Museums as Battlefields in the History Wars

This is the title of the guest post I’ve just written for the Museum 2.0 blog by Nina Simon. I’ve long been a fan of the blog and it’s exciting to be able to make my own small contribution to it.

The blog post is part of a series called the Blueprint book club – a series of reactions to the book Blueprint, the story of the Dutch Museum of National History. This project to build a new national museum was cancelled in 2011, and this book is a way of recording the plans and vision of the project from its inception to its demise. My take draws parallels between the Dutch museum’s fate and the slightly shaky early history of the National Museum of Australia.

There will be more instalments by other guest contributors over the coming days and weeks. So why not have a read and contribute?



Behind the scenes

OK so I’m feeling a little guilty.

Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that for a blog to look “active”, it should be updated at least 3-4 times a month. And so I try to have something new to post here at least every 7-10 days. But here I am, over two weeks since I last posted anything. I even have a couple of things to write about up my sleeve. I just haven’t had the time to put it all together.

But since it’s because I’ve been so busy working on some really interesting things, why don’t quickly I tell you about that?

  • I’ve started data collection for my PhD. Finally! Largely thanks to the power of social media, I’ve managed to recruit a good population of volunteers – more than I actually need – which is a relief as I thought that part of it would be a bit of an uphill slog. I meet these volunteers at the SA Museum, and we go around the galleries together as they tell me what they think of everything we’re looking at. I then transcribe and analyse the audio recording of the visit. It’s pretty painstaking stuff – the recordings can be tricky to follow due to the inevitable background noise, and I’m finding it’s taking about an hour to transcribe 10 minutes worth of visit. Given that I’m spending, on average, about an hour on the exhibition floor with each of my volunteers, I have my work cut out for me! But it’s also fascinating, following a visit as it unfolds at snail’s pace – you get a chance to notice things on a whole different level that you didn’t pick up on while following the visit in ‘real-time’.
  • Planning for the Museums Australia conference is intensifying. I’ve been on the committee of the SA Branch of Museums Australia for a few years now, and last week I was elected as SA Branch President. Given we are hosting the national conference this year, there is a lot to sort out! We’re just in the process of going through all the abstracts that were submitted so we can flesh out the program. It’s a really strong batch of proposals and it’s unfortunate that not all of them will be able to make the cut.
  • I’m working on some interesting interpretive projects. There are a few things in the pipeline on this front. It’s a little early to go into details, but it’s been good to have the opportunity to do some creative work with both new and existing colleagues and clients.

So watch this space: normal visitor experience insights will resume shortly. . .

Something for my British colleagues, fans of Life on Mars, or both . ..


Audiences: a vicious cycle?

Are our audiences our audiences because that’s who we think our audiences are?

Let me explain. Say our audience appears to be from a particular demographic. So we tend to target that demographic in the way we position ourselves. In so doing, we create the impression that what we have to offer is primarily of interest to that particular demographic. Thus (surprise, surprise!) that is the demographic that primarily visits. But by setting ourselves up as being for a particular demographic in the first place, who are we excluding? Are we narrowing our appeal instead of broadening it?

Is there a circular logic to the way we see or audiences?

My thinking was first triggered by this article, which contends that by predominantly targeting families with kids aged 8-12, science museums are limiting their appeal to adults (this has a lot of implications for science and society, but I won’t cover that here – read the article!). Parents will say that they don’t go to the science centre anymore because their children have ‘outgrown’ it. Is it possible to ‘outgrow’ science? Can you imagine anyone saying that about an art museum?

Since then I’ve had similar conversations about other types of cultural heritage sites. If we make too many assumptions about who our audiences are, are we sending the message that we don’t have anything to offer anyone else?

It’s a tricky balance: saying you’re for “everyone” is too much like saying you’re for no-one in particular. But conversely, it would be prudent to challenge the assumptions we have about who our audiences are, and think more about who they could be.



A few weeks ago I completed the “Confirmation of Candidature” milestone of my PhD.

At my university at least, confirmation happens roughly one year into your candidature and is the first major litmus test of your PhD. Basically, when you pass your confirmation milestone you’ve managed to demonstrate to your Department that your proposed research is of sufficient scope, originality and feasibility to be “PhD-worthy”. After clearing this hurdle you can go forth into the world and start collecting your data (subject to ethics clearance of course – which I received earlier this week). So this seems to be as good a time as any to describe a bit about what I will be doing during my PhD and why.

What’s your PhD on?

