Tag Archives: audience research

“The Museum is our backyard….” Do you have families visiting your cultural institution weekly?

Throwing back to this post about apartment dwelling families and Cultural Institutions in the city. Are you doing enough for frequent visitors with children?

Museum Whisperings

 

 

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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The importance of Tracking and Observing Visitors in Cultural Institutions

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:

  1. Because it was a brand new exhibition space
  2. Because it was school holidays and wet weather
  3. 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.

Further Reading:

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

Do admission prices stop museums from growing audiences?

After doing a ticket pricing survey for Front of House at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2016, I started researching articles about the benefits of free entry to museums and art galleries compared with charging admission and whether or not this does impact on visitor numbers. Interestingly, many articles reported that it made no difference and that people who valued the museum experience came with or without an entry charge. Even with free entry, there was a debate about whether new visitors would start coming and if the number of new visitors increased as a proportion of the total number of visitors on an annual basis. As I was digesting the information, I came across Colleen Dilenschneider’s article Admission Price is not a Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation.

Dilenschneider says that cultural institutions need to get real about the barriers to visitation and the excuses which organisations make without really knowing their audiences. Critical thinking, visitor surveying and feedback and the analysis of current audiences would go a long way towards understanding the real reasons that people don’t visit cultural institutions. She believes that admission pricing is not the main barrier and that using that excuse stops these organisations from identifying the true barriers to increasing numbers and diversifying their audiences and which may include the presentation of content to interpret their collections, site accessibility for visitors and the relevance of a cultural  institution to the general public rather than its current targeted membership audience.

In saying that, Dilenschneider says that organisations still need to:

  • Be competitive in their pricing relevant to other cultural institutions and nearby attractions
  • Have specific events or sessions for low income visitors where entry is free or more affordable
  • Understand that cultural organisations compete with other recreational activities for “time poor”  and “financially stretched” visitors – particularly families
  • Realise that some people just aren’t interested in visiting cultural organisations no matter how you present to them, and that’s OK.

When Michelle Obama spoke at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York,  she said that for many cultural groups in the community, museums are places that they do not feel welcomed and do not see themselves in. Considering that 9% of core visitors to museums in the US fall into “the minority group” category, that is largely out of balance with the 28% found in the general population. I think that Michelle Obama’s comments would apply to minority groups in cultural institutions anywhere in the world. I wrote earlier about the role of Museums in the 21st Century and the fact that they need to find a “connectedness” to people by championing human rights and social justice issues in their exhibitions. Since these issues often relate to “minority groups”, it would be a great avenue for people to start new conversations and make emotional connections to a cultural institution while exploring its collections which suddenly seem more relevant.

In her article Why Free Museums Matter, Jessica Leigh Hester wrote about Museum Day in the US, where 1200 museums allowed free entry to pre-booked visitors (and a guest) in order to engage different visitors to the museum and shed the reputation that only certain visitors are allowed in the rarified atmosphere of a museum. She explained that Museum Day is part of an ongoing campaign to chip away at the negative perception “that visitors must be a certain type of person” or have “a certain level of education or expert knowledge” in order to gain entry to an art gallery or museum. 

In the UK, the Museums Association reported on all the changes brought about by the Government in the eighties to cut funding to museums which meant that some museums could no longer support their free entry policies. In 2001 when funding was reinstated for National Museums in England, Scotland and Wales, the numbers of visitors increased with a hope that different kinds of groups would visit. Data analysis showed that there were more people visiting (or repeat visiting) but that they had the same profile as those that had previously been paying to visit the same cultural institution. MA commented that “It takes imaginative programming and marketing to change an audience profile significantly, as well as sustained development work with communities with no tradition of museum visiting.”

One of my favourite examples of museums increasing the diversity of their audiences is IKON Gallery in Birmingham, UK who began their Black Country Voyages Project in 2014, taking art to young people in the UK Midlands via a canal boat on the Black Country waterways which were used to transport mined coal and other minerals in years gone by. The project aims to build relationships with young people who have previously had no relationship with the Gallery, thus building  their audience using both the outreach method as well as running inclusive Family Programmes at the IKON Gallery itself.

I’m not sure why some people value museums and others don’t but I am sure that if children can connect to museums and art galleries from an early age, then it is a really good way to encourage lifelong learning and feeling good in the museum space as they get older. Something that really heartens me is that so many museums (even those short on funding and resources) have School Programs, Early Learning Programs and Family Programs in place. When I chat to people in the museum space, many adults have come back with children who visited on a school excursion, begged to be taken back and are now proudly showing their parents/carers around. I often see people with prams, kids doing art classes, vacation care groups inside the museum, which was definitely not the case when I was growing up or when I tried to visit some cultural institutions when my own kids were small.

Kids activity sheets, interactive stations and audio tours for exhibitions are springing up everywhere. Kids invigilators, teacher guides and child focussed volunteers can really make a visit something to remember. These kinds of activities should be affordable for all socio-economic groups. I understand that not everything can be free because staffing and materials for children’s activities can be quite expensive but there should definitely be a focus on price for this sector if cultural institutions want to attract a different kind of visitor.

Another reason to focus on this sector is that I’ve identified a shift in visitation for the “apartment dwelling” family particularly in the inner city of Sydney – close to some of the major cultural institutions. Many parents/carers are bringing younger children into the museum on a weekly or fortnightly basis since there is no room at home. In the  near future, it won’t be sufficient to run just school holiday or weekend activities. Next generation visitors will need access to space which offers new and different things to see and engage with on a regular basis. There are all kinds of possibilities for such a space – from the typical dress ups and books, to collection access, to craft activities or age appropriate digital engagement areas. These repeat visitors would gain great value from a museum membership but if museums don’t deliver and make people feel welcome then they will be looking for a new places to go with their children.

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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“The Museum is our backyard….” Do you have families visiting your cultural institution weekly?

 

 

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 parks and plenty of local group activities nearby. We would often travel to the city for a museum visit but would not visit regularly.

This is an interesting discovery for any city based cultural institutions. Most museums want to grow their memberships and attract repeat visitors and be known as being family friendly. If city dwellers are visiting often with children, particularly the preschool age group – are museums doing enough to keep those families and children interested? The usual museum approach would be to develop the Summer Blockbuster exhibition and limit most of the child focussed activities to school holidays  but perhaps there are a number of children not at school who could benefit from some permanent free play spaces and child focussed exhibits all year round. Such spaces need not be underutilised and would be attractive to interstate and international visitors as well as school groups on excursions all year round. I have noticed that there are large numbers of European tourists visiting Sydney in the northern hemisphere’s Summer months and it would be interesting to look at the statistics on China and South-East Asia as well as visitors from North America travelling with children.

At any time of year I would recommend that cultural institutions help families to plan their visit by providing a link on their websites. For example the Smithsonian Top 10 Kid’s Tips or ensuring that your museum is mentioned in an article like The 10 best Family Friendly Galleries in London.  Many museums, libraries and galleries do offer programs for families and put a lot of thought into being “family friendly” but they may not have thought about satisfying the frequent visitor or tourist that might not visit during school holidays or on weekends when most of these programs are available?