Top 5 barriers to visitor engagement

Everything you do is saying something to a visitor

But do you like what it says?

Sometimes, it is the NON-interpretive elements of a visitor experience that leave the most lasting impression – and not necessarily a good one.

In a few weeks’ time I’ll be presenting a workshop – Interpreter as Advocate – at the Interpretation Australia National Symposium in Launceston.

As part of the workshop, interpretive principles will be turned ‘inside out’ – rather than using interpretation just to engage our visitors, how can we use the same principles within our organisations to help build a better overall experience?

In advance of this, here are five top challenges to creating a coherent and compelling visitor experience.

    1. Barriers: these can be either physical or virtual. Being able to provide universal physical access is the most obvious point here, but there are other aspects: clear directional signage (both to and around your site); intuitive layout of visitor services and facilities; websites which are organised according to the way your audience is likely to look for information (which is not necessarily a mirror of your management structure!)

    2. Inconsistencies: does your interpretation sell a message of environmental sustainability, but your café sells drinks in polystyrene cups and your shop sells myriad plastic trinkets that are likely to be landfill before the year is out? Are your front-of-housers friendly but security staff surly? All these inconsistencies can detract from your interpretive message.

    3. Blind spots & Assumptions: Your institution, and those like it, is very familiar to you. You have probably visiting such places for a lot of your life. There are certain norms and expectations which may be so obvious to you that you don’t even see them. Imagine if you’d never been to a National Park or a Museum before (and didn’t know anyone who had) – would you know what was expected of you? Would you feel comfortable or would you feel concerned that as soon as you crossed the threshold you’d break some unwritten code that would immediately flag you as an ‘outsider’? If this seems a bit weird at first, consider how you would feel going to a place where you would be a complete outsider – for instance a place of worship for an unfamiliar religion, or a social activity that is vastly outside your cultural experience– daunting, isn’t it? And that may be how some potential visitors feel about you!

    4. Misalignment: this includes efforts which are not necessarily wrong, but are aimed at the wrong kind of audience. For an example from another field, consider a friend of mine who recently ordered fluorescent light bulbs from a supposedly ‘environmentally-friendly’ company. Along with her order came: “an unasked-for green bag, two shower timers and a fridge magnet.” Her verdict? Landfill! The company was undoubtedly trying to be mission-consistent, but in the case of my already-converted friend, the preaching was a waste of time and resources. In fact, it ultimately sent her a message which was the exact opposite of that intended.

    5. Superfluous services: related to misalignment, this is offering benefits or services that your audience neither notices nor particularly values. It’s not a barrier to visitor engagement per se; but it can be to the extent that it diverts valuable time and resources which could be better spent elsewhere.

Have you ever encountered these examples, either in your own institution or as a visitor elsewhere? Are there others that I’ve missed out from this list?

Give me your thoughts, or better yet – come to the workshop!

Experts telling stories, or expert storytellers?

Every so often, a debate goes around Science Communication circles which goes along the lines of “should we train scientists to be better communicators, or should we first find people who are natural communicators and then get them sufficiently across the science so that they can engage others?”

There are pros and cons on both sides, of course. Someone who is only a step ahead of their audience in terms of scientific knowledge can easily be caught out by a tricky audience question. They may be less comfortable deviating off a defined ‘script’ in which they know they’re on safe ground regarding the accuracy of the science.

On the other hand an expert, knowing the content inside out, will be far more confident in ad-libbing and tailoring their presentation to the audience and context.

But at the same time, an expert can be so immersed in their field that they don’t have a good idea of what sort of knowledge they can assume in a lay audience. Also, they might well be far more interested in doing the research than talking about it.

My first major exhibition project was at the National Space Centre, developing the Planets exhibition. I had a science qualification, in Biochemistry. But the exhibition included a lot of geology and physics – subjects I’d only had a passing acquaintance with in my student days.

On balance I think this was a good thing – I had enough distance from the subject that my previous knowledge wasn’t a million miles away from the target audience’s. But I had enough understanding of science in general that I was fairly confident about where I could safely generalise without oversimplifying

So what about historical subjects? Should interpreting historical sites be the sole preserve of the historically qualified?

Quite obviously, I’d contend not. My interpretation work has called for me to acquire a passing knowledge of, among other things, Medieval England, the American Revolution, World War I in the Middle East and colonial South Australia. In so doing I am coming to the subject as a curious non-expert, which is the same starting point as the average visitor. This perspective can give clarity.

But having said that, I confess that I do sometimes find myself self-censoring – asking myself if I really can make that generalisation about a certain historic period, or speculate about a historical figure’s motivations and state of mind.

