention that the rooms are not numbered? They are, on the map, but they are not, as such. If you want to know which room you are in, you have to use your boyscout skills again: recognosce the shape of the room you are in and the adjoining rooms and compare it to the possible suspects on the map.
The last of my peeves was that all the curved stairs are curved somewhat ungeometrically, reminding of something anatomical and rather unpleasant. Aside from faulty aesthetics, these curved walls block the view, and you risk to run into somebody all the time you are on this curved narrow almost-but-not-quite-circular stair.

However, after having ascended to the top of the said stairs, I was rewarded by breathtaking views of the city in the red and smoky sunset of a frosty sunny day. That was definitely worth all the trouble. But if you ask me whether I am going to come back to the gallery or buy a membership, the answer will be a definite “no”. I do not feel welcomed there.


3 Responses to “The new AGO is a usability nightmare”

  1. Spatula Says:

    Oh, how the AGO makes me froth at the mouth. Between it and the angry trailer, oh excuse me, crystal, I am happy to leave Toronto just so I don’t get a stroke trying not to contemplate the entire cosmos of stupidity contained in those buildings.

  2. oryxandcrake Says:


  3. If it’s ugly, it’s probably not well done « Tania Samsonova’s Blog Says:

    […] is: if it’s ugly, it’s probably no good from the engineering point of view either. The new AGO building already sprung a leak. […]

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