Gearing up for #VSA25

So the countdown is finally over and I’m in the US! I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina on Sunday night (the longest Sunday in my life thanks to crossing the International Date Line) for the 25th Visitor Studies Association Conference. This event typically attracts about 200 delegates, bringing together more people whose work I’ve read and/or cited in one room than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s venerable company.

While formal conference proceedings don’t kick off until tomorrow (in a few hours actually – jetlag has me up writing this at 3am), over the past two days there have been a selection of pre-conference workshops. I’ve attended ones on impact measurement, evaluation methods, survey design and participatory evaluation. Each in its own way has had its own piece of take-home insight that will inform my future work.

Sorting and analysing responses in the Participatory Evaluation workshop

The social program started this evening with a reception at the North Carolina Museum of Art. As this is the 25th anniversary of the conference, this called for some reflection and reminiscing on the part of the veteran attendees, although I’m by no means alone as a first-timer to the conference.

Anniversaries call for cake of course . . .

Delegates have stickers on their badges indicating how many conferences they’ve been to, and I’ve seen plenty of other people with a blue “1” on their badge just like me – indeed, first timers were abundant in the workshop sessions. It’s good to know you’re not the only one!

The schedule over the next few days is pretty packed, although I’ll try and note my thoughts and reflections as I go. If you’re interested in the conference, follow the #vsa25 hashtag between now and Saturday (US time). I’m also uploading photos from my visit to my Flickr page – expect this to fill up rapidly over the next couple of weeks as I visit as many museums I can while I’m in the Eastern US.


Social Media and the PhD Student

Yesterday I presented a seminar to my fellow UQ PhD students about how social media can be used as a research and collaboration tool, based on my own experiences.

It was a fairly low-key, off-the-cuff presentation, but I duly uploaded it to Slideshare and posted a link to it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (the main platforms my presentation was talking about). Overnight it has picked up nearly 180 views and was featured on Slideshare’s “Hot on Facebook” and “Hot on LinkedIn” pages. I confess I don’t really know what that means but it sounds good and it’s nice to see there was some interest in it!

The main thrust of the presentation is comparing and contrasting the networking merits of Facebook (which I called “closed networking”), Twitter (“open networking”) and LinkedIn (“strategic networking”), as well as the value of blogging to a PhD student. It also includes a brief case study of how I used social media to recruit a participant sample for the first phase of my PhD research.


Why is sport “easy”, but art “hard”?

With the London Olympics just around the corner, it seems like a good time to contemplate the cultural significance of sport in relation to the arts.

Think about the typical sections in an average newspaper, or an evening news bulletin – sport is usually second only to breaking news in terms of prominence. It’s seen as a perfectly natural and normal thing to foster an interest in. There seems to be an assumption that sport (primarily spectator sport) is for the ‘everyman’ – egalitarian and intellectually undemanding. By comparison, the arts (and sciences for that matter) are often cast as the exclusive domain of the intellectually minded and culturally initiated – the ‘elites’. But can we take it as axiomatic that a football game is inherently more accessible than a Van Gogh?

Sport is full of shared norms, assumptions and meanings that are by no means obvious to an outsider – the scoring structure of gymnastics and the offside rule in soccer are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. People who would never consider themselves “intellectual” will happily muse for hours about the strategy of a match or the merit of an umpire’s decision. Sporting choices are also laden with significance – our cultural identity, socio-economic status or ethnic background can all be reflected in the sports we follow.

In contrast, a work of art can have many of layers of meaning that would take an expert to deconstruct, but it can also be appreciated on the basis of pure aesthetics (as can sport). While there are certainly codes, norms and assumptions surrounding the arts, I would argue they are no more difficult to become conversant with than those associated with many sports. So why is one seen as inherently more accessible than the other?

It probably comes down to enculturation – I was raised in an AFL-loving family and Dad sitting me down and explaining the rules to me was just a natural part of growing up. Attending Saturday matches was a regular winter ritual. But visiting museums and art galleries was also part of my upbringing. So while I don’t always profess to ‘get’ art (or Dad’s forensic post-match analysis for that matter), I don’t find either inherently inaccessible either.

However it seems that “high” and “low” culture frequently regard each other with mutual suspicion. And does cut both ways – a friend of mine once told me how his theatrical colleagues were bemused by his love of Port Power, as to them it seemed to be an interest not worthy of a patron of the arts. While I don’t approve of his choice of team (Go Crows!), I’m siding with my friend on this one.

Audiences, Visitors, Participants

Sometimes you see the words “audience” and “visitors” being used more or less interchangeably. But to me they represent different concepts and there was a discussion on this point some time ago on the Museum Audience Insight blog. While there was some debate about this, I took the view that “audiences” was a broader term than “visitors”; audiences were passive recipients whereas the word “visitor” implied something more active (through physical or virtual presence). So, you try to reach audiences but they may or may not be listening. Visitors, on the other hand, have fronted up and expect to see something that interests them.

Thinking about this again more recently, I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting semantic distinction between the two. Readers familiar with their latin roots will not be surprised by the fact that that “audience” is derived from the word for hearing and listening, whereas “visitor” has its roots in videre, which means to see or to notice. And, at least in Western cultures, we tend to privilege what we see above what we hear (compare how we think of “eyewitness testimony” as opposed to “hearsay evidence”). So it’s not surprising that such assumptions have, knowingly or otherwise, crept into the way we conceptualise audiences as opposed to visitors.

But something is still missing. Visitors themselves can still be passive or active. In media, this has been described as a “lean-forward versus lean-back” model for the way people consume online content. “Lean back” is passive relaxation mode, while “lean forward” is active involvement in searching, creating and critiquing.* In a visitor experience context, I’ll draw upon Nina Simon’s work and characterise these “lean forwards” as participants. Just like there are many different types of visitation, Simon has characterised varieties of participation (but I won’t go into details here). Participation also has interesting etymological roots, having come from the Latin participium, itself borrowed from the Greek meaning “to share”.

So how do audiences, visitors and participants relate to one another?

At the simplest levels, Participants can be considered a subset of Visitors, who in turn are a subset of Audiences. In theory this could also be conceptualised as a progression, with an individual moving from Audience Member to Visitor to Participant. Is moving through this progression a meaningful measure of engagement? It it an unhelpful oversimplification? Do we need a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between audiences, visitors and participants?

*I recall attending a presentation that referred to “lean-forward” versus “lean-back” in heritage interpretation, and I *think* I remember who it was, but I’m not 100% sure. If it was you, let me know so I can link to it!