Museum Life Interview

I’m currently on my way back from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the Visitor Studies Association annual conference. It’s been a very thought provoking conference and has been a chance for me to present some of the results from my PhD research (more on the conference later, once I’ve had a chance to digest it all).

Sometimes when you’re in a different time zone, interesting opportunities present themselves – this time, while in Albuquerque, I was a guest on Carol Bossert’s online radio program Museum Life. It streamed live but also is available online:

It’s an in-depth interview: the whole show goes for a little under an hour (so go grab a coffee now if you plan to listen. . .). I talk a little bit about how I came to museums, what led to me pursuing a PhD, an overview of some of my research findings, and how I think these might be able to be applied to museum practice. I hope you find it interesting!


What do you want / need from an exhibition designer?

Exhibition design can be hard to pin down sometimes. It has been described as

“. . .a mode of communication that has meant different things at different times, continues to change and expand, and, in fact, is not even recognised universally as a discipline at all.” (Lorenc, Skolnick, & Berger, 2010, p12)

So if you’re commissioning an exhibition designer for the first time, it can be hard to know what you should be looking for. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.

Many different types of specialists may lay claim to being able to design interpretive exhibitions. Such designers range from those with a grab-bag of soft skills that are hard to encapsulate in a few words, to people with clearly defined and quantifiable skill sets such as architects. And there’s a lot in between. In a tendering process, these apples and oranges may find themselves in direct competition with one another. If you’re the person letting and assessing tenders, on what basis should you choose?

I’ve been thinking through some of the issues I think clients should consider before commissioning a design team. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

Square pegs in round holes

It’s possible for a team to have the right skills, but deploy them in an inappropriate way. For instance, a big architectural firm may have ample experience in large complex buildings and fit-outs such as office buildings or shopping malls. Such a track record can be reassuring. But – if they see a museum as just another fit-out along the same lines, they may try and shoehorn it into the same production processes and protocols. Such a work plan will underestimate the amount of time and iteration it can take to get an exhibition layout, graphics and other media all working together in harmony. Office blocks and shopping malls don’t need to worry about “storylines”, so don’t expect standard fit-out processes to be able to accommodate them.

Such shoehorning is more likely to happen when a client uses a modified version of a boilerplate construction tender to call for bids: it doesn’t take into account the specific variables and vagaries of an exhibition.

A question to ask yourself: Does the firm “get” exhibitions or do they see them as yet another fit-out?

The certainty of the cookie cutter

In any exhibition project, certainty and creativity will be in tension. Maximising certainty will lead to cookie-cutter outcomes. Meanwhile, creativity can only flourish in a situation where there is room to make mistakes. Innovation comes with risk. Any given project will need to decide where it wants the creativity-certainty balance to lie. You can’t have your creativity cake and have the certainty of eating it!

Because it’s generally framed in terms of minimising risk, competitive tendering tends to prioritise certainty over creativity. This is not necessarily a problem. But, if you want innovation, you need to ensure your procurement processes allow space for it to happen. A standard tender probably won’t.

A question to ask yourself: Are we making it clear how much certainty we want and how much risk we can tolerate, or is our procurement process sending a mixed message in that regard?

Loose briefs

More often than not, it’s not what the brief says that will make you come unstuck, it’s what it doesn’t say. I’ve learned this one from bitter experience! Writing a brief is a bit like playing the tappers and listeners game – we forget that what’s obvious to us, frequently isn’t to anyone else. Misunderstandings in interpreting the brief can also be a failure of imagination on the brief-writer’s part – a case of not spelling it out simply because you can’t envisage it being any other way.

Another weakness of briefs is that they are often expected to capture in words a very specific and detailed image we have in our minds’ eye. It can only ever be the tip of the iceberg, and how someone will interpret a written description will vary hugely depending on their thinking style, prior experience, etc. Exhibitions are a visual medium. Sometimes it might be better to say it with a picture than leave it to words alone.

Things to try: Include visual materials such as mood boards part of the brief. Also, make a “return brief” document an early stage deliverable in the design project. This gives a chance for you and the designer to make sure you’re on the same page and iron out any wildly different interpretations of what’s expected.

