I spend a lot of time in cultural institutions for work and for leisure. In my visitor research work, I’m talking to and observing visitors in a variety of museums. Museums are constantly changing and evolving but I still believe that the most important thing for any cultural institution to do, is to get to know their audience. Listening to what people say and feeding those thoughts back into the strategic planning process is as essential as managing the collection and the museum space itself.
There is much written about engaging new audiences, but honestly, I don’t think that it’s all that simple. One size does not fit all. Larger institutions have a far greater capacity to connect with visitors at every level because they tend to have very large collections and lots of staff specialised in all the different areas of museology – including Front of House, Visitor Services, Security, Curatorial, Marketing, Events, Learning and Education, Children’s Programs, General programs, Membership, Conservation, Retail and Cafes – not to mention that they also tend to have an army of willing Volunteers.
Smaller museums might be lucky to have a few paid staff ( Management/ Curatorial staff, Visitor Services) and/or volunteers. They may be under the umbrella of a large organisation (e.g. National Trust of Australia) or be operated by a small self-managed historical society (a group of interested Volunteers) as a labour of love.
There are three important things that any Museum, large or small, can do if they see themselves as part of the world-wide collective movement of cultural institutions wanting to build cultural heritage values in communities now and into the future –
Know your brand. Cultural Institutions need a point of difference that makes them stand out from the crowd. Large and small museums are in competition for visitor’s leisure time and it’s really important to use that point of difference about each site and/ or collection and not to look the same as other museums in the area with similar permanent galleries and exhibitions.
Know your audience. Who is interested in your museum and why? If you are not thinking about the visitor’s perspective and the personal, social and cultural contexts which affect their experience at your museum – then why bother at all? It is paramount to audience engagement to ensure that permanent galleries/ exhibitions and the museum’s interface with the public is the best that it can be and that audience engagement can be measured pre and post visit. If you don’t know your audience, then how can you manage your site better and increase your visitor numbers. For inspiration look at two example case studies “Centering Disabled Arts and Audiences” and “Finding Family Audiences”.
Know your limits. This is very much about your vision and mission. You can’t be everything to everyone but you can ensure that your collection (if you have one) and site is shown off to the max and that it is accessible to visitors in a physical and digital sense. You can always improve on keeping your members happy at the same time as you work on your audience reach. You can spend a lot of time and effort extending your reach only to alienate the regular visitor population who feel that the museum context has changed for them – “It’s been dumbed down’’, “It’s like a kid’s playground – I want to learn ” and “I don’t belong here anymore”. This takes you back to basics in knowing your brand and what face you want to present to your audience using your unique site and/or collection.
This post has been written as a conversation starter and as a thought provoker. To really understand the museum experience from an audience perspective, I recommend going back to basics via the museum gurus – Falk and Dierking in their book “The Museum Experience Revisited “ (2013). I also recommend many of the online articles below. It can save a lot of time and money to read what other people have already done in this field rather than starting from scratch. Smaller operations can also head to their Peak Body and Association websites for inspiration and guidance on all kinds of subjects from Conservation to Emergency procedures etc.
Just as I was about to publish this post, I came across an article by Jasper Visser called “When your museum isn’t attracting people” which actually builds on some of the discussion above. It’s definitely worth a read.
Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (2013). The museum experience revisited. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.
Before Australia Day, there is always discussion about the date, 26th January, what it means to every Australian and the conversations are quite thought provoking. I don’t believe that you can change history, but you can certainly change the way you look at the facts and think more critically about them. Australia was not the only country to be colonised by the British. I am certain that had it not been the British, it would have been the Dutch, French or Portuguese who were all active on our coastline at that time. I believe that the outcome for Indigenous Australians would have still been quite bleak.
We may not be able to change history but museums have the power to revisit and reinterpret the facts. Australians still have much to learn about our nation’s history and perhaps learning new things can help all of us to build on our cultural heritage and celebrate the contribution of Indigenous Australians to our country and to resolve the issue of January 26th as a contested date for Australia Day.
