Incorporating the Visitor Voice – It’s Hard No Matter Where You Are. Can Social Media Help?

Karen Lee and I with our 2011 students after a prototyping session at Science City, Kolkata

Teaching and learning in India

Toward the end of June I’ll be traveling to India with Karen Lee, a former colleague who continues to work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  Since 2009 Karen and I have been to India twice to teach in the MS in Science Communication program administered by the National Council of Science Museums, a consortium of science museums headquartered in Kolkata (Calcutta). We team teach a course that includes discussion of learning in non-formal spaces as well as the basics of evaluation, i.e. including the visitor voice in the design and development of informal learning environments. During the first part of our two-week course we work in the classroom with our students (numbering around 10) and provide theoretical background on museum learning and evaluation.  In the second half we spend lots of time at Science City a popular (1.5 million visitors per year) museum and outdoor science park in Kolkata.  Part of the NCSM consortium, Science City helps us select some components that exhibits staff think are not working as well as they would like, both physically and in terms of science learning.

 A student (center) interviewing visitors at Science City, Kolkata. The class developed the questions in English, and then the students translated them into Hindi and Bengali (the predominent language in Kolkata)
Our students learn techniques of observation and visitor interviewing, and use them to asses the components; rewrite label text; design cheap and quick mechanical modifications; put them out on the floor; and reassess them.  We owe much to Minda Borun and her PISEC studies  for the methods we use, which are relatively simple to replicate and extremely concrete in their results.  Although the exercise usually does not result in a final fix (probably several iterations would be required, and our course time is limited) we feel the students gain the invaluable insight that visitors don’t always use components or learn content in the way that designers, developers, and educators have planned. But visitors’ insights and behaviors can provide essential guidance in the creation or improvement of museum experiences.  This is often a real revelation; one that we hope the students apply in their day-jobs as staff in the NCSM sites they work in across India. 

The students created styrofoam shapes to test :”lift” and “drag”
with a small blower – part of the process of
modifying an exhibit on Arodynamics at Science City.
Prototyping with and without social media
This year, in an effort to continue our emphasis on the value of including the visitor voice, we are conducting a two-day workshop at the National Science Centre in New Delhi  before we go on to teach in Kokata.  Our participants will be curators, exhibit designers, and educators from the Delhi museum as well as other museums in the NCSM system. Administrators and other staff have told us that, while they know that front end and formative evaluation are important, they are often left out of the development process.  The Science Centre has selected two components under development, and staff will share their design and learning goals in the workshop. Then we’ll test and retest the components with visitors over two days using observations and interviews. We are also thinking about incorporating texting, and possibly Twitter, in this process.  A recent report on the use of mobile learning in Asia  documents
  •   the widespread use of cell phones in India, which we ourselves have experienced, and
  •   the use of texting for specific educational experiences.

The steps of the National Science Centre, Delhi.  This was a Saturday, which is a school day, so there were lots of student groups in the museum.

Although the percentage of smart phones is still low, texting is an extremely popular form of communication in India, and those with smartphones are increasingly on Twitter. Have any readers used either texting or Twitter in formative evaluation?  I’d love to hear of any experiences, good or bad.

Why does incorporating the visitor voice fall by the wayside?
In our workshop, and also in our classes, we’re also going to talk about why front end studies, prototyping, and other types of formative evaluation are so difficult to do consistently.  We always hasten to point out that, although we generally accept these methods as best practice, American museums share the dilemma of our Indian colleagues: front end and formative evaluation are by no means a standard part of exhibition development in our museums. In many US museums they are still not included at all in exhibition planning, or are given a line on the project spreadsheet that eventually disappears as time and money grow short.

Although limits on time, money, and human resources are the reasons most often cited for the creation of exhibitions and programs with little or no audience input, in my view the key reason is a lack of conviction about the absolute necessity of  visitor input in  the development of museum experiences.  As someone who has been project director or team member on three major projects that used extensive formative and front end evaluation, (Invention at Play; Secrets of Aging; The Psychology Exhibition) my experience is that if you believe in the value of the visitor voice, you will not silence it.  You will create time and  opportunities to incorporate it.  I would never eliminate plexi or brackets or other essential physical elements from a budget.  If you believe (as I do) that evaluation is just as essential as plexi it will stay in your budget and on your timeline no matter what.  
Visitor-generated content and design
I know I haven’t talked at all about this exciting movement in museums, documented in books such as The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon and Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.  The entire issue of the Fall 2009 Exhibitionist  is devoted to this topic as well.   I suppose some museums may leapfrog over front end and formative evaluation to go straight for visitor-created content.  But my sense is that those museums with well established approaches to involving visitors in exhibition and program development may already have the open attitude and the processes in place for incorporating curation and creation by visitors.  This posting is meant to encourage museums to get used to involving visitors at very basic levels.
What Do You Think?
I would love to be able to bring reader comments and advice to India to discuss with colleagues who are struggling with many similar issues:
  1. What in your experience are the biggest obstacles to incorporating the visitor voice through front end or formative evaluation – for exhibitions, for programs, and for digital projects as well?
  2. Any workable solutions you would like to share?
  3. Have you used social media in exhibition or program creation and/or assessment?
  4. How has this worked?

I’ll soon be posting from India and sharing the insights and concerns of our students.  They and their fellow museum students around the world are the future of 21st century museums. Teaching them is always a learning experience.

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