People watching in museums

In Museums on January 9, 2016 at 10:35 am

We all love doing it. Taking a step back and just watching people. They do the strangest things. And we’re curious about what they do. Most people probably do it while waiting in a train station or a shop queue, for example. It’s fascinating to observe what’s going on around us and how people react to certain situations.

Social scientists do it for a living. And I’m lucky enough to get to do it in museums and heritage sites. Visitor observation is a key tool as part of audience research. Some researchers call it ‘legitimised snooping’ or ‘authorised stalking’, but I see it more as a chance to really watch what people do and how they do it.

When we ask visitors a question as part of an audience research project they sometimes try and tell  us the answers they think we want to hear – and that’s an understood a limitation of any social research. The great thing about observation is that visitor doesn’t know it’s happening, so we can get real raw data. Of course, where we get the chance we like to follow up with visitors and complete a face-to-face interview, so we can marry up what we’ve observed with what people tell us as well.

But sometimes, just like when you’re watching people in supermarket queue, we get rumbled. Every found yourself having to look away from a situation, just as it was getting interesting, because the person you’re watching has realised?  There’s quite a skill to observing people and not letting on. I’ve learned, over the years, how to watch people from afar, to look at them through display cases and to check their progress in a reflected window.

Some might say it’s sneaky – I say it’s research.

Watching what visitors do enables us to spot the sticking points in a museum visit. If we see that families don’t know what to do with their prams, it’s time to install a buggy park. If they can’t find their way around, we need to look at mapping and signage again. And if they’re walking past great objects without stopping, maybe it’s time to look at our displays again.

By understanding our visitors’ behaviour we can build up a better picture of what’s going on in their minds. And that helps us to create even better visitor experiences in the future.

The joy of text

In Museums on November 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Someone told me recently ‘I can’t write.’

She can write – I’ve received emails from her and I once even saw her use a pen. I think she meant she doesn’t think she can write. I don’t believe this for a second.

I don’t consider myself very (at all) good at drawing. But I can still pick up a pencil and have a go at making a mark. That doesn’t make me an artist, but I can draw.

The same is true for writing, I think. While we might not be writers, many of us write every day – much more often than we pick up a pencil and draw. Updating a facebook status, making a shopping list, emailing a friend or colleague.

We write more and more text digitally today, of course, which means that when we write we are actually often typing on a physical or virtual, rather than writing. And maybe that perpetuates the myth that we’re not writers, but actually typists.

We’re constantly learning about how we write text, honing our skills all the time, without even noticing what we’re doing. I teach a course about museum text – I’m part way through a series of workshops about writing display copy for a museum which is about to embark on writing a whole new gallery. It can be a good time to stand back and look again at the process of how we put text together in the heritage sector and who we are actually writing for. It’s interesting to take museum people through the process of museum writing. The majority of copy is generated digitally, of course, but visitors will see it in a whole range of different outputs – from panels and labels to touchscreens, multimedia guides, projected on the wall and sewn into the carpet.

As part of the course we review lots of examples of text from other museums, which I’ve gathered together over the years. It’s all rather fun as we get to be (constructively) critical of other people’s work and, ultimately, come up with a ‘voice’ for the a project.

While I am passionate about words and text, I find that sometimes when I’m in a cultural institution I find it difficult to switch off my professional brain – I have to remember that I’m at play, not at work. Rather than enjoying an interpretive experience I find myself looking at interpretation, words, font, lighting, production techniques and the like, rather than immersing myself in the experience. And in the text. I should be bathing in the words, not judging them.

And so, from here on, I am going to try and embrace the joy of text as a treat. Words need to be a treat, rather than a work commodity.

We’re all writers. Never say you can’t write. Power to the words.

What did you un-learn at the museum today?

In Museums on October 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm

Museums spend a lot of time thinking about ‘learning’.

Learning is a loaded word, of course, with connotations of school, teachers and exercise books. And there has been plenty of good work done in the last decade or so to overturn that.

In a heritage setting we now think of learning as something much more than simply acquiring new knowledge or facts. The question ‘what did you learn at the museum today?’ has been almost eradicated from audience research questionnaires, at last.
Instead we think of learning as more holistic. The imparting and receiving of new knowledge and information, yes. But also of the exploration of understanding, insight, values, feelings and attitudes. Museums are places we can be inspired – to act, to create, to take on new skills, to dream. And all of this, I reckon, is learning.

So I was intrigued to see the word ‘un-learning’ the other day – the idea that we can change the way we think about something we already claim to ‘know’ and to re-learn it as something else.

I wonder whether un-learning ought to be something we add to the museum agenda?

Of course the museum can be an agent for helping people to think differently. Visitor outcomes – the objectives we set ourselves for what people will experience as part of a visit – are often written in a way that affects some form of attitudinal shift. Using objects with powerful emotional, historical or scientific stories, we can seek to alter the way people think about a subject.  Visitors might ‘un-learn’ in this scenario.

And we can also un-learn behaviours and attitudes towards heritage and history. I love it when I see a visitor who didn’t really intend to have a good time in a heritage setting, engaging to a high level and clearly enjoying themselves. Challenging preconceptions of a museum visit is just as much un-learning as is addressing misconceptions.

Some will debate whether ‘un-learning’ is learning. But I think I might start adding it to my checklist of visitor outcomes when I’m planning how to engage with visitors in the future.

How we evaluate what people have unlearned? That’s a different matter …


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