Monday, June 18, 2007

What's the True Cost of Live Facilitation?

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, w
hy 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.

6 comments, add yours!:

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

Given that many folks' museum memories do indeed revolve around a positive human interaction that the museum environment fostered, why are floor staff cuts often one of the first "budget balancing" measures?

There's an interesting connection between this post on the value of "floor staff" and a previous posting on the attractive power of malls --- namely social context.

While (some) museums aspire to become admission-free "town squares" (like malls) there is often something slightly odd about the traditional Explainer/Visitor dynamic.

If an enthusiatic and knowledgable stranger came up to one of my kids in a mall and started explaining how rainbows formed in the sunlit mist of a fountain I might become a little put off.

Similarly, even though my kids and I "know" the people in the brightly-colored vests are there to help moderate our museum visit (if we want them to -- a whole different topic!) there aren't always
those social contextual clues that clearly say "let's talk about this exhibit together."

However, slightly more contextualized situations, like product demos, or free food sample tables in malls, or cow eye dissections, or even tour guides in museums give everyone more social
"permission" to interact and discuss things.

Without this social context, even the best explainers simply become a group of staff milling around, rather than positively interacting
with visitors.

Raymond's Brain said...

It also seems like it's harder to sell people to funders. Flashy pictures of bright new exhibits seem to be easier to get money for.

Nina Simon said...


Your comments about malls and vests are well-put. I'm often put off by the way explainers engage me in museums--they seem aggressively eager and have focused agendas--somewhat like shoe salesmen. I tend to have the best time when I start playing with something in a museum and an explainer comes up and helps me play--either by showing me some cool tricks he/she has picked up, or just by enjoying it with me.

Many contextualized situations (demos, tours) are less free-form than I'd like. Am I really engaging socially with the guide/demonstrator or just receiving content in a more lively manner? The free food sample example, though, is an appealing one. I like the idea of finding other ways to provide this social context. In toy stores, there are often teenage staff outside, playing with cool yoyos etc to attract and entrance potential customers. What if explainers were empowered to stroll through the space more like jesters or street magicians, hawking fun, quick, accessible experiences that require social interaction?

My sister, a dancer, had a strange job in high school: she was hired by a DJ company to go to wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, etc, and get people dancing. She literally pulled people out of their seats and got them on the dance floor. She wowed them with talent, but spent more time leading silly dance contests, spinning around grandmothers, and just generally encouraging and enabling the party.

I realize as I write this that there's a difference between museum experiences that are meant to be like parties (where you want to be pulled into the fun) and others that are more like going to the shoestore (where you want to be left alone). But I think that museums are slanted so heavily right now towards the shoestore model--putting everything on display, hounding you with information--that maybe we can't get to the social mall model without a little social lubrication... that is, party time.

Unknown said...

Right on, Nina, and welcome to California! I think people (aka floor staff) are our most underdeveloped resource. It is a supreme irony in the "museum withholding information that could make its visitors' experience more meaningful" department that the only people most visitors come into contact with in our art galleries are dressed like policemen. So when an artwork prompts a question and you want to know a little bit of information "just-in-time," there is abolutely nowhere to turn. What are we thinking?

I have spent years developing interactive programs that provide context the white cube gallery strips away, but visitors don't have access to them when they're standing in front of the work. And as you say, docent tours only work for some people who know they are interested, and are prepared to appoint at specific times of the day. It's our "guards"--our floor staff--that bear the brunt of visitor curiosity, and too often they return visitors' interest with a cold scrutiny that discourages visitors from getting closer... to the works!

Something here is upside down...

Nina Simon said...


Thanks. Funny that you mention art security guards. I once worked at a children's museum with a facilities guy who had worked for 30 years as a security guard at the National Gallery of Art. He told me all kinds of funny stories about how he learned to sneak outside the view of the security cameras so he could talk to visitors about the art without getting in trouble.

Every time I'm in an art museum, I always wonder about the knowledge that guards have--the people who spend the most time, literally, with the pieces. I'd LOVE to see that blog or go on that tour...

The Spy Museum does something clever with this concept, using security guards already roving the floor to engage visitors in a simple "border guard" game where they question the guests' credentials and "cover" for being in the museum. Visitors love it, and it gives the guards a more human way to interact with guests.

Anonymous said...

Dear Raymond's Brain,

As a professional, full-time fundraiser for an Explainer program and also for exhibit development, I can tell you that it is MUCH easier to sell PEOPLE to funders than it is to sell exhibit geegawgery. Most funders are interested in putting their dollars into programs/organizations that create positive changes in societies or individuals. It's *way easier* to talk about the effect an Explainer program has on visitors and, just as important, on the Explainers within in. (I can share dollar and ROI figures on this if you'd like.) Certainly, corporate funders are interested in high-tech flash and sponsorship opportunities, but even they're beginning to see the wisdom of investing in [scientifically literate] people.

If you'd like to learn more about fundraising for and growing an Explainer program, I encourage you and everyone else to visit this site as a first step.