The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

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Context for on-line visitor research — two tips

The digital age opens new vistas on who we can ask to participate in exhibit making. No longer are we restricted to asking the public for their participation in a familiar museum setting, a focus group facility, or a nearby shopping mall or community centre. On line, we can ask anyone, anywhere, for their ideas. But who are we talking to, how do we contextualize the information we are receiving? Here are two things I have been thinking about.

We have always relied so much on demographics to contextualize audience research. We so often select who we would like to ask questions of based on demographic characteristics. Then, results are also analysed by demographic segmentation. When we start researching on-line perhaps some demographic questions can be asked up front to define the field of respondents, but how reliable is this information when it is not supplied in person? How do we know who we are talking to?

And so, I was intrigued to see a questionnaire from the Australian National Maritime Museum. This museum was seeking opinions about what a new exhibition on whales should be like.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide.  Flickr.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide. Flickr.

No demographic information is asked for. Instead, respondents were asked to fit themselves into a category based on their “Museum Personality”. Here are a couple of selections:

“Learning is Fun” — I love learning but it should be fun for me and my family

“Box Ticker” — I am always looking for something new to do and experience

This self-selected visitor-centred method of knowing a bit about who is participating in the research study likely provided useful context to the design team responsible for creating the whales exhibition.

Continuing with the idea of context, when you are asking someone for their opinion, it is respectful to them, and ultimately helpful in stimulating conversation, to provide some context for your questions. Ontario’s public television channel, TVO, does this effectively for an on-line forum called Pull. To set the stage for their regular on-line debates, they provide 90 second videos that they call “primers”.

I think a primer video or two, along with an on-line questionnaire, such as the one used by the National Maritime Museum of Australia, would make an excellent pairing for context-rich on-line visitor research. What do you think? It would be good to hear about your tips for on-line visitor research. Thanks!

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Is your museum Open?

How many ways can a museum be open? There are many ways, too many to discuss them all in this post, but here are a few that have been on my mind recently.

Portrait of Jeanne Kefer by Fernand Khnopff, 1885, Belgian, Brussels, oil of canvas. Getty Center of Los Angeles.

Portrait of Jeanne Kefer by Fernand Khnopff, 1885, Belgian, Brussels, oil of canvas.
Getty Center of Los Angeles.

Be open during hours when people can visit

This seems so simple, and yet for how many decades did museums close their doors every day at the end of the afternoon? Opening one evening a week, usually for a great party, has become almost the norm now. One of the latest late-night opening parties is Nature Nocturne at the Canadian Museum of Nature which invites guests to “Rock the Castle”. These evening events often attract younger adults, who tend to be at work during the day!

Opening up on-line images of collections to free downloads

I downloaded the image above for free from the website of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam also provides open access to downloading images. Here is one of my favourite paintings of theirs:

Woman reading a letter.  Johannes Vermeer, 1663.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Woman reading a letter. Johannes Vermeer, 1663. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Although many museums have digital photos on-line, relatively few allow downloading for free. A recent guest blog post by Adrienne Berney for Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 makes a cogent argument for opening up access to fee-free image downloads and other methods of increasing access to museum collections.

Crowdsourcing topics for exhibits

Museums have tested public interest in potential exhibit topics identified by museum staff for many years. This market research technique can be useful in helping to identify attendance targets and managing the financial risk involved in creating expensive exhibitions. With a slightly different twist, the Chicago History Museum recently announced that they would be opening up even the initial choices for exhibit topics to the public, via crowdsourcing. Their process invites suggestions for exhibits on any topic related to Chicago history for a “family friendly museum”. Museum staff will narrow down the suggestions to a short list, then ask the public to vote for their favourite. This technique is a new one for the museum world and it will be very interesting to see how it works.

And so, with everyone else in the digital age, museums are moving towards being more open. How is it going? It varies from museum to museum depending on a whole variety of the complex ways that museums relate to the public realm. What is your opinion? Are museums open enough yet?

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Four tips for creating an excellent exhibition brief

What is an exhibition brief?

!. It is not a plan to “build it and they will come”.

2. It is a feasibility study that makes sure that the budget, schedule, and scope of the project are aligned and assesses the institutional risks, rewards, and point of view for the exhibition.

3. If you haven’t identified at least one (maybe more) significant disagreement around the museum about what the exhibit should be about, or who it should be for, or how many people will be interested in it (this is often a sticky one), then you likely have not identified all the stakeholders or are making too many assumptions.

