Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Visitor Voices Book Club Part 4: Starting to Listen

This is the final installment of Museum 2.0’s book club on Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, a collection of essays edited by Wendy Pollock and Kathy McLean. Over the past three weeks, we’ve looked at the energetic conversation embodied by talk-backs, the intimate gift of personal experience, and the collaborative effort of co-expression and co-creation. Today, commentary on the book’s final section, Starting to Listen.

What does it mean to truly listen to visitors? On the most basic level, it means closing our mouths and giving visitors trust and attention. The best visitor voices projects don’t come out of marketing blitzes or grudging concessions to visitors. They come from a desire to listen to and learn from visitors.

Ultimately, the arguments against including visitor voices come down to a lack of respect for visitors as meaning-makers in museums. They don’t have anything interesting to say. They don’t have a nuanced perspective. They’ll just use it to screw around. All of these arguments drive fear and resistance to visitor inclusion, and most are borne out of an essential distrust for visitors. It seems so basic. Who wants a teacher—for themselves or their children—who ignores or despises students? Who wants an exhibit designer who does the same? While it may seem New Age-y, approaching visitors with love and interest is the core perspective that should guide the development and implementation of these (and dare I say all) museum projects.

But love is just a starting point, not a road map to success. Some of these essays in this section offer some much-needed perspective on that road map, a perspective lacking in some of the more specific case studies. Liza Pryor, from the Science Museum of Minnesota, offers a list of arguments why museums should be engaging with social technologies—worth co-opting for any tough chats with marketing or executives about the value of blogging, public comment-sharing, and the like. Richard Toon, reflecting on a series of talk-backs at the Arizona Science Center, starts promisingly by acknowledging an unsuccessful talk-back (he blames the low value of materials provided), but applies less rigor to analysis of follow-up talk-backs.

The lack of analysis across projects frustrated me throughout this book. I understand that Visitor Voices is primarily a reference for individual projects and case studies—many of which I found fascinating and inspiring—but I’d also hoped to get some analysis, guidelines, and benchmarks for what makes visitor content successful in exhibitions and programs. Most of the case studies in the book are expository, not analytical, and it was sometimes hard to evaluate how one kind of outcome (e.g. high quality visitor content) related to others (e.g. low percentage of on-topic content). Very few of the case studies deconstructed what made one initiative or project component more successful than another; was it the materials, the medium, the questions posed, the location of the feedback station, or…?

Clearly all of these are important. One of my favorite stories (not from this book) about designing for visitor voices was shared by Devon Hamilton of the Ontario Science Centre, who told me about a kiosk in their Innovation Centre on which visitors can type messages that are then broadcast in real-time to a huge screen in the Centre. They were getting more obscene and off-topic responses on this kiosk than on others and couldn’t figure out what was going on. They decided to relocate the kiosk—which had been in a corner—to a public area close to the women’s restroom. Physical context thus altered, the issues with content dissolved immediately.

There’s a potential essay in that story about placement of visitor content components in an exhibition. Do you want to convey an intimate privacy? Perhaps Wendy Clarke’s set-up for the Love Tapes, in which visitors enter a private room, is best. Do you want to discourage obscenity? Take a page from Ontario and install it in a public, high-traffic area. I think a lot of these authors have specific lessons to impart, but I found few of them here. While this book offers examples from which one might infer answers to these kinds of questions—where to put it, what to use—it doesn’t tackle these questions comprehensively. I think that does a disservice to readers who want to actually apply these ideas in new projects at their own institutions.

But maybe that’s the sequel—moving from Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions to Designing for Visitor Voices in Museums. Visitor Voices is a great resource as a compendium of projects all over the map. I can imagine museum professionals using it to great effect to understand the landscape of such projects. My imagined sequel would be a workbook that addresses more specifically the design elements of creating an exhibition or program piece that incorporates visitor voices, walking people through the options, questions, and possibilities to help them craft a coherent project.

Wendy Pollock closes the book with a list of provocative questions about visitor voices. She asks about the ways design might be impact, wonders if post-its and comment books really constitute substantive dialogue about museum content, and inquires about how museums will respond to these voices we so lovingly receive. All of these questions are worth analyzing. I don’t think we can address them with case studies alone.

To close, a quote that Wendy cited by Thomas Zeldin, who wrote Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives: "
Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving messages."

How can we design visitor experiences that catch fire? Sounds like a great start for part two.

7 comments, add yours!:

Mikkel Thelle said...

This discussion is interesting, not least because future visitors of our museums will expect and be at ease with the fact that their own voices are a part of exhibitions. I am preparing a permanent exhibition i Copenhagen where we will try to show two texts to any theme - the curator's and the visitors'. I'm at a loss though, about how to manage this and make it fun at the same time.

Nina Simon said...


Fun for you? Fun for the visitors? Fun for the readers? Fun for the participants?

Tell us more...

Mikkel Thelle said...

Well, the deal is - in this first sketch at least - to build an room about the future as part of a larger exhibition about industrial society. Visitors should be involved in discussing the subject, and their engagement should be driven by the fun of their statement being part of the texts in the room on a national museum. At the same time, visitors could battle for the best vision, like poetry slam but in an exhibition context...

Nina Simon said...

Very cool. Poetry slams, like Web 2.0, are frequented 95% by audience members and 5% by poets. I think people prefer the judging part of the experience to the creating.

A cool idea came up during the Human + colab to create an exhibit about future technologies in which all kinds of opinions, images, etc. would presented and visitors could define "the line" between what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable and then sort the opinions on either side of that line.

I think sorting is a great idea because it takes the onus of creating content off of visitors and lets them be creative judges instead. I imagine that you will get some small % of people who want to generate opinions, but a large % who want to judge them, which may lead to more discussion.

I'd love to see, ala poetry slams, an option for visitors to go through the exhibits with a score card and score all the labels. Part of the fun of slams is the indignation of seeing the "wrong" person win. When people get angry, people care about the content. Which would be a good thing.

Mikkel Thelle said...

You might have a good point there - getting roun to the engagement via the rating of ohters. We actually discussed two things that would fit this idea - first, to let school classes leave the "serious" opinions as part of projects, and second to let the curators interfer in the discussion, maybe from a blog on the web that was shown inside the exhibition. Do you think traditional rating would the way to go with the judge-feature?

Nina Simon said...


A couple thoughts. First, I think that couching the rating within an activity, like sorting things from gross to cool, or picking the best ones for someone else, or to generate some observation about the user, is useful. Otherwise the ratings become decontextualized (why am I rating it?).

Second, I love the idea of interference from staff. I think that's almost better than putting up expert opinions--or at least, if the experts are weighing in, please don't give them better materials (i.e. fancy video studio, typed comments when visitors only get to write) or else you are clearly privileging the experts over the visitors. If visitors are reactors/judges, then you can have plenty of appropriate expert content. But if visitors are creators, there needs to be a level playing field.

I think this is the basis of a great ASTC session on best practices in visitor voices. Interested? Others?

Mikkel Thelle said...

Definitely interesting, though I haven't any practice to present yet in this field. But we shouldn't forget that more and more "traditional" museums are entering the scene of 2.0 and interaction, so maybe also a topic for Museums and the web? I am involved in a nordic conference for digital excellence in museums, Nodem, where this discussion would be well placed. Interested? Others?