Seizing New Opportunities

Sometimes opportunities arise from unexpected places.

Close followers of this blog will know that I’ve had a long-running relationship with the South Australian Museum. This dates back to when I started my PhD in early 2011, when some people I knew on staff arranged for me to have some desk space in exchange for me using the Museum for the bulk of my fieldwork. The arrangement was informal – I wasn’t on staff, wasn’t reporting to anyone in the Museum, and for practiality purposes was usually categorised as one of the volunteers (but didn’t really fit in that category either). Nonetheless it was an arrangement that worked well, and having a home institution made my research so much easier than if I’d had to make prior arrangements from scratch every time I wanted to collect more data.

A view of the wing where most of the Museum’s galleries are located.

Fast forward to mid-2014. As I was getting close to submitting my thesis and wrapping up my PhD, I decided it was time to phase myself back into consultancy, and established myself under the name I’d been using in my online presence for several years, interactivate. The rationale behind setting up myself as a consultant was twofold: firstly, I liked the variety and the flexibility associated with being a consultant; and secondly I wasn’t in a position to move cities to pursue employment. I moved across the globe and back in my 20s and early 30s. Now on a personal level I’m established in Adelaide, have roots here, and no desire to move on.

Not surprisingly, given my established contacts there, the South Australian Museum soon became my largest client and I continued to be a familiar face around the place. Then, towards the end of the year, the Director called me to his office.

It turned out the Museum was going through a restructure, and a new position called the Manager of Visitor Experience was being created. It was a response to an identified need to put a visitor-centric lens on the way the Museum operates and presents itself to its audiences. In addition, the role is responsible for the revenue-generating activities of the Museum such as the shop, cafe and events.

Filling the position on a permanent basis would require a formal recruitment process, although the Director didn’t want it vacant for the amount of time that would take. So he invited me to be Acting Manager on a part-time basis in the meantime. My initial contract was for three months, starting in early January.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be interested in continuing in the role – I wasn’t confident of my knowledge of the cafe/shop/events side of things* and wasn’t sure if it would interest me; also I’d already invested a fair amount of time and effort in building the consultancy business and wanted to see that through. However, once I started doing the job I found I enjoyed it, liked having the blank slate of a newly-created position to work with, and so I decided to apply for the permanent position.

After an interview that I was sure I’d blown, I was contacted a few days later and told that I’d been offered the job! It’s a full time role, which means I’ll be mothballing interactivate as a consultancy. I’d by lying if I said that decision didn’t come with a tinge of regret. But then again, jobs such as this don’t come around very often, and it’s too good an opportunity not to sieze with both hands! There’s no way I could have imagined something like this would be on the horizon when I first set out on the PhD and consultancy journey.

I still plan to blog regularly (50 posts this year is not an impossible ambition), although I’m aware that it might be more difficult now. Not just the time it takes (although I imagine my job will keep me VERY busy . . . ) but also being aware that being linked to a particular institution means I can’t anonymise my experiences. However, if nothing else, needing some blog inspiration will be a good excuse to keep abreast of the literature.

Wish me luck!

 *Although this is relatively new territory for me, thinking laterally about my experience and discussing it with other people, I found the knowledge gap wasn’t as large as I first feared.

The Thesis Has Landed

Birth Announcement

Dr Regan Forrest is pleased to announce the healthy arrival of a completed PhD on 30th January 2015. The thesis, weighing 282 pages, is now publicly available online through UQ espace. Candidate is doing well and is relieved to be finally able to share her results with the world.


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?




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!

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!

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

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.



Rising to the “Future Challenge”

Last week was Interpretation Australia’s National Conference, titled Future Challenge. As IA President Sue Hodges said in the opening ceremony, Interpretation faces challenges in the present, as well as the future. Economic downturns lead to budget cuts, which often disproportionately affect funding for interpretive projects and staff. In light of this, how can interpreters adapt to changing circumstances and make a better case for the value they add to natural and cultural heritage?

Our opening and closing keynotes gave two very different perspectives on this issue.

Genevieve Adkins, Director of the Centre for Interpretive Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland, highlighted the importance of interpreters having a solid grasp of the theory that underpins their work. Theory confers rigour, and rigour is necessary for funders and other stakeholders to take interpretation seriously. Judicious application of theory can also lead to better returns on investment in heritage interpretation projects.

For the closing keynote, Dee Madigan, Director of Madigan Communications and probably best known as a regular panellist on ABC’s spin-deconstruction program Gruen Planet, gave an ‘outsider’ perspective on the issues facing interpretation. She highlighted some of the parallels between advertising and interpretation, and how there is common ground in needing to understand the motivations and wants of your target audience.

I’ve prepared a storify of the tweets from Day 1 and Day 3. Day 2 was mostly taken up by field trips to destinations around Regional Victoria – I went to Point Nepean National Park and learned some of the history of the site as a Quarantine Station and later as an Officer Cadet School.

Ships and their passengers en route to Melbourne were held in quarantine at Point Nepean. The station was in use from the mid 1800s until the 1970s.
Quarantine was strict – passengers belongings were fumigated and all passengers had to go through special bathing procedures. Even the mail was fumigated! This case shows equipment used for fumigating mail.

I also gave a presentation based on Chip and Dan Heath’s 2007 book Made to Stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. In keeping with the Future Challenge theme of the conference, this paper was intended to show how the Heath brothers’ ingredients for ‘sticky’ ideas are a useful checklist for interpreters. Conversely, it shows how the business world is hungry for sticky ideas: are there potential untapped markets for people with interpretive skills?