In honor of tomorrow’s book club post on Elaine Gurian’s essay, Free at Last, a preliminary post on the ecomonics of high quality interactive experiences.
I now reside next door to the most popular attraction in Santa Cruz County: the Mystery Spot. Spend enough time driving on the west coast, and you’ll see more of their yellow bumper stickers than I BRAKE FOR VEGANS. Every day, there are hundreds of cars waiting for the privilege to park in the Mystery Spot parking lot, filled with tourists waiting to experience its strange wonders.
What makes the Mystery Spot wondrous? For the unanointed, the Mystery Spot is one in a string of roadside “gravity holes” and “vortexes” that claim to turn Newtonian physics on its head. Balls roll uphill, tall people become short, and GPS navigation systems go out of whack. How is this “mystery” demonstrated and explained? It’s not high-tech. Most of the mystery resides in the simplest of items—a hill, a compass, a carpenter’s level. And yet the experience is enthralling, memorable, and strangely educational. Why? Because of the guides. The guides pull you, teach you, challenge you, and entertain you. They are magicians who turn simple illusions into truly engaging mysteries.
Live facilitation has a varied role in museums. In children’s and science museums, explainers are everywhere. In special immersion exhibits like Dialogue in the Dark, in which visitors are led through a pitch black experience by a blind guide, or live action games like Operation Spy, facilitators are a necessary part of the experience. From a financial and management perspective, however, many museums try to minimize live facilitation as much as possible. Exhibit designers think of their products as needing no introduction—especially not from some high school volunteer in a blue jacket. Hiring, training, and scheduling floor staff is expensive. Operating officers want to keep the bottom line down. Development costs are one-time; operation lasts forever.
And yet. There are some great bottom line reasons to invest in floor staff. One is about guest attraction and retention. Many peoples’ most memorable museum experiences come from interactions with staff. In the hospitality world, positive interactions with staff are the single greatest factor in establishing guest loyalty and increasing word of mouth advertising. Likewise, in museums, these interactions turn first-time visitors into repeat visitors, and repeat visitors into members.
And it’s worth doing a little cost-benefit analysis on different forms of interactive content distribution. Interactive exhibits are expensive to develop and maintain. A good interactive might cost $80,000 to take from concept to the floor, and twenty of them might keep a $60,000 per year IT/maintenance person busy. Add in-house developer/designer time and you have roughly $2M over three years of development to get interactives live on the floor of the museum. Amortized over those same three years of operation, and assuming a (sadly) generous $12/hour for live facilitators, museums could take half of that exhibition development budget and hire ten full-time facilitators who could be on the floor within 3 months, delivering content. Which investment will provide better return in terms of education and guest engagement?
I’m not suggesting that live facilitators replace interactive exhibit development entirely, but I think we’ve been closing our ears to visitor voices about their value for too long. Imagine your average science museum explainer, who unlocks the secrets of cool exhibits, who answers your questions, who approaches you as you gaze at some pretty phenomenon and challenges you to think about what’s really going on. Why aren’t there such staff members in art or history museums? Yes, I could take the 2pm tour, but what if I’m wandering through, disaffected, not yet engaged enough to even consider taking the tour? Who’s going to help me get there?
A few years ago at ASTC, Eddie Goldstein from the Denver Museum of Natural Science spoke about a very simple, highly effective element they added to their in-gallery offerings; a roving staff person with a laptop computer connected to the internet. The staff person was available to answer questions, but also to help visitors find websites of interest related to the content (which were then emailed to the visitor at his/her request). Why did the DMNS choose to make this a facilitated experience instead of just plopping down a computer at the end of the exhibition? This simple facilitation exercise turns the exhibit experience, in which the museum pushes content at the visitor, into an interactive, personal one, in which the staff member helps the visitor pull out the parts that are of most interest to them. It's hard to make that leap as a visitor on your own from a passive recipient to an active researcher. The staff member is an informed partner in that transition, and hopefully an enabler of more active engagement by the visitor.
This desire relates to another benefit of live facilitators which connects directly to ideas out there about "Museum 2.0." 2.0 design means prioritizing users and social connections among them, and it means flexibility to be responsive to their interests and needs. The more money we sink into exhibit development, the more locked museums are in static content distribution and interpretation. Staff are the ultimate flexible, modular content distributors. Investing in staff can create museum spaces that are more adaptable to current events and visitor interests. Implementing 2.0 experiments via staff rather than through new exhibition models and web/database development can be relatively cheap and quick to develop, and can adapt or be terminated easily (plus, there's the added employee benefit of involving floor staff in exciting new projects). Of course, this requires a new respect and reliance on floor staff as valuable members of the content creation team. Some museums are already struggling with this in the question of who is allowed to blog on behalf of the museum; similarly, museums might ask themselves who is allowed to educate, to design, and in what ways.
Floor staff may also be the most efficient vehicle for transforming museums into social spaces. Web 2.0 succeeds by focusing on the personal interests of users and connecting users to each other via their interests. If we truly want museums to become places for social engagement among visitors, why not re-envision floor staff, who are trained to interpret the collection, as community organizers, trained to encourage and support interactions among visitors?
You may be thinking, "most visitors don't come to museums for a social experience." And it's true that many current museum-goers may be turned off by the interjection of staff into contemplative, personal experiences with content. But the whole point of this 2.0 stuff is to envision and create new kinds of museum experiences that will excite and connect the great unwashed for whom, right now, museums do not provide a valuable experience. No matter how fabulous your exhibit or interactive is, disaffected visitors may pass it by as "just another museum thing." A live person, engaging you personally and connecting you to the content, is much harder to ignore.