Visitor Observation: Privacy Issues

During my PhD I spent some time tracking and timing visitors to learn more about visitor behaviour in the exhibitions I was studying (more on the history and applications of visitor tracking here). Recently, I was asked about the privacy implications of doing such research. What steps do we need to take to ensure we’re a) staying on the right side of the law and b) respecting visitors’ rights to informed consent and ability to opt out of participating in research?

On the first part (i.e. The Law), I’ll tread carefully since I’m not a lawyer and it will vary in specifics from place to place anyway. However, in a general sense, museums will generally count as a “public place”, and people can reasonably expect to be seen in public places. Therefore if you’re just documenting visitors’ readily observable public behaviour, and nothing about them that may allow them to be identified as individuals, you’re probably in safe territory. However, it would be wise to check whether your museum is classed (in a legal sense) as a “public place” – for instance an entry charge may implicitly impose an expectation of some level of privacy on the part of paying guests.

So how about different approaches to informed consent?

The first consideration is cuing – do you tell visitors they’re going to be watched and/or listened to at the start of their visit? If so, then you are studying cued visitors – and gaining informed consent is relatively straightforward. When you approach potential participants, you explain the benefits and risks of participating, and they can decide whether they want to be part of it or not. The downside of cuing, of course, is that you’re probably no longer going to be documenting natural visitor behaviour – people tend to do different things when they know they are being watched.

Depending on what you’re studying, this may not be an issue – and, like contestants on Big Brother, visitors tend to forget they’re being watched or listened to after a while, even if they’re rigged up with audio recording equipment (Leinhardt & Knutson, 2004). Also, if you’re going to be tracking the same group of visitors over the course of a whole visit, which could mean following them for 2-3 hours, then you really do need to cue them first – otherwise, frankly, it just ends up getting creepy and weird for all concerned.

If you’re tracking visitors across a whole site, sooner or later they’re bound to notice you. Awkward. You’d be better off telling them first.

In contrast, tracking and timing uncued visitors through a single exhibition gallery can be done discreetly without visitors becoming aware they are being tracked (assuming you are not trying to hear what they are saying as well, meaning you can observe from a reasonable distance). It still takes a bit of practice, and is easier in some exhibitions than others. Even so, if someone approaches you and asks what you’re up to, the right thing to do is fess up, explain what you were doing, stop tracking that person and try again with a different visitor.

If you’re taking this uncued approach to visitor observation, you’re in a far greyer area with respect to informed consent. The usual approach is to post a sign at the entrance to the museum or the gallery informing visitors that observations are taking place, and giving them steps to take if they wish to opt out of being observed. In practice, this might be notices telling visitors which areas to avoid if they don’t want to be watched, or having a mechanism for visitors to opt-out by wearing a lapel sticker or wrist band (although chances are this won’t be necessary – it never came up in my research and my experience tallies with other researchers I’ve spoken to).

What about when you’re recording?

Things can get a little more complicated when you go beyond simple observation and field notes to audio or video recording visitor behaviour. It’s one thing to watch publicly observable behaviour, another to have that behaviour recorded, replayed, and deconstructed ad infinitum. This doesn’t mean it’s not done – audio recording at individual exhibits dates back to at least the 1980s and Paulette McManus’s landmark study of visitors evidently reading labels more than it might first appear (McManus, 1989). In that study, specific exhibits were hooked up to a radio microphone linked to a tape (tape!) recorder, and an observer unobtrusively watched the exhibit from a safe distance, making field notes to aid subsequent interpretation (Leinhardt and Knutson also emphasise how important observational data is to back up audio recordings, where there are frequently snippets that make little sense if you don’t have additional details about what was happening at the time). As far as I can tell, visitors were uncued in this study.

Audio recording of uncued visitors poses fewer difficulties than video recording, as people can’t (easily) be identified based on voice recordings alone. Things get tricker when you get to video, of course. My first exposure to video-based visitor research was seeing Christian Heath speak about his and Dirk vom Lehn’s work in V&A’s British Galleries in the early 00s (Heath and vom Lehn, 2004). In this case, although they specify that visitors explicitly consented to being part of the research, it’s not obvious whether this was done in advance, or after the fact by approaching visitors once they’d left the exhibit of interest (and then discarding the data of those who have refused to participate prior to analysis). This ex post facto approach is a way you can ensure both uncued visitor behaviour and informed consent, but as I have no direct experience of this, I don’t know how high the refusal rate is and how complicated it is to ensure data is discarded appropriately as required.

Irrespective of the type of informed consent, there is the issue of data storage. Gone are the days of tapes that could be kept under lock and key. You’ll need to have a data retention policy in place to ensure that anything that could potentially identify participants is kept secure, safe from those who have no need to access it . . . and from accidental syncing to your public Facebook feed.

