IPOP Model of Visitor Preference

Most typologies of museum visitors tend to categorise visitors by demographics, motivation, or a mixture of both. The IPOP model, developed by Andrew Pekarik and colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution (Pekarik et al, 2014), is a little different in that it categorises visitors according to their preferred interests. Developed through years of research with visitors across the Smithsonian sites, the IPOP model is based on four key experience preferences:

  • Ideas - a liking for abstract concepts and facts
  • People - attraction to stories, emotional connections and social interaction
  • Objects - appreciation for objects, aesthetics and craftsmanship
  • Physical - attraction to sensory experiences, movement and physicality (this P was a later addition to the model as it evolved).

These are indicative of overall preferences rather than being absolute and mutually exclusive categories. Scores are based on responses to a self-administered questionnaire that is based on agreement to statements such as: I like to know how things are made, or I like to bring people together. The full version comprises 38 items, with shorter 20 and 8 item versions also used. Using responses to these statements, 79% of visitors show a clear preference for one of the IPOP dimensions: 18% Idea, 18% People, 19% Object, 23% Physical. The remaining 21% tend to show a combination of two dimensions (rarely three) rather than a single clear preference*.

By combining self-report IPOP preferences with tracking and timing data, Pekarik and his team have shown that it is possible to predict what exhibits a given visitor will attend to (or indeed, which exhibits they will avoid) based on their IPOP preference. People tend to seek out experiences that suit their preferences and match their expectations. When people see what they expect, they report being satisfied with their experience. However, sometimes visitors are engaged by something unexpected and different from their usual preferences. This phenomenon, described by the authors as “flipping”, can lead to more memorable and meaningful experiences.

The exhibition Pekarik et al (2014) use to illustrate the predictive value of IPOP is Against All Odds, an exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History about the rescue of trapped Chilean miners in 2010. I happened to see this exhibition on my 2012 study tour of Washington DC, and while I recall seeing it, I don’t have any specific memories of it (a consequence of breezing through dozens of exhibitions for days on end). Although I was amused to observe that the two photos I took of the exhibition are very similar to those in the Curator article!

SI-NMNH Chilean miners exhibit

My photo of the entrance / introductory graphic

SI-NMNH Chilean miners exhibit 2

The rescue capsule. The image in the Curator article takes a wider view which encompasses a tactile drill bit on the left and a video on the right. The rescue capsule was the largest and most distinctive object in the display. Whether that is why I photographed it as a way of recording the exhibition, or whether this says something about my IPOP preference I’m not sure.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Either I intuitively grasped which views best encapsulated the exhibition, or I have the same IPOP preference as the person who selected the images. . .


*Interestingly, the research team categorised themselves according to the IPOP typology and found they had preferences in three of the four dimensions (none of the team was a People person). It strikes me as an interesting exercise for exhibition development teams to conduct at the outset of the project, giving individuals an insight into their own preferences as well as an appreciation of those of their differently-preferenced colleagues – there is more on this point in Pekarik and Mogel (2010).


Pekarik, A., & Mogel, B. (2010). Ideas, Objects, or People? A Smithsonian Exhibition Team Views Visitors Anew. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 465–482. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00047.x

Pekarik, A., Schreiber, J. B., Hanemann, N., Richmond, K., & Mogel, B. (2014). IPOP: A Theory of Experience Preference. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(1), 5–27. doi:10.1111/cura.12048


PhD – three years down . . .

Although this blog has only made passing reference to my PhD journey on a personal level, now that I’m three years in it’s interesting to look back at those yearly updates/reflections and see how my thinking and outlook have changed.

One year in and I was filled with optimism and a sense of achievement about my first milestone. Another year on and that milestone felt like a long way in the past. Self-doubt was creeping in and it felt like any tangible progress was painfully slow. I feared falling behind and not getting any worthwhile results. Fast forward another 12 months and I’ve passed the three year mark (in terms of calendar time at least – “officially” the three-year clock doesn’t run out until mid-May due to a couple of candidature breaks) – it’s the home stretch, the finish line is in sight!

