Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club: Talking Back

Welcome to the first installment of the Visitor Voices book club. This week, we're looking at the first section, Talking Back and Talking Together, which features comment boards, talk-back walls, and discussion forums at a variety of museums. Rather than rehash each of the projects (hint: read the book!), I'm offering a bit of analysis through the lessons I learned from this section. I invite you to do the same in the comments. A bit of business before we get started: next Tuesday, we'll cover section 2, Contributing Personal Experience.

And now onto the show.

Lesson 1: People want to talk, but not necessarily about the topics you suggest.

At the Boston Museum of Science's video kiosk on wind power, 3/4 of people were most interested in making their own video (as opposed to watching others). Both the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) and the London Science Museum (LSM) provide quantitative data about the ways visitors engaged with comment cards in selected exhibitions. Over three exhibitions at the LSM, 20-35% of visitor comment cards were deemed "relevant" to the exhibition. At an exhibition at the OSC, 68% of cards received were deemed useful, of which about 25% were relevant to the exhibition. In the OSC study, only 1.4% of comments directly addressed questions posed by the curators, whereas 2.4% responded to other visitors' comments.

In both places, the majority of cards received were "not relevant" to the exhibition. What were they about? Some were nonsensical, graffiti, or obscenities, but many were comments on the quality and content of the museum generally. People had opinions to offer and corrections to make. This hijacking of exhibition comment cards for more general use suggests that museums might benefit from more open-ended talk-back areas in common spaces--as long as those common areas can preserve the spirit of respect and encouragement that elicited the visitors' participation in exhibition talk-backs.

Lesson 2: Anger is good.

Several authors commented on the utility of visitor comment boards as a place for visitors to vent--about the exhibition or the institution. In cases where the topic was controversial or the exhibition style risky, including a space for visitor talk-back ameliorated visitor anger about perceived biased portrayal of content. In this way, exhibit designers were sometimes able to rely on visitors to determine the balance and spectrum of the exhibition.

This may seem like a sloppy, "leave it to visitors" way to deal with controversy. In the best examples, visitor comments were not only displayed but integrated back into the exhibitions themselves to make the "museum voice" more inclusive. One such example was at the New York Historical Society's exhibition Slavery in New York. The show was the society's most popular ever, and about 3% (6,000 of 175,000 visitors) offered their own video commentary about the exhibition's topics, and, by extension, the institution itself. Both authors commented that reviewing and editing the videos for use in the exhibition made them more aware of the Society's perceived image, particularly in the eyes of nontraditional (African-american) visitors. Chris Lawrence writes about one group of teens who addressed the Society directly as a "you" embodying white privilege. How often does your enemy acknowledge you? Chris and others saw the videos as special, personal, instructive resources
for their own staff about current and potential visitors.

Lesson 3: Indifference is bad.

Receiving angry responses from visitors isn't just educational; it also indicates that the visitors' reactions are strong enough, and their perception of the comment area as valued enough, to accommodate their voice. An old married couple once told me, "fighting is good. When you get disinterested in each other, the relationship is on the rocks." While our relationship with visitors, as with lovers, shouldn't be adversarial, getting a reaction means visitors care--and think we will as well.

How do we ask visitors to give comments in a way that conveys this spirit of care and respect? Janet Kamien gives an honest insight into a talk-back that didn't succeed:
One important lesson learned at the Field Museum was in Animal Kingdom. An early talk-back in that conservation-minded exhibition asked, 'What can you do to help the environment?' and provided some prompts, such as recycling, or saving gas or electricity. To this, visitors responded with observations like 'Charlie loves Sally' and a variety of four-letter words. Why? Because they knew they were being set up. We weren't really asking them what they thought, we just wanted them to parrot something back to us, and they refused. We took it out.
Interestingly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium took the same basic visitor question ("what can you do?") and transformed it into legitimate visitor talk-backs in a series of campaigns to provoke personal and political action to protect ocean life. Jenny Sayre Ramberg writes about their evolution, from a basic question (which elicited generic comments like "I like the ocean") to requests for visitors to make personal pledges ("I will stop eating shrimp"), to a letter-writing campaign to the governor ("Please sign this bill to save marine protected areas").

What made these solicitations meaningful? The pledge talk-back was in the context of an exhibition explicitly about conservation controversies (and many visitors responded emotionally to the exhibit rather than making pledges). Also, the Aquarium posted pledges made by staff about changing their own everyday behaviors. This approach, using staff as peers instead of experts, conveyed respect and "we-ness" for visitor contributions.

The letter-writing campaign didn't provide a forum for a variety of visitor comments; instead, it focused visitors on a specific advocacy action. Rather than challenging people (with a wink) to write about what "they" will do, the letter-writing campaign offered a framework for what "we" will do, including visitors in the we with the Aquarium. This is the key to any respectful solicitation for visitor input--that we think of them as part of us, rather than a class or group to be pandered to and dealt with.

Lesson 4: The unique properties of different implementations have yet to be defined.

Throughout this whole book, I would have liked more direct analysis of the merits of different platforms for visitor contribution. When is a video kiosk most effective? When a comment book? Janet Kamien makes an argument for comment cards over books because cards can be filled out and reviewed socially and in parallel, rather than sequentially. Similarly, some might argue that some uniquely social outcomes of talk-backs--discussion, debate, even protest--can only happen in an environment that supports emergent interaction among users.

Video is a whole other animal. It's compelling, but not as browsable as text. It feels special, but that also encourages people to use it for other purposes ("Hi, mom!"). The browsing problem is exacerbated by the fact that staff rarely actively monitor and curate videos as they do comment cards--moving the gems to the front and removing the duds. Browsing visitor-created videos often means suffering through the most recent, rather than the most interesting, content.

Finally, there were a few examples of programmatic rather than exhibition-based projects. These primarily were about "talking together" and required a serious time investment on the part of participants. The Boston MOS forums and the DeCiDe program in Europe have both been quite successful engaging visitors with one another in deep, literally "mind-changing" interactions. The challenge is distributing these programs either to mass audiences or without heavy facilitation.

Lesson 5: Talk-backs are discussions.

When I first read the book, I wondered how Wendy and Kathy (the editors) decided which essays to put where. Many essays in other sections also deal with comment cards, videos, and visitor feedback. But all of the essays in this section deal with these talk-backs not as opportunities for visitors to uniquely express themselves (next week!) but as ways to converse with the museum and each other.

And in some ways, that makes imagining the best implementations less daunting. What makes a good discussion? Interesting topics. Engaged and lively participants. Respect for different viewpoints. Energy. Think of the great debates and dinner parties in your life. What would you put on the list?

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