Disclaimer: This is just general advice based on my own experience and what I can glean from some of the literature. Different parts of the world and different ethics committees may have different views, and the specifics of any given piece of research may make a difference as well.


Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. Leinhardt, G., & Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
McManus, P. (1989). Oh, yes they do: How museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator: The Museum Journal, 32(3), 174–189.



The language of objects

Objects may not be silent, but what difference does that make if you don’t speak their language?

I’ve been doing a bit more musing on some of the anecdotes Stephanie Weaver shared during her keynote at the recent Interpretation Australia conference (first instalment here). She mentioned the often-heard claim that objects “speak for themselves” (a view that appears especially prevalent in art circles), thus rendering interpretation irrelevant at best, interfering at worst. In response, one time she challenged some “speak for themselves-ists” with an image of a carburettor, similar to this one:

Did the object speak to them about what it was? Was it a particularly fine or noteworthy example? In the absence of any relevant mechanical or technical knowledge, Stephanie’s interlocutors were stumped. They accepted that this object was mute in the absence of interpretation (at least to them).

But Stephanie also told the story of the object that spoke to her immedately, profoundly, and so powerfully it moved her to tears – no interpretation required:

In this case, the painting was the trigger for an avalanche of meaning that lay within Stephanie’s own life experience. It was in the Musee d’Orsay, during a much-anticipated and long-awaited trip to Paris. The painting was beatifully presented in a gallery context. The content resonated with Stephanie’s childhood as a dance student. And of course there is an aesthetic appeal that needs no overt explanation*.

This made me think that the “objects are mute” vs “objects speak for themselves” debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.

Some communication transcends language: in another conference session, Pamela Harmon-Price described how a Japanese tour guide used timing, gesture and body language to convey considerable meaning, despite Pamela not understanding a word of what was said. Drawing analogy to objects, there may be some aspects of an object: form, colour, positioning, and so on, that can speak to us on some level.

But then there is the Tower of Babel of other languages any given object may speak. And of course the same object may speak multiple languages (the languages of technology, or art, or social history). And that is where interpretation can step in – conveying that meaning to those who don’t know enough of the language enough to understand it.

On a radio interview held with Stephanie, Pamela and John Pastorelli during the conference, they reflected on the fact that people outside the cultural sector tend to assume “interpretation” has something to do with languages. Perhaps on some level they’re right: it’s just that it’s intepreting the languages of objects and places rather than other people.

So next time you see an object that you think “speaks for itself” – ask yourself: can you only hear it because you already know the language?


*At least to people enculturated into a Western perspective of aesthetics. Although there are some aspects of aesthetics that may be ‘hard wired’, so to speak, yet others will be a product of the culture we live in, and we deem those as “universal” at our peril!


Your experience footprint is bigger than you think

It all started with a mysterious bear. . . 

But before I explain, first a little background: Last week I was at the Interpretation Australia national conference, Enriching the Visitor Experience, in Brisbane. The opening keynote was Experienceology‘s Stephanie Weaver. As the author of Creating Great Visitor Experiences, she had plenty to share about the role of interpretation and storytelling in crafting memorable and meaningful visitor experiences.

So back to the bear – Stephanie’s museum career started out at the Chicago Children’s Museum, which at the time was located in North Pier. Consistently in evaluation and focus groups, children kept on mentioning that “the bear” was one of their favourite exhibits. Good to know – except staff at the museum had no idea what exhibit the kids were talking about! There were no bears, teddy bears, pictures of bears, or anything remotely bear-related in the Museum. So what was this mysterious bear exhibit?

It turns out the solution wasn’t in the museum at all. As it happens, North Pier was at one end of an atrium mall, and this mall had a toy store. And across the atrium this toy store had strung up a large model of the “Ernest the balancing bear” child’s toy that cycled across and back on its tightrope. Although this display had nothing to do with the Museum – they didn’t manage it, they had no control over it – it was nonetheless perceived by visitors to be an integral part of the Children’s Museum experience. In fact, when exhibit staff proudly proclaimed the “bear mystery” finally solved, the Museum’s ticketing staff told them “oh yeah, we get all sorts of complaints when that bear isn’t working”.

Ernest the balancing bear (from

From this, Stephanie said she learned two important lessons about visitor experiences:

  1. The extent of the visitor experience as perceived by visitors – what I’ve called the “experience footprint” here – is much bigger than you might think, and may well include factors beyond your control (but which you still need to think about).
  2. Front-line staff often have a better idea of what’s happening on the exhibit floor than exhibition staff or management.

I’ll share a few more insights from this and other sessions over the coming days and weeks.


What if every label was tweet-sized?