Although there is still a lot of work to go, I’ve pulled together about 90% of a full first draft of the thesis. There’s a sense of accomplishment of seeing some 75,000 words* all together in one document. Moreover, they are words that I think tell a story and seem to reach some meaningful conclusions. Recently when one of my supervisors asked me what my research had found, I was able to give a (fairly) straight and succinct answer. I can look back at what I set out to do at the beginning of my PhD and see I’ve managed to find at least some answer to all the research questions I had at the outset.

Everyone’s PhD journey is different, but for me it felt like I turned a corner once I’d finished my data collection in about June last year. My worries about not asking the right questions was replaced by pragmatism: my data set was what it was, and I had to make the best of it come what may. I increased my confidence and competence in data analysis as interesting results started emerging. Diving into the numbers of my quantitative data set satisfied my inner nerd.

Looking back, I think I underestimated what an emotionally draining process data collection can be. All in all I approached some 1200 visitors – roughly half of whom agreed to participate in my research – and discreetly tracked over 200 more. It takes a lot of concentration, upbeat manner and acceptance of rejection! In my own case, data collection coincided with a time I’d spread myself a little thinly due to volunteering, as well as a difficult period in my private life, both of which probably magnified the sense of being emotionally spent. But I’d wager it’s a draining process at the best of times.

Now that I’ve conducted a piece of my own research, I feel more able to critically evaluate the research of others. It’s made me a better reader of the literature.  I found it useful going through the peer review process for my first academic publication – the reviewer comments helped sharpen my arguments. And although it’s hard to measure this about yourself, I think the overall quality of my thinking has improved.

Where from here?

Although the finish line is in sight, it’s fair way off in the horizon. Once I have pulled together a first full draft, it will be a chance for me (and my supervisors) to see how everything hangs together, identify the weaknesses, plug any holes. I don’t want to underestimate the size of that task, but at the moment it feels achievable. There are probably another 2-3 publications that can come out of my research, although for the time being I’m concentrating on the thesis. Some of the results I’ll be presenting at the Visitor Studies Association conference in Albuquerque this July, which is an extension of what I presented at the Visitor Research Forum at UQ last month. So gradually I’m putting the results “out there”; I just don’t want to pre-empt too much of that on this blog.

But stay tuned . . .

*That count includes absolutely *everything* – figures, tables, captions, footnotes, references, appendices. The word limit for PhD theses at UQ is 80,000 words including everything except references.


Get in line!

I have a confession to make – I’m incredibly impatient at times.

I’m often baffled at the number of people who appear willing to join snaking queues that have no apparent motion. It seems there are a lot of people far more willing than me to wait indeterminate periods to have that unique experience or get that special bargain. I’m likely to take one look at the size of the line and decide it just can’t be worth it.

The start of the line of people waiting for Free Fridays at MOMA, New York August 2013. By this stage the queue had stretched around the block, with still about 2 hours to go before opening. People at the front of the line told me they had been there for most of the afternoon.

The start of the line of people waiting for Free Fridays at MOMA, New York August 2013. By this stage the queue had stretched around the block, with still about 2 hours to go before opening. People at the front of the line told me they had been there for most of the afternoon.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in a relatively small city – you grow up accustomed to going about your daily business with few problems associated with crowds. In cities like New York, queuing is a fact of life and several times we found ourselves in long lines waiting to get into museums or art installations while visiting there last year. But when we could avoid it, either by planning ahead or purchasing premium-rate tickets, we jumped at the chance. But then again, not everyone is willing or able to spend the extra cash needed to jump the line.

Another factor in my queue-aversion could be my size. At a mere 155cm (5’1″) in height, I’m quickly lost in a crowd. And it’s easy to lose a sense of control over your environment when all you can see up ahead is sea of backs. And that sense of autonomy and control is what environmental psychology tells us we need in order to feel comfortable in a given setting.