A few years ago, I saw a great art exhibition of works on paper about Bungaree: First Australian at Mosman Art Gallery (in Sydney), which made me think about the man, his place in Australian history and the way that these artists created works that acknowledged and critically re-interpreted the story of Bungaree – an important Indigenous figure in the colonial Sydney era. Bungaree’s story would fit well into the vision and exhibition strategy of museums such as the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian Museum or the National Museum of Australia.
King Bungaree (c1775-1830) was well respected by the Indigenous Australian community and developed a reputation as a negotiator between Aboriginal and European cultures during his lifetime. He accompanied Matthew Flinders on several journeys in 1798, 1799, 1801 and 1802-03 where he acted as interpreter and intermediary, a role which he undertook several times for European explorers in Australia. Bungaree was the first Indigenous person to circumnavigate Australia and contribute to the mapping of the Australian coastline and yet more is known about “Trim”, Matthew Flinders’ “sea-faring” cat than the man Flinders described as having “a good disposition and open and manly conduct that attracted my esteem”. I have often thought that the life of King Bungaree would make a wonderful museum exhibition – to rediscover the voyages undertaken by Bungaree with Matthew Flinders, and in particular the circumnavigation of Australia but with more emphasis on Bungaree – his character, his family and his exchanges with other indigenous people during those journeys.
A great deal is known about Australia’s maritime heritage but this would be an opportunity to engage with a different audience, reinterpret the existing historical record and to be more “inclusive” of an indigenous audience with a more meaningful dialogue about the place of King Bungaree in Australian history. This indigenous man was well respected by the Governors and officials in colonial Sydney. He was not only known in NSW but his fame spread to nineteenth century Europe both in artworks inspired by colonial Australia and in the journals of men that he sailed with. Considering that “Reconciliation” is an important theme for Australian museum projects recently, then public learning and collaboration with indigenous communities offers a museum the opportunity to become a driver for social change and inclusion. It is a chance to research and communicate factual information to visitors about some of the relationships formed between the newly arrived colonial settlers and the indigenous population at that time.
In the past, most exhibitions on the exploration of Australia tend to be Eurocentric, and yet here is a perfect opportunity to develop a more “inclusive” exhibition for the public with an opportunity to reinterpret Australian history so that more is known about the man who contributed much to the exploration and development of our nation. The following themes could be examined:
- Bungaree the man – with paintings, prints and writings about Bungaree. Bungaree was a tribal chief who had the ability to straddle both the indigenous and colonial worlds. Bungaree spoke English well and his sense of humour was well noted. There are several portraits and writings about Bungaree available to assist in developing a picture of his character, his family and his contribution to the circumnavigation and mapping of Australia with Matthew Flinders and Phillip King. He was the subject of at least 17 portraits during his life time and several more after his death – many by well known artists (The National Library of Australia collection has portraits by Augustus Earle, Charles Pye, Charles Rodius, and W.H. Fernyhough).
- Bungaree’s Family Tree (This would be require significant research because he supported 5 wives and many descendants).The existing family tree for Bungaree and his wives is quite complex. His first wife was Matora, followed by three other women, Gooseberry (Cora), Charlotte Ashby and Biddy Salamander. There are many descendants of Bungaree and his wives identified in the literature which also details the places that they lived. Research may extract further evidence about the number of wives he had and about his known descendants which could be presented using an interactive display. This would assist existing and new descendants to find out more information about the family tree. Such a display could include some web links for searching Bungaree’s family history.
- Indigenous Languages – A study of Indigenous dialects/lifestyles in the early 1800s. Bungaree was a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area along the Hawkesbury River and would have been quite unfamiliar with the languages and types of housing in other parts of Australia – contrary to the incorrect European view that all Indigenous Australians were the same and had no cultural heritage to speak of. In the early 1800s there were an estimated 300 distinct indigenous languages in Australia. Currently there are 145 languages still spoken but of these 110 are critically endangered which is the largest and most rapid loss of languages in the world. In this display, show the spread of aboriginal dialects, comparing 1800s to today. Use audio examples of a couple of words to compare the different dialects. Bungaree was taken as a translator on these sea voyages which showed that early settlers had no idea that the culture and language of indigenous settlements was extremely variable in different parts of Australia. Discuss “terra nullius” presumption and note all the places that they anchored on the voyage.
