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?

 

 

 

Share

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).

Share

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

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 informalscience.org 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.

Share

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!

Share

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.

Share

Interactivate is live!

Today I launched the website for my new business:

image001

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!

Share

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!

Share

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.

Share

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?

 

Share

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.

Share