However, one thing that visitor experience research has taught me is that you should never just take what you think about a given scenario and extrapolate from there, assuming everyone else thinks the same. While I’m prepared to wager there are few people who actually enjoy spending hours on end waiting in line, there are clearly many people doing the same cost-benefit calculation as I am and coming up with a different result.

While it’s not something I relate to personally, I can see how the line could be considered part of the experience itself, the journey being just as important as the destination. A queue could help build anticipation about an event, even add to the “buzz” – if the line’s so long, it must be good! A queue can be a sign of success for event planners.

There could be a fantastic experience ahead, then again it could just be the line for the portaloos.

As far as queues go, there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” ones. A “good” queue has a clear beginning and end. If it’s a long queue there are enough barriers to keep it orderly and good signage to direct people appropriately. The people in charge are organised and look like they know what they’re doing. The queue moves: if not quickly, then at least at a predictable rate. A timed ticket gets you in at the time it says it will.

A “bad” queue appears chaotic – it’s not clear where it starts or ends, if there are multiple queues it’s not obvious which one you’re meant to be in, and the chaos seems to let people ‘jump ahead’ of those who have been waiting patiently. No-one seems to know what’s going on and the staff look underprepared and overwhelmed.

Giving estimated wait times reduces uncertainty associated with queuing and allows visitors to make an informed judgement about how willing they are to wait that length of time.

A queue will always be associated with some uncertainty: how long will I have to wait? Am I in the right place? Will it be worth the wait? People differ in their tolerance of uncertainty, and it may be lessened if they are uncomfortable with crowds in the first place. But there are ways of reducing uncertainty (e.g. signposting queues with waiting times, offering timed tickets) so that even those who are usually disinclined to wait will be happy to be (at least a little) patient.


Before and After: Ediacaran Fossils

The SA Museum has recently opened its refurbished Ediacaran Fossils gallery, a small permanent exhibition showing the fossilised remnants of some of the earliest multicellular animals on Earth.

I did a few accompanied visits in this gallery during the first phase of my PhD research. In this earlier iteration, the dominant colour scheme was a strong red, presumably intended to evoke the red earth of the Flinders Ranges, the outback location where the ediacaran fossils were discovered. That’s how my participants tended to see it:

“in retrospect that red colour kind of seems to connect to the area itself of the Flinders.  . .”

“Er the fossil room was very red. Was very red. But then again so’s the area where they all came from”


A view of the original Ediacaran Fossils Gallery. The mural at the back is a large photograph of Wilpena Pound (a well-known site in the Flinders Ranges). The vertical display in the foreground is a section of what was once sea bed – abut 600 million years ago.

A view along the back wall of the original Ediacaran Fossils gallery.

A view along the back wall of the original Ediacaran Fossils gallery.

In my study, participants had different opinions on the red colour:

“I think it’s good that it’s a really strong colour because it’s very vibrant and it and it um, it makes it a really warm rich colour, and then the sense maybe that you’re actually on a cliff wall, that is like a cliff wall of where you might find things or . . .”

“. . . you sort of wonder whether it would be better off with a neutral, with neutral walls, to draw more attention to the exhibits . . . .I mean to have a red fossil wall that looks great, but then to have it in a room, I think that room was red, it sort of detracts from it a bit.”

The refurbished gallery has retained the same basic layout, but has changed the colour palette to a deep green-blue:

The refurbished fossils gallery. The Wilpena Pound image is still there, but to me felt somehow less dominant now it's in a mostly green backdrop rather than surrounded by red.

The refurbished fossils gallery. The Wilpena Pound image is still there, but to me felt somehow less dominant now it’s in a mostly green backdrop rather than surrounded by red.

I believe the rationale[1] behind the colour change was to be more evocative of what the environment would have been like when the creatures were alive (ie. the sea bed) rather than the outback setting that the area is now. This sense of being “under the sea” is enhanced by the line drawings of Dickinsonia et al up at high level. It also seems to increase the sense of height in the space.