- Map making – Present a series of maps of Australia from Bungaree’s time including discussion about mapping instruments and techniques used to map the coastline – something which we take for granted in modern times. Demonstrate the navigational feat of the Matthew Flinders’ expeditions using audio visual support to show a map of Australia during Cook’s time and how that map changed after each of Flinders’ journeys with Bungaree and including the final circumnavigation aboard the HMS Investigator. Discuss the fact that it was Flinders who named Australia.
- Indigenous Australia in Bungaree’s time – How did Indigenous people travel Australia via the ocean and waterways? How did they use the stars to navigate? How did they use Songlines to travel and to pass information down through the generations? Compare the knowledge of Indigenous Australians with the instruments used in early 1800s for navigation and mapping. Demonstrate how Australia would be mapped today -(showing modern photographic and satellite techniques. (Maps and instruments to be sourced from the ANMM collection and the National and State libraries).
- HMS Investigator – Look at the history of HMS Investigator and the other vessels which Bungaree sailed on to Norfolk Island, Bribie Island and Hervey Bay before the circumnavigation of Australia with Flinders. The Investigator carried a crew of 88. He also made other expeditions with Philip Parker King. Use diagrams and refer to the HMS Investigator using a scaled model such as the model – 1:48 inches with decking, rigging and fine detail (Object D 7835 sourced from State Library of SA). Also discuss the fact that there were nine different HMS Investigators in British naval history showing the lifespan of each ship on a historical timeline.
- Trim and Bungaree. Finally the story of “Trim” and Bungaree and including the place of ship’s cats on these exploration vessels using a text panel discussing the role of ship’s cats in colonial times. There should be a reference to Bungaree and Trim. Bungaree first met when Trim was the rat catcher aboard HMS Norfolk in the 1790s. Trim and Bungaree are often mentioned in Flinders’ daily journal entries and both were present during the circumnavigation of Australia in the HMS Investigator in 1801-1803. Sadly Trim was killed in Mauritius in 1804. Sculptor John Cornwall created a statue of Trim which is located on the ledge of the Mitchell Library wing at the State Library of NSW.
The ideal Visitor Experience
Visitors will come to the exhibition with their own knowledge, thoughts and motivation – hopefully curious and asking “Who was King Bungaree?” The exhibition could be factual about the “first contact” between Indigenous Australians and colonial settlers through the eyes of Bungaree, a well-known Sydney character and identity. By wandering through the exhibition and interacting with its components, more could be understood about Bungaree’s place in history.
The audience will learn how little the British colonials knew about the Australian Aborigines, their culture and diversity of language and begin to understand how the divide between them came about. A point of interest is that the High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992 overturned the terra nullius fiction. In the same judgment, however, the High Court accepted the British assertion of sovereignty in 1788, and held that from that time there was only one sovereign power and one system of law in Australia.
The exhibition content should fit within the context of the National curriculum particularly into the areas of Australian History, Geography, Civics and citizenship, Indigenous content and cross cultural perspectives as well as for Visual Arts and design.
Public programs could include storytelling, canoe building, dance and art workshops to explore aspects of country and culture (Bungaree used dance to communicate with other tribes when he did not know their language). Preparation should be carried out in consultation with members of Bungaree’s Kuringai (Guringai) clan from Broken Bay, Sydney.
 Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, W Nicol, London, 1814, p cxciv
 Simpson, M.G. 1996, Making representations: museums in the post-colonial era/Moira G. Simpson Routledge London; New York
 Kelly, L. and Gordon, P.2002. Chapter 11. Developing a community of practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia. Richard Sandell (Ed).pp 153 -174 in Museums Society and Inequality.
 McCarthy, F.D.1966. Bungaree (?-1830) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University at http:adb.anu.edu.au/biography/Bungaree-1848/text2141, published hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 March 2014.
 National Library of Australia collections database at http:// www.nla.gov.au/collections accessed online 26 March 2014
 Flinders, M. A voyage to Terra Australis (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1814
 King, P. Narrative of a survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1827.