My solution? Besides gaining confidence through experience, I find I can be more adventurous when I know there is an expert I can call upon to check ideas with and to ensure that a good story is not coming at the expense of the facts.

Therefore I’d say that experts vs. storytellers is not an either/or argument. The best outcomes are when they can work together creatively and collaboratively.

Museums as "Unstable Organisations"

This is how Glenn Lowry, Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), described his institution at a recent talk at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Titled Museums in the 21st Century, Lowry presents some interesting ideas about what it means to be a modern art museum. That’s where the ‘unstable bit’ comes in. MoMA considers itself as an organisation under perpetual change: every 10-12 years or so, the building undergoes some major reconstruction, frequently in parallel with a total reconception of how the museum should operate.

To cease doing this, Lowry contends, would mean to cease being a Modern Art museum and begin being something else. They have to continually change and adapt in response to changes in the art that they collect, display and interpret.

One example: at some point in the past, the MoMA building was laid out as a linear sequence of joining galleries, like beads on a string. This works great for nice neat linear stories showing chronological developments in art history. But modern art often doesn’t fall very neatly into chronological or stylistic boxes, so the string of linear galleries was an uncomfortable fit. The current layout is more open, apparently allowing more organic juxtaposition of ideas and narratives.

There are also practical reasons to make radical changes to the building – some of the art that MoMA is procuring simply can’t fit in the current building, either due to scale or gallery configurations. But this doesn’t stop MoMA collecting what it thinks is important – it changes its building to accommodate (I marvel at an organisation that has the resources to do this!).

Lowry also made some interesting observations about how they have been changing the way that audiences interact with the art and each other in their spaces. He mentioned the MoMA’s PS1 site, an exhibitions and events space which attracts a far more youthful and diverse audience than the average MoMA audience. In fact, in recent years the overall audience demographic has changed from being 55+ and predominantly female, to around 40 with a nearly even gender split.

Yet another reason why I have to try and get to New York!

A "restless and disgruntled visitor" writes in The Monthly

What’s the point of museum objects?

It’s not all that often that an article on museum practice shares column inches and prominence with articles on Barack Obama and female infanticide. But that’s what’s happened in the latest edition of The Monthly. In an essay entitled “The Absent Heart”, novelist Amanda Lohrey laments that “so much exhibition design is pedestrian, or worse, confused and at some times chaotic”.

The core of her criticism is the “fetishising” of the object ahead of a wider story or narrative: “I come away with the impression that our curators are more conserned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it. Where is the passion for meaning, for making sense of the world? Where is the desire to create an experience for the visitor?

As someone from an interpretation background, I can find much to agree with in this quest for wider meaning. Interpretation is all about answering the question “So What?” – and for this author at least, that question has not been adequately answered.

The essay challenges a lot of shared assumptions in the museums sector, and raises some intriguing questions:

  1. Have we reached the limits of letting people ‘make their own meanings’ in exhibition spaces? How much evidence do we have that this is a successful strategy? (And in some cases is ‘let visitors decide’ being used as a convenient fig leaf for avoiding controversy and not venturing an opinion?)
  2. From the point of view of storytelling, how important is the ‘real’ object? Lohrey makes the point in relation to showing the size of Phar Lap’s heart: “if you are concerned with meaning then a model will do, but if you are in the market for fetishising objects as magical tokens – “the real thing” – then it seems that only the pallid tissue of the original will suffice.” Here I could easily present a counter example: the Apollo capsule in the Smithsonian would be nowhere near as compelling if it were just a model, and not the scarred and burned vehicle that safely brought three men back to Earth after an incredible journey. But all this proves is that the value of the object is completely dependent on the point you’re trying to make.
  3. There seems to be an implicit assumption in the essay that an exhibition should follow a single specific narrative (at one point Lohrey observes that “the visitor is wandering along no clear path at all . . . “ Is this the prejudice of a novelist, whose chosen medium is by definition very linear, or is it of wider concern to visitors in general? Is it unrealistic to expect that a three-dimensional environment will easily lend itself to a single linear narrative?

In reading this article, it reminded me of a passage that really leapt out at me from the book “Thriving in the Knowledge Age” by John Falk and Beverly Sheppard (p127): ” . . .our collections bring value to the museum in direct proportion to the “knowledge” they provide. The objects do not “speak for themselves”. The intellectual value of a museum’s collections is directly tied to the use of these objects to provide answers to questions society finds valuable.”

This seems to reflect well the overall point of the article – what socially relevant questions is the display of these objects addressing?

Bottom line is that this article raises several legitimate questions, and I’m not sure how much evidence we have as a sector to properly address these questions. More research into how different audience groups relate to the exhibition environment is definitely needed.