The back wall in the refurbished gallery

The back wall in the refurbished gallery

I don’t know if it is the increased sense of height or that the back wall has been smoothed out and simplified a little, but it somehow seems more spacious in this new gallery (at least to me). It could also be that the size of the gallery, while not changing physically, has been enlarged conceptually by making what previously felt like a hallway become part of the exhibition proper.

Unfortunately I don't have a shot of the original gallery from this angle, but you can see where the lift comes out (silver doors) and the door to the stairs is at the far left. In the old gallery, the bit between the pylon and the lift/stairs felt more like a corridor as there was a window (now blocked off and turned into more display space).

Unfortunately I don’t have a shot of the original gallery from this angle, but you can see where the lift comes out (silver doors) and the doorway to the stairs is at the far left. In the old gallery, the bit between the pylon and the lift/stairs felt more like a corridor as there was a window in the far corner (now blocked off and turned into more display space). There were also some display plinths around this area that seemed to “block off” the corridor from the rest of the exhibition space.

So now, as soon as you come out of the lift/stairs, you feel like you’re in the gallery straight away rather than some ante-chamber or holding space. Blocking off the window has also dropped the light levels in this area, perhaps adding to that sense of “under the sea” immersion.

Overall I found this a calmer space to be in than the earlier iteration – they do say red is a highly arousing colour after all, and perhaps this colour scheme is a little gentler on the senses.

The new gallery has also made use of technology to help interpret the fossils, many of which can look like amorphous smudges to the untrained eye. iPad-based labels highlight the outline of the fossil imprints on the corresponding rock sections, making it easier to see what you’re looking at.

[1] Disclaimer – I had no involvement in the gallery refurbishment although I know the design team through being based at the SA Museum (also the senior designer, Brett Chandler, is a former colleague of mine and we’ve collaborated on exhibitions in the past). My commentary on the design is based on my own interpretations alone.


Evaluating Evaluation

What is evaluation? Who is it for? Why do it? What’s the difference between evaluation and research? Does it make as much difference as it purports to?

A recent report from the UK, Evaluating evaluation: Increasing the Impact of Summative Evaluation in Museums and Galleries by Maurice Davies and Christian Heath, makes for interesting reading in this area [1]. They observe that summative evaluation hasn’t informed practice as much as it might have, and look at some of the reasons why that might be the case. Their overall conclusion is one of “disappointment”:

Disappointment that all the energy and effort that has been put into summative evaluation appears to have had so little overall impact, and disappointment that so many evaluations say little that is useful, as opposed to merely interesting. . . With some notable exceptions, summative evaluation is not often taken seriously enough or well enough understood by museums, policy makers and funders. The visibility of summative evaluation is low. Too often, it is not used as an opportunity for reflection and learning but is seen as a necessary chore, part of accountability but marginal to the work of museums. (Davies and Heath 2013a, p.3)

I won’t go into their findings in detail as the full report is available online and I recommend you read the whole thing, or at least the executive summary(see references below). But I will tease out a couple of issues that are of particular relevance to me:

Conflicting and Competing agendas

Davies and Heath describe scenarios that are all too familiar to me from my time working in exhibition development: exhibition teams being disbanded at the conclusion of a project with no opportunity for reflection; summative reports not being shared with all team members (particularly designers and other outside consultants); insufficient funds or practical difficulties in implementing recommended changes once an exhibition is open; evaluation results that are too exhibition-specific and idiosyncratic to be readily applied to future exhibition projects.

They also give an insightful analysis of how the multiple potential purposes of evaluation can interfere with one another. They provide a convincing argument for separating out different kinds of evaluation recommendations or at least being more explicit about what purpose a given evaluation is meant to serve:

  1. Project-specific reflection: evaluation as a way of reflecting on a particular project and as an opportunity for the learning and development of exhibition team members
  2. Generalisable findings: the capacity of evaluation results to build the overall knowledge base of the sector
  3. Monitoring and accountability: evaluation reports are usually an important aspect of reporting to a project funder or the institution as a whole
  4. Advocacy and impact: using evaluation results to create an evidence base for the value of museums for potential funders and society at large

As we move down this list, the pressure on evaluation results to tell “good news” stories increases – evaluation is less a way of learning and improvement and more a platform to prove or demonstrate “success”. Museums may be reluctant to share critical self-appraisal for fear that exposing “failure” may make it more difficult to get support for future projects. Such findings may not be shared with other museums or even other departments within the musem – let alone potential funders or other stakeholders. Furthermore, generalisability is often limited by methodological inconsistencies between different institutions and the reporting requirements of different funding bodies.