I’ve just read Will Stanley’s article on Medium: Museum tours on Twitter. 

In it, he describes using Twitter to create virtual tours of selected galleries at London’s Science Museum. He describes the challenges of distilling an exhibition into a few dozen select tweets, while still retaining the curatorial voice. What’s essential? What can you leave out? This is often difficult enough with a 140-word exhibition label – let alone 140 characters!

It made me think – often I have to redraft a thought several times to make it tweetable. In the process you realise how many superfluous words and phrases you can live without. You find the core of idea you want to communicate, and that’s all there’s room for.

Makes me wonder – perhaps drafting exhibition labels as if they were tweets might be a useful exercise in becoming more (as Susan Cross would call it), “precise and concise”.


Well, that’s a wrap!

. . . for now at least. Today I uploaded my thesis to the University of Queensland’s servers and the fate of my doctoral candidature is in the lap of the gods (or, more accurately, two external examiners on the other side of the world). I should get their reports in a couple of months, and with a bit of luck get my PhD conferred not long after, depending on the nature and magnitude of changes requested by my examiners.

Coincidentally, my research career up to this point has been featured this week on the Research Whisperer blog.

That’s capped off a pretty busy September for me! I hope to get back to updating this blog a tad more regularly now.


Why do I do what I do?

I talk a lot about visior experiences. But it occurred to me recently that I’d never really spelled out why I think they’re so important. We all like to think our work makes the world a better place in some small way, so how do I think what I do matters? Thinking about it over the past few weeks, I’ve come up with the following:

Why do I do what I do?

Because I believe that museums, heritage sites, science centres, zoos, aquariums and national parks have the power to make the world a better place. They can:

  • give us the thrill of discovering something new, or seeing “the real thing”
  • promote wellbeing by bringing us closer to art and nature
  • raise consciousness of the environment we depend upon
  • encourage empathy by presenting the point of view of a different person or culture
  • provide a context for memorable and meaningful experiences with our family and friends

And I firmly believe that the key to unlocking this potential is a good quality, well-planned visitor experience.

So that’s why I do what I do (And have just updated the interactivate web site to reflect this).

What about you – what inspires you to do what you do?





When money trumps message

My local zoo has been all over the news for all the wrong reasons this week. And it’s all because of an ice-cream deal.

Different news reports have slightly different versions of events, but I think this is a fair summary of what’s happened: Zoos SA, which runs the “traditional” zoo just outside the city centre as well as an open-range one about 40km away, had a supply deal with a local ice-cream manufacturer, Golden North. As part of that deal, Golden North had to change its practices to remove palm oil* from its products. Which they did. However, the contract is up for renewal again, and Zoos SA has opted to go with another supplier who offered them a better deal: Streets (part of the multinational Unilever). And their ice creams contain . . . you guessed it – palm oil! It’s been all over the media the last couple of days, (examples here and here), prompted online petitions, and even members of Parliament are asking “please explain” questions of the Zoos SA board. It seems a lot of bad publicity to take, just to save a bit of money on an ice cream contract.

This story has a couple of overlapping issues which is why I think it’s made such a big splash here. Firstly, the fact a local company lost out to a multinational speaks to a wider globalisation narrative and the loss of local brands and jobs at the hands of “faceless” multinational corporations. This, I believe, has acted an an amplifier for the second, more serious issue: the apparent hypocrisy of a zoo (ostensibly a conservation organisation) choosing the financial bottom line over the environmental one. It’s grist to the mill for those who believe zoos are not really committed to conservation, that it’s just a cosmetic veneer to make zoos more palatable in a more animal-aware age. It undermines any conservation messages the zoo may be trying to communicate by basically saying to their visitors and the local community at large: “sustainable practices are great, but as soon as they get too expensive or too hard, then it’s OK to go with the cheap and easy option”.

Now the palm oil issue is a lot more complicated than that, as this recent segment on the (Australian) ABC program The Checkout explains:

There is an argument that sustainably-sourced palm oil is better than many of the non-palm oil alternatives. That’s a more nuanced, harder-to-communicate message than a simple one of “palm oil = bad”. In any case, according to Zoos SA’s own press release, Unilever’s palm oil won’t be 100% from sustainable until 2020.

Zoos SA’s argument seems to be that it’s easier to effect change from “within the tent” than outside it, and they point out they are not the only zoo to sell Streets ice creams. (To be honest the list surprised me, given these zoos’ very visible campaigning against unsustainable palm oil.)

It’s an interesting case study in what can go wrong when financial decisions are made in isolation, without looking at how they may impact your wider mission and the greater social context of your audience and local community. Based on how it’s played out in the media, I think it’s fair to say that Zoos SA were caught napping on this one.