 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 111, Scene 1; Geoffrey Dutton, White on Black: The Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1974, pp 28–31
 Schmidt, A. (1990). The loss of Australia’s aboriginal language heritage. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Smith, K. (1992).King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the Great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830.Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.
Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum. California: Santa Cruz. Museum 2.0 pp 139-152
Weil, S.E. (2002) “From being about Something to being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington Smithsonian Institution. pp 28-53.
Why should cultural institutions do audience research?
Competition in the “museum world” is tough. It doesn’t matter how exclusive your collection is, or how famous your brand, there is competition from other cultural institutions, big and small, as well as any number of other distractions (sport, relaxation, leisure pursuits) competing for a share of potential visitors and even the most committed members’ valuable time. Face to face audience research into visitor experiences within the museum provides useful information that can be fed back into program development, museum policy and strategic planning for the future.
It is not enough to just happily count numbers of visitors through the door. Numbers on their own can be quite misleading without the qualitative data supporting visitor behaviour (including visitor observation and tracking – see separate post) during the visit and feedback from visitors about their personal experiences inside your cultural institution and why they may or may not come back in the future.
Visitor Feedback Surveys
Certainly, visitor feedback is key to keeping audiences engaged with your museum and your brand. If you welcome feedback, audiences feel appreciated and valued, whether it’s about the collection, upcoming or current exhibitions, kids activities, programs, eating spaces or the state of the bathrooms!
Once you have direct communication with visitors, you can benefit enormously from their feedback (both positive and negative), but firstly, the organisation needs to be specific as possible about what it wants to know in order for the feedback to be beneficial.
Preparing your audience research objective
Feedback survey questions usually require a brainstorming session in order to define the aims of the survey. Once the aims have been determined, it becomes easier to write the survey questions. It’s impossible to retrieve and analyse data that has not been collected and there is no point in collecting data that staff have no use for. Think carefully –
- How will the information be used?
- What do staff want to find out about their visitors?
Visitor feedback survey objectives need to be clearly defined. Keep them simple and specific. Try to minimise bias in the questions. Visitor surveys are research. Research on museum visitors can determine specifics such as:
- Where are your visitors from? Are they alone or with friends/ family?
- Are they likely to return to your institution – this may be affected by accessibility. Are visitors local or from overseas/interstate? Are they already members, repeat visitors or first timers?
- What are their interests? These may be specific to your museum collection, a particular exhibition or just a family outing?
- What do people like or dislike about your museum collection, exhibitions, program and activities? Embrace both sides as an opportunity to think critically about what you offer and the way you offer it.
Also be conscious that research on people who do not visit the museum can be useful to determine why people don’t come, particularly the local community on your doorstep.
Constant self-reflection and improvement will encourage more visitors through the door. Use the findings from visitor feedback surveys to help with the planning and implementation of improvements to the “people interface” – Front of House, museum spaces and services (including facilities, cafe, museum shop etc.). Listening to and responding to the feedback findings will ensure the success of future marketing, promotional and public relations campaigns.
The solid evidence produced by analysing survey results will add credibility to your case when pitching to potential sponsors or funding sources to support future projects.
Tips for Survey staff on real time Surveying of Visitors
- Take time to absorb the museum atmosphere on the day. Move around the museum spaces and work out the best spots to catch people.
- Choose people carefully. There is no point in asking a parent with a screaming child or people preoccupied with something inside the museum where they are unlikely to want to be disturbed.
- Introduce yourself to visitors being surveyed and tell them what you are doing emphasising that the museum needs their feedback to try to improve or find out their opinion on “(whatever)” depending upon the survey aim – ticket pricing, accessibility, current exhibition content and future exhibition topics ……..
- Encourage each visitor to fill out the form themselves if possible but try to ensure that all pages are filled out
- Add “in-house” predetermined requirements such as completion time, date etc. to each survey
- Try to sample broadly
- Don’t worry about knockbacks, if you are friendly then visitors might participate next time or at another cultural institution when they have more time.
- Write down anecdotal comments which you think may add value to the survey being carried out even if the feedback isn’t relevant to the questions
- Set yourself a target based on past experience – some days are better than others depending on the flow and mood of the museum visitors on the day in question and on the length of the survey.