Comparing Evaluation with Research

On the subject of methodology, I’ll make a couple more observations, in particular the difference between Evaluation and Research (at least in visitor studies). The two terms are often used interchangeably and the line is admittedly blurry, particularly since research and evaluation use essentially the same tools, approaches and methods.

The way I see it, visitor research seeks to understand “how things are”. It tries to advance knowledge and develop theory about what visitor experiences are and what they mean: to individuals, to institutions, to society at large. Visitor research is usually positioned within a broader academic discourse such as psychology or sociology. Research findings can be valid and useful even if they don’t directly lead to changes in practice [2].

In contrast, evaluation is more interested in “how things could be improved”. To quote Ben Gammon, who was one of my first mentors in this field:

Evaluation is not the same as academic research. Its purpose is not to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding but rather to provide practical guidance. If at the end of an evaluation process nothing is changed there was no point in conducting the evaluation. This needs to be the guiding principle in the planning and execution of all evaluation projects. (quoted in Davies and Heath 2013a, p.14)

Evaluation is therefore more pragmatic and applied than visitor research. The validity of evaluation is less in its methodological rigour than the extent to which the results are useful and are used.


[1] At the outset of their research, Davies and Heath wrote an opinion piece for the Museums Journal outlining some of the issues they had identified with summative evaluation. I wrote a response to it at the time, which interestingly, was itself cited in their report. Besides being somewhat startled (and delighted!) to see one of my blog posts being cited in a more academic type of publication, it serves as an interesting example of how the lines are blurring between more formal and informal academic writing and commentary.

[2] When I was doing data collection for my PhD, many people assumed the purpose of my research was to “make improvements” to the galleries I was studying. It’s a reasonable inference to make, and I do hope my results will eventually influence exhibition design. However, my PhD is research, not evaluation – and as such is more interested in understanding fundamental phenomena than in the particular galleries I happened to use in my study.


Davies, M., & Heath, C. (2013a). Evaluating Evaluation: Increasing the Impact of Summative Evaluation in Museums and Galleries. Retrieved from http://visitors.org.uk/files/Evaluating Evaluation Maurice Davies.pdf

Davies, M., & Heath, C. (2013b). “Good” organisational reasons for “ineffectual” research: Evaluating summative evaluation of museums and galleries. Cultural Trends, (in press). doi:10.1080/09548963.2014.862002



2013: a (crowdsourced) digest

Yikes! Just a week before Christmas! Time for the obligatory “year in review” reflection pieces. What are the things that got everyone talking in 2013?

Rather than rely on just my own recollections, I put a call out over social media for people to nominate their blog posts or articles of the year – either their favourites or the most-read posts on their own blogs. As well as helping to jog my own memory, it’s a chance to get different perspectives on what caught the zeitgeist this year, as well as to catch up on things I might have missed the first time around.* It also makes a good holiday reading list.

Although I put out requests on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the most responses by far were from the Twitter community (make of that what you will). So, in no particular order:

Nominated by @SebChan:

- Cooper Hewitt labs “B” is for Beta on the beta version of their collections website

- Planetary: the collection of code as a living object

- Embracing human imperfections and incompleteness through “institutional wabi sabi”

Nominated by @alli_burnie:

- Reacting to Objects: Mindfulness, Tech and Emotion

- The Value of the Local or Does Size Matter?

- Flip Flopping Art History

Nominated by @NateLandon:

- Cathy Bell on The View from Behind the Locked Gate: The Government Shutdown and the National Parks

- Destroying a place does not create a desert from the Slow Water Movement

Nominated by @ERodley:

- This excellent response to the debate triggered by the New York Times article “High Culture Goes Hands On” (which seemed to dominate online discussion through the month of August while I was in the US).