Being a “good client”

I’ve been both sides of the client / designer fence, and appreciate that it’s a two-way street. No amount of dedication, skill or experience on the part of the design team can rescue fundamental issues with the client team, such as:

  • not making decisions, particularly-time critical ones
  • one client representative saying x, another saying y
  • not respecting the fact that you’re paying for a process, not just a product. Just because nothing has been built yet, doesn’t mean costs haven’t been incurred. Yes, iterations are part of the process but they cannot be done indefinitely without it affecting the price
  • not giving clear direction and feedback beyond “I’ll know it when I see it”
  • not recognising the limitations of your budget and timeframe
  • protracted, complicated and time-consuming procurement processes that expect design concepts at the pitch stage. This is one of the biggest bugbears of the design industry, and could be a post in its own right.

What tips would you give to a person looking to commission an exhibition designer for the first time?

Update: I posted this piece on LinkedIn, where there were a few very useful comments. Briefly:

  • Price shouldn’t be a key consideration in choosing a designer – it’s more important to have someone that understands what you want and how you work.
  • Be an informed client – do your homework about what you like and what you don’t
  • Resist the temptation to squeeze ‘just one more thing’ into the exhibition - “decide what to say, say it, then shut up!”

Reference: Lorenc, J., Skolnick, L., & Berger, C. (2010). What is exhibition design? Mies, Switzerland: Rotovision.


Interactivate is live!

Today I launched the website for my new business:


The name and strapline will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog!


I see this as a way of applying everything I’ve learned from my PhD and beyond to inform practice in museums, heritage sites and cultural tourism destinations. I’ll be aiming to work with anyone who wants to take a look at themselves through the eyes of their visitors. There will be three main strands to the business (more here):

  • Research: specifically visitor research
  • Consultancy: general advice and training
  • Creative: exhibition planning, interpretive text, etc.

This blog won’t be going anywhere - I’ll continue to post regularly on visitor experiences, interpretation, museums and design. I hope you’ll help me spread the word!


Experience Design

Late last year there was an article on The Conversation about “Experience Design“. I found it interesting and tweeted a link to it; soon afterwards the author, Faye Miller, got in touch. One thing led to another, and culminated in me writing a piece with Toni Roberts for the inaugural XD: Experience Design magazine, which has just come out.

Our piece is on Interpretive Design, and we group our thoughts around the interlinking concepts of Think, Feel, Do. Toni and I have known each other for a few years and have both been working on PhDs on exhibition design – me from the visitor perspective, Toni from the perspective of the design process (her PhD is done; mine is in the final stages). Coincidentally, we had both independently come up with a Venn diagram comprising Thinking, Feeling and Acting – something we came to realise when I posted a link to this presentation I gave last November. We’d discussed that it would be good for us to flesh out the overlaps between our ideas in a publication of some sort, and when the opportunity to write for XD came about it seemed like the right place to do it.

XD is intended to bring together people and disciplines that don’t normally overlap: industry, academia, management; theory, practice and user groups/audiences. I encourage you to subscribe to the XD newsletter, or better yet pick up a copy!


Exit through the gift shop

These days it’s more or less a given that a museum will have a gift shop of some description. There’s a body of literature around museum retail (here is a good example). Museum shops vary greatly in quality and tone. Some clearly put a lot of effort into their retail offer, and the larger museums tend to have excellent shops that are great for souvenir shopping (you can even shop online). Others appear to be doing it as a tick-the-boxes exercise or as an afterthought.

Generally speaking, debates about the museum shop revolve around:

  • Location: should visitor flow be routed through the gift shop such that avoiding it is difficult, if not impossible?
  • Integration: research suggests that visitors see the shop as part of the museum experience as a whole, not as a separate entity. Should this be embraced to make retail a more holistic part of the visitor experience, and if so, how?
  • Merchandise: how closely should items stock represent the museum’s “brand” in terms of quality, content and provenance? It’s easy to stock piles of generic souvenir fodder, and it probably moves quickly. But does it enhance or detract from the rest of the museum experience?