UPDATE 15/8/14: It looks like community pressure has led Zoos SA to partially revisit their decision. Now Golden North and Streets will both be sold at the zoo.

*Because of the link between palm oil production and rainforest destruction, particularly areas that are orangutan habitats, many environmental organisations run anti-palm oil campaigns (including many Australian zoos).


Building Evaluation Capacity

I recently attended the 27th Annual Visitor Studies Association conference in Albuquerque, NM. Given the theme was Building Capacity for Evaluation: Individuals, Institutions, the Field, it’s not surprising that “capacity building” was a common topic of discussion throughout the week. What do we mean by building capacity? Whose capacity are we building and why? Pulling together threads from throughout the conference, here are some of my thoughts:

Individual capacity building:

Any conference offers a chance to hear about developments in the field and to build your professional networks, which is a form of personal capacity-building. VSA in particular runs professional development workshops before and after the conference as an opportunity to sharpen your skills, be exposed to different approaches and to learn new techniques. These are useful for both newcomers to the field as well as more experienced researchers who might be interested in new ways of thinking, or new types of data collection and analysis.

A common thread I noticed was both the opportunities and challenges presented by technology – video and tracking software allow you to collect much more detailed data, and you can integrate different data types (audio, tracking data) into a single file. But technology’s no panacea, and good evaluation still boils down to having a well thought-through question you’re looking to investigate and the capacity to act on your findings.


Panel session at VSA 2014

Institutional capacity building:

There were a lot of discussions around how to increase the profile of Evaluation and Visitor Research within institutions. There seemed to be a general feeling that “buy-in” from other departments was often lacking: evaluation is poorly understood and therefore not valued by curators and others whose roles did not bring them into regular, direct contact with visitors. Some curators apparently come away with the impression that evaluators only asked visitors “what they don’t like”, or otherwise had a vested interest in exposing problems rather than celebrating successes[1]. Others believe they “already know” what happens on the exhibition floor, but without systematic observation may only be seeing what they want to see, or otherwise drawing conclusions about what works and what doesn’t based on their own assumptions, rather than evidence.

For many, the “aha!” moment comes when they become involved in the data collection process themselves. When people have an opportunity to observe and interview visitors, they start to appreciate where evaluation findings come from, and are subsequently more interested in the results. Several delegates described Damascene conversions of reluctant curators once they had participated in an evaluation. But others expressed reservations about this approach – does it give colleagues an oversimplified view of evaluation? Does it create the impression that “anyone can do evaluation”, therefore undermining our skills, knowledge and expertise? What about the impact on other functions of the museum: if curators, designers and others are spending time doing evaluation, what parts of their usual work will need to be sacrificed?

A counter to these reservations is that visitors are arguably the common denominator of *all* activities that take place in informal learning institutions, even if this isn’t obvious on a day to day basis in many roles. Participating in data collection acts as a reminder of this. Also, at its best, evaluation helps foster a more reflective practice more generally. But nonetheless the concerns are valid.

Capacity building across the Field:

I found this part of the discussion harder to be part of, as it was (understandably) focused on the US experience and was difficult to extrapolate to the Australian context due to massive differences in scale. One obvious difference is the impact that the National Science Foundation has had on the American museum landscape. NSF is a major funder of the production and evaluation of informal science learning [2]. NSF-supported websites like host literally hundreds of evaluation reports (that actually extend beyond the “science” remit that the site’s name implies – it’s a resource worth checking out).

There are a considerable number of science centres and science museums across the US, and because of these institutions’ history of prototyping interactive exhibits, they tend to have a larger focus on evaluation and visitor research than (say) history museums. Indeed, most of the delegates at VSA seem to represent science centres, zoos and aquariums, or are consultant evaluators for whom such institutions are their principal clients. There was also a reasonable art museum presence, and while there were a few representatives of historical sites, on the whole I got the impression that history museums were under-represented.

In any case, I came away with the impression that exhibition evaluation is more entrenched in museological practice in the US than it is here in Australia. It seems that front-end and formative research is commonly done as part of the exhibition development process, and conducting or commissioning summative evaluations of exhibitions is routine. In contrast, besides a handful of larger institutions, I don’t see a huge amount of evidence that exhibition evaluation is routinely happening in Australia. Perhaps this is just the availability heuristic at play – the US is much bigger so it’s easier to bring specific examples to mind. Or it could be that evaluation is happening in Australian museums, but as an internal process that is not being shared? Or something else?


[1] A lesson from this is that evaluation reports may read too much like troubleshootingdocuments and not give enough attention to what *is* working well.

[2] The Wellcome Trust plays a similar role in the UK, but as far as I’m aware there is nothing comparable (at least in scale) in Australia.


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.