- Review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One

- 2013 was also the year that Drinking About Museums seemed to gather more momentum (I was lucky to attend two while in the US – one in Boston and one in DC, and I know a few more Australian ones started out this year)

Nominated by Nigel Briggs (via LinkedIn)

- The BubblePlan exhibition design Tumblr blog.

A confession – I’ve had a Tumblr account for over three years, but I’ve never used it. I find the format of it confusing – at first I tried to use it as a blogging platform and gave up in exasperation. But just over the past few days I’ve started to look at it again and am considering giving it another go. Any suggestions for getting the most out of Tumblr would be welcome!

Nominated by @Mia_out:

- Open objects: new challenges in digital history was her most-read post this year.

- Mia also offered a general commentary on 2013 trends:

crowdsourcing, huge increase in tablet use on collections sites, and the on-going clash between museums’ established ways of producing exhibitions, galleries, and webby ways of working. And of course people are still obsessed with digital strategy/everything else strategy and games in museums.

Nominated by Cobi Smith (via Facebook):

Cobi reminded me of this “saw this and thought of you” link she tweeted me on informed consent issues associated with visitor research. A fitting one to include for this 2013, as the first half of this year is when I collected the lion’s share of my visitor data for my PhD.

Nominated by @Gretchjenn:

There was a lot of discussion around empathy this year. It was something that Gretchen and I both wrote about from a museum and interpretation perspective, and then started to see in all sorts of other places.

- Empathetic museum pop-up

- Empathy and institutional body language

- Seeing empathy in other places

In the same vein, my posts interpretive empathy and empathic design were among the most popular pages on my blog this year.

In closing, I’ll share this video that @MuseumsAskew forwarded about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Good food for thought for anyone who finds themselves needing to provide emotional support to friends and relatives over the holiday season.

Merry Christmas everyone and see you in 2014!

*I should confess: this is also a lazy way to get at least one blog post out this month when most of my time and energies have been consumed with either thesis writing or home renovations (More of the latter than the former, to be honest). Nonetheless, finishing the thesis will be the main goal for me in 2014. (Oh, and I’ll also be getting married. But that doesn’t require anywhere near as much preparation!)


Think, Feel, Act: Using Psychology to understand visitor needs

Today I presented at the Interpretation Australia Masters Workshop in Sydney. My presentation was about “Understanding audiences” and following on from the Google hangout I did for IA earlier in the year, looked at what we can learn about visitor experiences from psychology.

The presentation is based on a Venn diagram made up of three circles: Think (representing cognition), Feel (representing affect) and Act (representing behaviour). During the presentation I argued that while there are many complex social and motivational reasons for people to visit museums and other cultural heritage sites, it can be boiled down to the fact that visitors anticipate the experience will satisfy at least some of their cognitive, affective and behavioural needs. And since psychology is the study of human affect, cognition and behaviour, it should be able to tell us something about what these needs might be.

The presentation is a quick armchair ride through some of the psychological literature I have encountered during my PhD research. Summary of the references referred to:

Appleton, J. (1988). Prospects and refuges revisited. In J. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (Vol. 3, pp. 27–44). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bitgood, S. (2011). Social Design in Museums: The Psychology of Visitor Studies. Collected Essays Volume One. Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dahl, T. I., Entner, P. S., Johansen, A.-M. H., & Vittersø, J. (2013). Is Our Fascination With Museum Displays More About What We Think or How We Feel? Visitor Studies, 16(2), 160–180. doi:10.1080/10645578.2013.827011

Kaplan, S. (1988). Where cognition and affect meet: a theoretical analysis of preference. In J. L. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (pp. 56–63). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Litman, J. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19(6), 793–814. doi:10.1080/02699930541000101

Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Packer, J. (2006). Learning for Fun: The Unique Contribution of Educational Leisure Experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(3), 329–344. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00227.x

Plutchik, R. (1980). Emotion: A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis. New York: Harper and Row.