My draft thesis title is “Design Factors in the Museum Visitor Experience”.  I’m interested in how visitors perceive different kinds of exhibition environments, and how this may influence what they notice, what they do, and how they describe their experiences. In a nutshell, does the exhibition environment make a difference, and if so, how?

How are you going to study this?

I’m taking what’s called a “sequential mixed-methods” approach. This means I’m using both qualitative and quantitative approaches to data collection, with each stage informing the next round of research. There are three main stages to my research:

  1. To start off, I’ll be accompanying a small number of people (about 20 I reckon) as they visit a range of different exhibition spaces. I’ll be asking them to “think aloud” their visit, telling me what they see, what they notice, what they think and feel about it and what attracts or repels them. This will all be audio recorded, as will a subsequent ‘debrief’ interview where we talk about and compare and contrast the different exhibition environments we visited. I’ll use the audio transcripts to identify key themes, patterns and commonalities in the way people describe exhibition environments.
  2. Based on these key themes, patterns and commonalities, I’ll design and refine a questionnaire to try to quantify these perceptual qualities. As part of the analysis I’ll apply a statistical technique called factor analysis to see what the important underlying factors are in the way people perceive exhibition environments.
  3. The final stage will be relating how visitors perceive the environment to how visitors respond to it, by measuring their behavioural, affective and cognitive responses. I’ll do this by combining the questionnaire I developed in the second stage with existing survey instruments for measuring visitor experience. I’ll also observe visitors and ‘code’ their behaviour to help me analyse the patterns. I’ll then use a statistical technique called path analysis to quantify the relationships between environment, affect, cognition and behaviour.

That’s the plan anyway. I’m sure things will evolve as my research progresses.

What made you decide to approach it that way?

The theory and methods I’ll be using have their roots in environmental psychology, which is the study of the interplay between people and their environment (in this context “environment” means any physical setting, built or natural). Environmental psychology has informed a lot of museum visitor studies, including the work of venerable researchers such as Stephen Bitgood, John Falk, and David Uzzell. So I feel I’m working within a strong academic tradition.

I’m also interested in applying some of the theories and techniques that have been developed in the study of retail environments, a field of study that can be considered to fall under the heading of “atmospherics”. Developed by Philip Kotler back in 1974, atmospherics contends that the (retail) environment influences consumer behaviour, and that this happens in fairly predictable ways. Kotler’s paper spawned a whole tranche of research in the marketing and retail spheres, which is now starting to find its way back to the museums sphere, at least from a marketing perspective (1, 2). My choice of methods is inspired by particular approaches that have been used in the study of retail environments (3, 4) that I think will also be applicable to museums.

Why are you studying this?

I spent several years planning museum and exhibition environments in collaboration with many talented and creative people. But because of the nature of the work at hand, we often never really had the chance to see our creations in action; test the assumptions upon which our designs were based. I want to see how much of our intuition was correct, and also see where we might have done things based on false assumptions. I’m hoping my findings will eventually improve the way we design exhibition environments.

Who are you studying with?

I’m studying through the School of Tourism at the University of Queensland, being supervised by Jan Packer and Roy Ballantyne. I was keen to work with Jan and Roy as they have a great reputation and strong publication record in visitor studies. And as luck would have it, they seemed happy enough to take me on (I have yet to ask them if they regret this decision . . . )

As I have firm roots in Adelaide, moving to Brisbane (a two-hour flight away) to be on campus was not an option. But I’ve been lucky to secure some desk space closer to home, at the South Australian Museum. This will be my principal study site.

So how is it all going? Have you finished your thesis yet?

This question is probably the most infuriating one for a PhD student to hear. By way of analogy, it’s a bit like asking the Colorado River “how’s that canyon thing you’re making going?” And from the outside, PhD research can seem positively geological in the timeframes involved. A lot may be happening, but it’s at a slow and deliberate pace – this means that months can go by without any tangibly new progress to report.

So over the next couple of years at least it will be a long chipping away at my research problem – collecting data, analysing it, refining my hypotheses, collecting more data, doing more analysis, rinse & repeat. Of course, during this period I hope to have preliminary findings that I can publish as papers or present at conferences. But a whole thesis is quite a while away yet.

In short, please don’t ask me this until AT LEAST early 2014.

There is obviously a lot more to my proposed research than I can cover in a mere blog post. But if you have any questions or comments, please get in touch – challenges and critiques are all part of it . . .

UPDATE: This research proposal was recently featured in April edition of the Museum Education Monitor. Online version available here.