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.


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