Rui Olds, A. (1994). Sending them home alive. In E. Hooper-Greenhill (Ed.), The Educational Role of the Museum (pp. 76–80). London: Routledge.

Russell, J. A., Ward, L. M., & Pratt, G. (1981). Affective Quality Attributed to Environments: A Factor Analytic Study. Environment and Behavior, 13(3), 259–288. doi:10.1177/0013916581133001

Smith, C., & Ellsworth, P. (1985). Patterns of cognitive appraisal in emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 48(4), 813–838. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3886875


Mediation or interference?

When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?

A presentation I went to a few weeks ago challenged me to think about these questions. A curator from an art gallery background was sharing some findings from a study tour to the US and the UK. One of the images was from an exhibit familiar to me as one I’d seen at the (then) newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow:

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

A photo I took of the exhibit in question when I visited Kelvingrove in 2006.

Now back in 2006 when I saw this exhibit, I thought it was a pretty neat idea. Superimposed over the 19th century painting “The Marriage of Convenience” by William Orchardson are three small screens inside thought bubbles. A touchscreen interface allows visitors to fill in the bubbles emanating from the three protagonists in answer to the question “What are they thinking?”.

Over the years I’ve seen this exhibit put forward by interpreters as a way of engaging family visitors with art. As an example of “best practice”. Now here I was, listening to someone someone going beyond critique and essentially presenting it as an object of ridicule. I decided to explore this further in the Q&A afterwards. What was it about this exhibit that so attracted her ire?

Essentially it boiled down to the fact that it was visually intrusive [1] and unnecessary to interpret a painting whose Victorian-era morality tale was “not rocket science” to comprehend. She considered it an insult to visitors’ intelligence. Furthermore (and more to the point in my opinion), apparently visitor feedback hadn’t been positive. However, no data was presented to support this claim so it’s hard to know if it’s based on an exhibit evaluation or just the criticisms of a more vocal minority.

I think a couple of points of context need to be raised here. This exhibit was displayed in what was intended as a family gallery. It wasn’t targeted at arts officionados who may be instantly aware of Victorian symbolism in art. I saw (and appreciated) the exhibit as something that was intended to be a hook for visitors who may otherwise not give the piece a second glance. It seems I’m not the only person who saw it that way, as this piece vividly describes:

One of the most amusing interactivities–I could have stood there all day–focused on William Orchardson’s “The Marriage of Convenience.” Most visitors would give this painting–wherein a rich old man dines with his young, beautiful and profoundly bored wife as a dubious butler attends–a quick glance and walk on, dismissing it as a dreary 19th century remnant. But Kelvingrove (which by this point seems to be staffed by Monty Python) had placed thought bubbles next to the painting’s three figures’ respective heads. “What are they thinking?” we were asked, and as passersby typed away, the thought bubbles changed…”This isn’t working out the way I planned.”…”I thought he’d be dead by now “… “The master appears to have made a big mistake.”…. A “dull, boring” relic suddenly sprang to life–and became as contemporary as today’s trophy wives.

So at this point it might be easy to dismiss the art curator’s critique as missing the point of the exhibit and reinforcing the myth that art can somehow “speak for itself” even to those who don’t speak the language. That would be a convenient way of dismissing the criticism, but I’m not sure it’s quite so simple as that. As Nicole Deufel pointed out recently, we often accept interpretive “best practice” on the basis of flimsy evidence. That’s why I’d be keen to see if there was any evaluation of this exhibit and what it said. Perhaps this exhibit doesn’t do what it set out to. For me the visitor is the ultimate arbiter and arguing amongst ourselves is going to generate more heat than light.

Having said that, there are some points about subject matter and learning styles that warrant some further thought and discussion. Firstly the issue of interpreting art. I’ve heard art curators use the term “over-interpretation”, but interestingly I’ve never heard anyone lay the same accusation at the feet of science exhibits. Coming from a science background, I get the sense that there is an implicit assumption among “art” people that art is inherently understandable, you just need to take the time to look and think for long enough. And all that pesky interpretation is just “shouty” paraphernalia that gets in the way.