4. The institutional viewpoint and vision for the exhibit have been clearly stated and set the stage (not the rules) for the creative team to be successful.

If you have any tips on creating a brief for any type of communications project, please add them to the comments on this post. Thank you!

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Create an interpretive plan in 9 easy steps

What is an interpretive plan?

An interpretive plan is a document that outlines how an exhibition intends to engage with the public. It is created early in the process of planning an exhibit.

Step One
Review and understand the context.

-read the museum’s annual report, strategic plan, or any other documents that state how the museum wants to relate to the public
-read or watch popular books and videos about the subject of the exhibit (National Geographic, YouTube, etc. — any source that presents information on the topic of the exhibit in a way that is easily understood by a general audience)

Step Two
Get to know the collections that can be used for the exhibit.

-iconic “must haves”

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Step Three
Understand the audience and stakeholders

-look at existing audience research (if there is any)
-make a plan for engaging audiences in the planning process
-find out who the stakeholders are (staff, senior managers, Members, Boards, those whose history is represented, educators etc.) and talk to them.

Step Four
Elaborate goals and objectives
(So much has been written about goals and objectives, that I will not go into all that again here.)

Step Five
Generate ideas (about the content and how to express it).

Step six
Group ideas into a structure and make sure that you have singled out the “big ideas” that will lead the way. Possible structures could be:

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram.  It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram. It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

Step Seven
Discuss the quality of the experience you would like to create for visitors and think about the various media (in addition to collections) you would like to use to express the ideas.

Step Eight
Know your space. It will impact how you divide up the ideas, how many collections will fit, and how many choices visitors may have as they move around in it.

-analyse the size, ceiling height, entrances and exits, light sources, surfaces, changes in elevation, subdivisions

Photo credit: iStock

Photo credit: iStock

Step Nine
Create interpretive plan!

The document will look like this:


Here is an excellent new book about exhibit-making:

McKenna-Cress, Polly and Janet Kamien. Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development and Design of Innovative Experiences. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons 2013

Does this interpretive planning process for exhibits remind you of planning processes for other media?


Two ways to measure in your museum: and one more thing

heart versus moneyMeasuring museums has always been a tricky subject. Are we measuring quantitatively, qualitatively, both? And who are we measuring for — the director, our board, the granting agency, for our own information? In this post, I will take a focussed look at a few fairly quantitative measurements that may help us to calculate whether we are there yet (there being wherever you hope you are going). In future posts I will discuss more qualitative impacts of museums and how to measure them.

1. Attendance
Yes, I know, we are always measuring the numbers although in an interesting recent blog post Nina Simon asked us to consider who gets counted and whether or not attendance can be a proxy for impact. In a similar vein, since we seem to have an impulse to collect them, attendance figures could be given more meaning by linking them to a larger context. In this line of thinking, we could:

• Look at attendance as a percentage of overall population within a given geographic area; how does our attendance compare with other places in the same area where people spend their leisure time? Have there been changes in your museum’s market share in the last five years? What does that tell you about how well your museum is in touch with shifting priorities in the community?

• Analyse demographic groups within total number of visitors for the year; have there been any significant changes that align with strategic initiatives in programming in the same time period? Was that demographic shift sustained beyond the term of a specific program? Did attracting new demographic groups mean that numbers in more traditional groups fell?

• How much is your museum spending per visitor? How does that compare to other museums in your region with similar budgets for programming and marketing? Has your programming and marketing spend per visitor changed as a portion of the overall budget in the last five years? What has driven those changes; is it time to re-calibrate?

2. Members
Members really matter to museums; they are people who make coming to the museum a regular part of their lives. Revenue from memberships is a predictable source of revenue (unlike, for example, forecasts of income from temporary exhibition attendance). In addition to counting up the number of members we have, we can also measure:

• How many members moved from a basic membership category to a higher (i.e. more expensive with more privileges) category when they renewed their membership?
• Have there been any shifts in demographic patterns among the membership?
• How many members donated to fundraising campaigns in addition to paying their membership fees?
• How many members do you have as a percentage of total attendance? How does that compare to other museums with similar total attendance?

These measurements, when taken together, may help to indicate an increase, or decrease, in a sense of relationship with the museum (but only among those who can afford to buy a membership in the first place).

3. Heart
Always remember when you are measuring museums quantitatively that the qualitative impact of museums is significant, values-driven, and what gives impetus to the need to measure carefully.

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Photo credits: iStock Photo