However, the very idea that a museum should have a shop is seldom brought into question. That is, until a few days ago, when the 9/11 Museum opened (complete with shop) at Ground Zero in New York. The New York Post called it “absurd“, and families are reportedly infuriated by the “crass commercialism” such a shop embodies. Of course, the shop is not the only controversy surrounding the museum, and it’s not surprising that Ground Zero is such a contested site. But that’s a bigger subject; one for another day and another post.

I’m interested in exploring reactions to the shop in particular. The juxtaposition of a site of great and recent tragedy with a place you can pick up commemorative trinkets does trigger a bit of a visceral “yuck” factor. But then again, other sites with gift/souvenir shops include the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum in DC (just to cite a few US examples). The main difference seems to be the recency of events being commemorated at Ground Zero (and as I’ve argued before, recent events can be ‘too hot to handle‘).

The museum itself argues that merchandise has been “carefully selected”, and that proceeds help support this non-profit organisation (and presumably there’s market demand for these souvenirs and keepsakes). Others have said that this just underscores how commercialism has permeated every aspect of American society.

I’m still working through what I think of this, and trying not to reach judgement one way or another too quickly. As a foreigner, I’m aware that it’s not really for me to judge what is or isn’t an appropriate way for Americans to remember and commemorate their own heritage. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

UPDATE: This piece elegantly and powerfully describes the difficult, sometimes darkly comical experience of having a private tragedy turned into public memorial, complete with souvenirs. There are so many bits I could pull out and quote. Better yet just read it.

Acknowledgement: In case it’s not obvious, the title of this post is a reference to the 2010 Banksy movie of the same name.


On “challenging” your audience

. . .but we should be challenging visitors, not just giving them what they want. . .

Work in evaluation and visitor research for long enough and you’re bound to hear someone say this. And from the point of view of an evaluator, it’s frustrating for a few reasons:

  • It betrays an assumption that conducting evaluation somehow means you’re going to ‘dumb down’ or otherwise pander to the masses. Evaluation shouldn’t fundamentally alter your mission, it should just give you clues as to where your stepping-off point should be.
  • It can be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo and not thinking critically about how well current practices are working for audiences. Are we genuinely challenging audiences. . . or just confusing them?
  • It tends to conflate knowledge with intelligence. If you (and many people you work with) are an expert on a given topic, it’s easy to overestimate how much “everybody” knows about that subject. If there is a big gap between how much you assume visitors know and what they actually know, no amount of intelligence on the visitors’ part will be able to bridge that gap.
  • A challenge is only a challenge when someone accepts it. In a free-choice setting like a museum, who is accepting the challenge and on whose terms? If the ‘challenge’ we set our audiences is rejected, does that leave us worse off than where we started?

This post on the Uncatalogued Museum neatly sums how visitors can be up for a challenge – often more so than we think - if we find the right balance between meeting visitors where they are and extending them to new horizons. But finding this balance depends on actually getting out there and talking to people, not resting solely on assumptions and expert knowledge.

If the goal is genuinely to challenge visitors, then visitors need to be part of the conversation. If we’re not asking them, what are we afraid of?



What do museum visitors think ‘science’ is?

The word “science” has its roots in the Latin for ‘knowledge’, and historically it has been used to describe any systematic body of knowledge. In common parlance, however, it tends to pertain to a particular approach to studying physical / natural phenomena, based on testable hypotheses, systematic gathering of evidence and conducing experiments.

So what do visitors to Natural History museums think “science” is? How do these beliefs influence how relevant they see science to their everyday lives? Do they see the connection between science and the work that Natural History museums do?

Museum visitors agree: this is definitely a scientist.

These were the guiding questions for a qualitative study conducted by Jennifer DeWitt and Emma Pegram at the Natural History Museum in London, as reported in the most recent issue of Visitor Studies. They interviewed 20 family groups in different parts of the museum, asking them questions about what they found interesting in the museum, whether they thought the museum was a ‘sciencey’ place or not, and whether they participated in science activities in their daily lives.

Visitors were split as to whether they thought the museum staff they interacted with were ‘sciencey’ or not. Staff were considered ‘sciencey’ when they demonstrated subject-specific knowledge, but facilitating enquiry in others was not necessarily a ‘sciencey’ thing for staff to do (visitors drew a distinction between ‘science’ and ‘education’ in this sense). Families more commonly described the activities they took part in at the museum as ‘sciencey’ – hallmarks of ‘sciencey’ activities were the use of technical equipment such as microscopes, detailed observation and specialist terminology. However, there was also evidence that activities that were accessible or friendly were considered not ‘sciencey’ for that reason.

