Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Guest Post: Using Visitor Participation to Improve Object Labels at the San Diego Natural History Museum

Last month, I learned about a fabulous, simple participatory experiment called “Case by Case” at the San Diego Museum of Natural History that uses visitor feedback to develop more effective object labels. This guest post was written by the museum's exhibit team—Kim Blackford, Cary Canning, Margi Dykens, Michael Field, Erica Kelly, Jim Melli, Mary Lou Morreal, Tim Murray, Josh Payne, and Michael Wall. I hope you are as inspired as I am by this project!

Our problem is this. We have 2500 square feet of exhibit space destined to become a “core” (i.e., essentially permanent) exhibition on collections-based research. We have no funding and a staff that is stretched with temporary exhibitions, contracts, and other long-term planning. Add to this an administrative directive to “put more natural history objects on the floor” and a general lack of the front-end evaluation that would help staff understand the interests, preconceptions, and expectations visitors bring to the topic of collections and research in natural history museums. To date, the solution has been to put photos on the walls, pray for funding, and ignore the front-end evaluation bit. But when customers start shouting down the stairs to their friends and family, “Don’t come up here! There are only pictures,” you know you aren’t meeting expectations.

So we decided to create “Case by Case,” a “baby steps” approach that would:
  • put natural history objects on the floor immediately
  • let us play with evaluation of visitor perception of collection objects
  • help us start to understand the differences between what scientists see when they look at specimens versus what “regular folks” see
  • provide visitors with some participatory experiences
The premise of “Case by Case” is pretty simple: put objects on display with no label and provide the visitor with an opportunity to ask questions and/or make observations about the objects. Our exhibits group knocked around ideas for mechanisms of audience feedback. In the end, we went with sticky notes, pencils and plenty of wall space. We knew that we risked off-topic and off-color remarks but felt that the feedback would be more genuine (and useful) than mechanisms that controlled vocabulary (i.e., magnetic poetry). Plus, the implementation is dead simple.

Using an existing case, we selected a hornet’s nest as our first object. The wall behind the case was painted in contrast to the remainder of the exhibit floor to define the area. Visitors are prompted by signage on the wall above the case, but once feedback starts little prompting is needed.

Questions and answers rolled in. Off-color and off-topic notes (i.e., “Beiber Rules!”) appeared on the wall, but these were rare and were “pruned” from the wall by staff. Over the course of a month and a half the uniqueness of feedback seemed to have asymptoted. We sorted the notes into categories and found that most of the feedback fell in seven areas (listed in descending order of popularity):
  1. It is a beehive, right?
  2. What is it made of and how was it made?
  3. How old is it…or…is it a fossil?
  4. Where was it found?
  5. How are bees, wasps, and hornets different?
  6. Is it real?
  7. What is the story with the leaves sticking out of it?

So what did we learn? A real surprise was the number of visitors who thought the object was a fossil. This simply was not on our radar as needing to be spelled-out on a label. As we discussed it, however, we realized that the exhibits and floor plan leading to “Case by Case” primed the visitor to expect fossils. So while we learned some very specific things about what sort of questions people have about hornets’ nests, we also discovered that we are unwittingly preparing visitors to expect fossils in this area of the museum.

Ultimately, we wrote a very different label than we would have written if we hadn’t asked visitors about their perceptions.

Where to now? Taking folks’ feedback, we created a label and are leaving that object on the floor as evidence that we actually are using people’s feedback (it also accomplished our goal of “more natural history objects on the floor”). Now we have a new case in the spotlight with a bunch of sea turtle skulls. The overall goals are the same but we will continue to shake up the objects on display, selecting items from the collections that we hope are provocative for the public to view.

We see visitors clustered around the “Case by Case” area, reading, talking, writing and examining, and we believe that this project will continue to be engaging for visitors. At the very least it has already provided us with insights about our exhibits space which we could not have predicted, with a minimum of effort on our part. Although initially devised as a quick-and-dirty way to solicit front-end comments from visitors to provide basic information for eventual permanent displays, we now see the long-term potential “Case by Case” to engage our audience in exhibit development.
blog comments powered by Disqus