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“Visitors think …”

In Museums on June 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

You’d be surprised the number of times I hear that phrase.

Some curators I work with will happily tell me that visitors think x, y or z, or that they visitors expect to see certain objects on display. But how do they know what visitors really think? They’re locked away in their dusty storerooms, looking after collections, right? Wrong.

We know that the most successful exhibition content in museums and galleries is designed with the visitor in mind. And so, in recent years, it has become best practice for cultural institutions to undertake research with their visitors – members of the public, carefully selected to help us understand what’s going on in their minds when they are in museums.

Sometimes I help out museums, galleries or heritage bodies with this kind of research. We undertake front end testing – that is finding out what kinds of exhibitions or content people might like to see on display. This is a really useful – and important – process, informing what we plan for the future.

Once ideas are in progress and an exhibition is being developed we might do some formative testing – this is the point where we take ideas that are almost ready and show them to a representative sample of the public who we expect to visit. This is a chance to fine-tune the exhibition and make sure it’s suited to the audience’s needs.

And once the exhibition is open we can also undertake summative evaluation. This involves finding out what people who have seen the display think of it. It’s great when they say they liked it, but if they do, then why? And if not, why not?

It’s all with the aim of making better exhibitions in the future. We find out what doesn’t work and change it. We find out what works and try to replicate more of that.

We do it through a load of different techniques – from traditional focus groups and exit surveys (the person loitering with a clipboard – or nowadays iPad – at the exhibition exit) to telephone interviews and audience forums. We arrange for online questionnaires and sometimes even take part in focussed observations – legitamised snooping on visitors in exhibitions.

Taking part in research can be quite good fun – it gives people a chance to see behind-the-scenes in a cultural institution and sometimes to hear about exhibition well before they are made public. And importantly, it’s a chance to make sure that exhibitions are as relevant to the public as possible.

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