- Offer an incentive for their time. e.g. a coffee voucher, discount for next visit or even a voucher for the museum shop.
- Thank them for their participation
Further reading for those people thinking about visitors to cultural institutions – what visitors think and why they may or may not visit our cultural institutions.
- Potential visitors to cultural institutions are spending more time on the couch instead
- Couch potatoes, Television Consumption and Museum Visitation
- Are we asking the right questions?
- 10 reasons to visit a museum
- 21 Reasons why I hate Museums
- Why don’t people visit museums more often?
- How to encourage people to visit museums more often
- The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope
- Audience Research 101 – #museumeval
- Visitor research at Te Papa
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.
In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s 66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)
The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.
The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.
According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.
For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.
I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.
I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.
Throwing back to this post about apartment dwelling families and Cultural Institutions in the city. Are you doing enough for frequent visitors with children?
One of the most interesting facts that I have learned from visitor studies at the Australian Museum, Sydney, was that many “inner city dwellers” use the museum as their backyard (metaphorically speaking of course).
I found that a number of families live in apartments in the inner city and have taken out membership to several cultural institutions and that they regularly bring children to come and play at the Australian Museum. I don’t mean running around kind of play but definitely spending hours at the museum (to escape their apartments) in the Search and Discover section of the museum or participating in craft activities (when available) at Kids Space. This was quite a revelation to me because I’ve never lived in a small flat with children. My four kids were brought up in the suburbs, 20 kilometres away from the city and had access to a backyard, local…
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I’m not a big fan of measuring the success of visitation to cultural institutions by simply counting the numbers of people through the doors. I don’t believe that numbers alone give a true picture of visitor engagement and they certainly won’t give any indication of the way that visitors respond to the various spaces within a given cultural institution.
I confess that I love tracking visitors inside museum spaces because I always have preconceived ideas about what is going on inside various galleries and exhibitions and I am constantly surprised by what is actually happening when I analyse my results. On one occasion, I was observing visitors passing through a newly opened exhibition. I was thinking how good it was that there were so many families coming into the museum for this exhibition and I expected certain outcomes from my tracking and feedback studies for the following reasons:
- Because it was a brand new exhibition space
- Because it was school holidays and wet weather
- Because it was free of charge to visit.
The tracking process that I use involves mapping the exhibition floor plan, then adding objects to that map, numbered within a cluster group or individually, depending upon their size and the size of the gallery overall. I use a technique learned from Dr Lynda Kelly involving timed entry and exit points, visitor groupings (individual, couple, family group), age groupings and an observational scale based on Judy Diamond’s chapter on observational tools to record the movement of people, using four categories for visitor engagement:
- Ignore (I)
- Skim (S)
- Attend (A)
- Engage (E)
Visitors who pass within two metres of an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Ignore (I). Visitors who look briefly at an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Skim (S) but those who stop briefly with both feet for two seconds are listed as Attend (A). Those visitors who stop and actively read text panels or look at displays are listed as Engage (E).
For the exercise mentioned above, what surprised me when I actually observed the individual visitors and tracked their pathway, was that what I thought I saw was not what was happening at all. When I analysed my results, I found that people weren’t really in the gallery for very long and definitely did not engage with the exhibits for a significant time period which was a lost learning opportunity. However, there were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” and expressions of awe and wonder and very many photos taken of kids with various objects. Sadly, in most cases their curiosity was not sufficiently aroused for them to engage with the objects on a deeper level – by reading the associated text panels and using the interactive materials.
I’m not going to address the importance of engagement for Transformative Learning outcomes in this blog post because it has been well covered in the literature and other museum blogs (see Dr Lynda Kelly’s blog posts for information on TL as well as a review of the literature). Secondly, when I track visitors, I don’t usually look at the cultural diversity of the audience but more their age group and the effects of their group status on how they move through the spaces. Again, a better brain than mine, Colleen Dilenschneider talks about misinterpreting or not interpreting data on diversity correctly in her recent post “Why Some Cultural Organisations Overestimate Success in welcoming Diverse Visitors” for those who want to think about visitors in an even broader sense.