Another point of difference is how much interpretive “mediation” different kinds of visitors feel they need. Again revealing my science training, I tend to like knowing “the answer”. So I can feel cast adrift with art, because I don’t feel “the answer” is being made available to me. Now sometimes I know there is no answer, and that’s kind of the point. I can appreciate that. But other times I do wonder if there *is* some point that I’m supposed to get but I’m missing. And that just makes me feel stupid.

Bottom line is that our needs as visitors are not all the same. As exhibit planners we need to understand, respect and accommodate these differences, which might sometimes mean doing things that satisfy our target audiences but drive us personally nuts.

[1] In the discussion it also emerged that there may be conservation issues with the way the exhibit is installed in relation to the painting, and also the hardware now looks clunky and dated some 7 years (and an app revolution) later. These critiques, while legitimate, are tangential to the debate here.


Museum Atmospherics

I’ve recently had a review article published in the journal Visitor Studies titled  ”Museum Atmospherics: the role of the exhibition environment in the visitor experience”. The abstract is here, there’s also a link to the full text [1].

The article is based on the literature review I did in the first year of my PhD and sets the scene for my research. It describes the concept of atmospherics, a term coined in the 1970s to describe how marketers and retail designers can influence consumer behaviour through design choices.

Atmospherics can be considered the psychology of consumer environments, and I provide an overview of the psychological theories that have informed atmospherics research. I also review some of the more notable studies that have been done in retail atmospherics, demonstrating relationships between design features and consumer behaviour. Comparable relationships exist in museum settings, and I argue that museums have sufficient similarities with retail and other service environments to make atmospherics relevant to the study of exhibition environments. Finally, the article sets out a research agenda for museum atmospherics as a way of further characterising the exhibition environment and its role in the visitor experience. This is the research gap that my PhD is helping to address. A work in progress!

[1] – Link to full text is available to Visitor Studies subscribers only (or libraries that have it as part of a Taylor & Francis subscription bundle). If you don’t have access to a subscription but would like a copy, I have a limited number of eprints available – just drop me a line in the contacts page and I’ll send you one.




Are museums “lean forward” or “lean back” experiences?

“Lean forward” and “lean back” are terms that emerged in digital media to describe different engagement styles with screen-based experiences.

Lean back behaviour is envisaged as a passive, kick-back-with-a-beer-in-front-of-the-TV type of behaviour, whereas lean forward implies more hands-on engagement such as with gaming or surfing the web. Therefore, it has often been assumed that lean forward experiences require a higher level of engagement than lean back ones. But as this post argues, that doesn’t necessarily follow. Indeed, lean forward experiences are often hyperactive: full of distractions, shortcuts and multitasking. In contrast, lean back experiences can be conducive to engagement with more long-form media such as a book or a movie. Our level of intellectual absorption doesn’t always correspond with our level of activity.

I’m wondering what this means for museums, which under different circumstances may offer both lean forward and lean back experiences. Do certain types of visitors expect one type, and then disappointed if they find the other? Is this part of the reason why James Durston complains about Why He Hates Museums, meanwhile Judith Dobrzynski laments when High Culture Goes Hands On? (To bring in of the most talked-about museum articles in the mainstream press this past month or so. . . )

I first got on this train of thought while thinking about the word “entertainment” in the context of museums. We’ve well and truly moved on from the days when it was assumed education and entertainment were polar opposites. Even so, entertainment may not be the best word to use – “enjoyment” is spontaneously mentioned far more frequently by visitors than entertainment is [1]. I started off thinking that entertainment conjured up an image of a more passive kind of engagement – entertainment as something that is done to you.  On the other hand, enjoyment implies something that was more active and participatory- you enjoy doing something. I thought this might relate to lean forward versus lean back experiences, but now I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.

What do you think?


[1] As reported by Tiina Roppola in Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, 2012 (Routledge)