Are these people scientists? Natural history museum visitors are not sure.

When it came to the Museum itself, visitors were equivocal as to whether it was a ‘science place’, having different views regarding whether particular types of content, exhibits or activities constituted ‘science’. Again a perceived conflict between ‘science’ and ‘education’ came up. And interestingly, some visitors did not consider natural history to constitute science*.

Perceptions of whether the museum was a science place or not were informed by each family’s prior conceptions of science. While 19 of the 20 families had at least one member who claimed to be interested in science, only a minority of families considered themselves ‘sciencey’. Further probing often revealed that families often did participate in science related activities (e.g. rock collecting) but such activities did not fall within the relatively narrow conception of ‘science’ that most participants had. “Science” conjured up the notion of “facts” or expert knowledge that was not particularly accessible. It was more readily associated with the physical sciences and technology than with nature.

Admittedly this study is based on a small sample, but it points to some interesting preconceptions about what science is, as well as a potential disconnect between how Natural History museums see themselves, and how they are viewed by their audiences.

*The authors concede that in their particular case, being adjacent to the Science Museum may reinforce the perception of the Natural History Museum being something other than science.


Beyond “warm impulses”

I’ve been catching up on the Museopunks podcast series, and a section of March’s installment, the Economics of Free, particularly caught my attention. In an interview, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Maxwell L. Anderson compares the data that shopping malls collect about their customers to the relative paucity of data that is collected about visitors to the typical art museum. I think it’s worth repeating (from about 18min into the podcast):

[Malls] know all this basic information about their visitors. Then you go to an art museum. What do we know? How many warm impulses cross a threshold? That’s what we count! And then we’re done! And we have no idea what people are doing, once they come inside, what they’re experiencing, what they’re learning, what they’re leaving with, who they are, where they live, what interests and motivates them . . . so apart from that we’re doing great, you know. We’re like that mall that has no idea of sales per square foot, sales per customer. . . so we’re really not doing anything in respect to knowing our visitors. And learning about our visitors seems to me the most basic thing we can do after hanging the art. You know, you hang the art, and then you open the doors and all we have been doing is “hey look there are more people in the doors”.  And the Art Newspaper dedicates an annual ‘statistical porn’ edition of how many bodies crossed thresholds. Nobody’s asking how important the shows were, or what scholarly advances were realised as a function of them, or what people learned, how they affected grades in school. Nobody knows any of that. Nobody knows who the visitors were. So I consider it a baseline. We’re just at the primordial ooze of starting to understand what museums should be doing with this other part of our mission which is not the collection but the public.

I’d argue that we’re a little bit beyond the ‘primordial ooze’ stage of understanding*, although Anderson’s right in that many museums don’t go much beyond counting ‘warm impulses’ (those infra-red people counters). He goes on to describe how the DMA’s Friends program is giving the museum more data about what their visitors do while inside the museum, and how this can inform their engagement strategies (22:45):

This is just another form of research, you know . . . we do research on our collections without blinking an eye, we think nothing of it. We spend copious amounts of time sending curators overseas to look at archives to study works of art but we’ve never studied our visitors. The only time museums typically study their visitors is when they have a big show, and they’re outperforming their last three years, everybody’s excited, and there’s a fever, and you measure that moment, which is measuring a fever. The fever subsides, the data’s no longer relevant but that’s what you hold on to and point to as economic impact. And largely, it’s an illusion.

I find it interesting that Anderson puts visitor research on a par with collection-based research. Often, I get the sense that collection research is seen as ‘core’ museological business, but visitor research is only a ‘nice to have’ if there is the budget. But perhaps this is a sign of shifting priorities?


*Historically, most visitor experience research has taken place in science centres, children’s museums, zoos and aquariums rather than museums of fine art. Although there are of course exceptions.


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. . .

UPDATE 2/5/2014: I’ve just found out that the Pekarik et al article is available online for free. Happy reading!

*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.