The advantage of carrying out observational and tracking studies is that institutions can combine the collected data with visitor feedback surveys to get to know their audiences better and form a clearer picture of how people spend time within their walls. Such studies can highlight the parts of an exhibition or permanent space which are not being seen, being used properly or are not engaging visitors at all. Sometimes problem areas can be tweaked by making small changes to the space – improved interior design, better text panels, signage, IT/general maintenance or even small changes to sound and lighting. It is interesting to see where people spend the most or least amount of time as they move through a cultural institution or specific exhibition. Other details can be recorded as well – such as:
- Is there a particular item that is really popular with visitors?
- Where do people stop and read text panels?
- Are interactive displays working and easy to use?
- Are there any blockages with the general flow of visitors?
- Are there any blockages because of audio tours, queueing or people taking photographs?
- In the case of couples and groups – is there some discussion about particular objects, interactives or related topics?
- Are there any visitor comments which should be recorded as feedback to Front of House, Marketing or Curatorial Management?
Visitors are usually unaware that they are being observed. Observers are often mistaken for floor staff and visitors may ask questions or give feedback just because they are there. Understanding how visitors use different spaces within a museum can help to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities in that institution’s engagement strategy. I’ve often noticed that it’s the unexpected spaces, guided tours and participatory events in museums that occupy visitors for longer. What is it that keeps bringing visitors back time and time again? Exhibitions come and go but the permanent galleries, regular programmes and new innovations keep people coming back. For the younger visitors (particularly 3-12 age group), cultural institutions offering:
- Curriculum focussed school programmes
- Kid’s trails and activities
- Learning and discovery rooms
- Creative kids spaces
- Touch trolleys
seem far more popular with families than cultural institutions without family programmes. For younger visitors – creating art and craft, touching and examining objects, interactive play, conducting scientific experiments, being able to ask supervising staff a variety of thoughtful questions, interacting with living specimens, dressing up in costumes, enthusiastically following some kind of trail or just reading books and looking things up on the computers seems to enhance their participation. At other times I have observed docents leading school groups through gallery spaces and getting much better engagement and learning outcomes for children (in support of their school curriculum) than children passing through with families.
For adults – well designed, aesthetically pleasing interior spaces, themed talks, guided tours, after hours events and workshops can add value to the overall visitor experience. Perhaps this kind of engagement appears less threatening on the surface but is still focussed on learning and engagement. MuseumHack posted a recent article “Why Design is Important to Your Museum”. For me the key quote is that:
“In the age of the Internet, museums can benefit
from applying this principle of design to their
spaces, as well as the services they offer. What
makes museums unique is no longer the information
they contain, but rather the context they offer to the
objects within their collections.”
My observations have strengthened my opinion that visitors like to see the presence of facilitators, invigilators, educators, security and guides in the gallery or exhibition space and not a total DIY experience. Generally, I have observed that visitors:
- stop to ask questions or for directions or assistance
- might ask for extra information about a display or gallery
- might have their own narrative to share triggered by seeing an object on display
- may have feedback for the museum about their visit.
It seems a pity when the audience is captive in the space, not to utilise that opportunity for engagement and feedback and to build relationships with the public, particularly when museums and galleries are striving to be “must see” and “repeat” destinations. I can’t see the point of developing growth and management strategies for cultural institutions without measuring audience engagement and feedback. Pen and paper studies are time consuming but relatively cheap to conduct and actually give a true snapshot of what is going on at a given time and space. Perhaps museums could learn from the mistakes of the department stores in the current economic climate. It may be that cutting floor staff numbers will not increase profits and will definitely detract from visitor engagement.
Australian Museum. Tracking and Observation Studies. https://australianmuseum.net.au/uploads/documents/9301/tracking_studies.pdf
Steven S. Yalowitz & Kerry Bronnenkant.Timing and Tracking:Unlocking Visitor Behavior http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10645570902769134
Museum Team at USS Constitution http://www.familylearningforum.org/evaluation/types-of-evaluation/timing-tracking.htm
Isaac Arnsdorf. The Museum is watching you. Online Wall Street Journal (2010) https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704554104575435463594652730