Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Visitors in Focus

As I said, last week, I’ve been to a travelin’ girl for the last couple of years. Not quite a troubadour, as my karaoke skills are more humorous than sonorous, I’ve enjoyed being on the road. In writing this post, I couldn’t help but think of that old Johnny Cash song, made famous again in hotel ads. The song’s lyrics are basically a litany of places he sang. And, I could do something similar, though that would help no one.

So, instead, I am offering 3 posts this month about what I learned from visiting more than 300 museums. Last week, I talked about what I learned about museum workers. This week I wanted to think about visitors.

What did I learn?

1. People are there on their time off. 
We know this, perhaps, but I think this point is important to underscore.

Most full-time museum staffers are there on the weekdays. When they leave their offices to grab a coffee or unthaw themselves after working in freezing offices, they might notice galleries filled with seniors, school children, and people pushing strollers. Thinking about museum hours, we are most open when other people work. People who are able to come during these hours, therefore, become important audience segments. That said, other than school children, people who come during the day are there as part of their leisure time. Now, before you think, wait, but they want to learn something. Yes, that can be true. Leisure time encompasses many different behaviors. Some people want to learn or feel enriched during some of their leisure time. (I graphed leisure, fun, and museums for an old post, if you want to think more about the relationship between those concepts).

But there are other reasons people go to museums on their leisure time. Many go to socialize. It’s a great date spot, I’ve noticed. Some go because they feel like they should, like parents attending with their children. Some go because there is air conditioning. Some go because it’s too inclement outside to do anything else. Now, I am not going to keep going through the possible reasons for museum visitation, as others like Susie Wilkening does it better.

But, what I would say, anecdotally, is that almost every visitor walking in the door at the museum is there on their time off. Think about your time off. Do you want to be spoken down to? Do you want to feel stupid? Do you want to be lost? Do you want to be frustrated? People are giving us their time off. We need to make them feel like we value this precious gift.  

2. They look a bit nervous. 

Our spaces can be very subtle.

No one wants to get yelled at. So, people are often visiting our spaces in high alert mode. The fear of being yelled at is a particularly good way of turning off future visitation. And, you might say, I’ve never seen anyone yelled at in my museum galleries. But, visitors often see museums as lump sum prospect. So, bad experiences in one museum become connected to their concept of “museum” in general.

Add to that, we aren’t always all that human-centered. I have dragged my kids, museum kids mind you, through many a museum gallery. I know which of you don’t have seating. I have sat on the floor with my children. Now, I will say, I’ve never been yelled at for sitting on the floor. And, as an old school gallery teacher, it’s a pretty comfortable behavior for me. But most visitors wouldn’t even think to sit on the floor. Instead, they’d walk out of that museum deciding these are not spaces for them.

Add to this, our designers are careful to pick seats that work with the aesthetic of the art. I’m a snob, so I get that. But our visitors are worried about getting yelled at, and then we put in seats that sort of vaguely look like art. This is like leveling up the discomfort levels for our visitors.

Finally, we like to hide the goods. Galleries are often up some stairs, bathrooms behind a wall. We make our signs appealing to us, not instructive to our visitors. Basically, we create spaces for the power users and the people who know our unwritten rules. These are behaviors that foster the inaccessible nature of our institutions. If we are committed to diversifying audiences, we need to think hard about the behaviors that feel exclusionary and change them.

3. They read labels. They really watch videos. 

Oh, another week talking about labels.

I remember doing an observation study when I was very pregnant with my daughter. I sat on a bench pretending to draw while I watched behaviors. It was a bit demoralizing to see people avoiding the panels we’d worked so hard to create. But people sure did read labels.

More than a decade later, I still saw people reading labels. I ached to ask people why they read the labels they did. But I’d have mortified my family. I did notice many people were scanning down the label quickly as if reading on a phone. Studies indicate people are reading more text, but more quickly, often skimming for specific information. I wonder if they are doing this with the labels.

I was most surprised at how much time people spent watching videos. Many of these videos were without captions (work on that y'all), and some were really boring. And, yet, everywhere I went people sat through the videos. Why? Well, I would guess in part because watching moving images is a regular practice for most people. Rarely, outside of museums, do people stand and ponder something static. But, almost every day, you get information from a movie image. I also think many people understand videos to be a type of orientation. So, the video feels like a common mode of communication and a lifeline to help you get a handle on what you will see. 

4. Selfies aren’t the reason they are pulling out their cameras.

Any behavior shift can feel uncomfortable or suspect. Cell phones in the galleries often get a bad rap. Alli Burness, Meagen Eastep, Jenny Kidd, and Chad Weinard gave a great talk ages ago about cell phone photography/ social photography. They discussed how personal photography wasn’t just about selfies (and in fact often wasn’t). In my visits, I noticed very few people taking selfies. But many were using the camera as a note-taking device. Capturing favorites and even photographing the label to remember the name of the artwork. 

As a museum educator, I've spent a career cajoling, inviting, dreaming that people will be engaging with collections. With cell phones, they are. People were using the phone to take “artsy” images. Our collections were, in essence, sparking creativity day in and day out through cell phone photography. 

We need to rethink cell phones as distracting to the experience. Visitor's experiences are often heightened by cell phones. They are able to do something, and they get to use paradigms they already use in their everyday life. They might be a different way of experiencing collections than before the advent of the cell phone, but different isn't wrong. (And, registrars out there, I do say all this about phones with the caveat that cell phone photography cannot put collections at risk.) 

The issue about cell phones boils down to allowing people to enjoy our galleries in ways that work for them, not in the ways we decide. There is not one way to enjoy museums. You don't need to read the labels (I often don't). You don't need to listen to the audiotour. You don't need to agree with the curator giving the talk. When we allow for multiplicity in engagement, we open the doors to more people being engaged. And, finding new audiences is a numbers game. (I wrote more about this recently). 

5. Interactivity is the best way to get intra-group social experiences.

I’d talk to anyone anywhere. But most people don’t speak so readily to strangers. I noticed when I was at a station doing something, people would talk to me. For example, at the Museum of the City of New York, there was an interactive about sewing (which I’ll discuss more next week). The interactive was about piece work. Two people talked to me about how terribly hard the seamstresses must have worked for their meager wages. In other words, that interactive made strangers discuss the point of the exhibition and relate it to their lives. Holy grail of museum engagement right there. It wouldn’t have happened beside a panel, and I don’t think it would have happened around a collection object. But, the position around a shared physical engagement allowed the shared moment of conversation.

Next week, I’ll write more about interactivity in the galleries, so I’ll leave it here.

To conclude, I’d like to ask you all a question. Do you think museums act like they like their visitors?

In all my observations of visitors in galleries, I sometimes wondered if some museum professionals liked the visitors they were serving.

Museums sometimes are so focused on scholarship and scholars they lose sight of their visitors and their visitors' needs. Now, before your hackles go up, I acknowledge we serve many masters. Scholarship is not an insignificant part of our work. But, scholars and visitors have different, often opposing needs. For many museum professionals, scholars are easy to serve. It's basically like planning party for people exactly like yourself.

But visitors needs require stepping outside ourselves and our desires. This issue can be compounded by our motivations. Many people go into this field because of the collections, myself included. There is something quite different intellectually in connecting objects to people vs connecting people to objects. Centering people is not natural for many museum professionals. They focus on Educating (with a healthy dose of talking down to) and they forget you can’t educate people who aren’t there. Spaces often project an attitude of superiority or disinterest in the visitor's engagement; no one wants to be talked down to.

Knowing more information doesn’t make you smarter, it makes you more knowledgeable. This difference is essential to our work. It is not intelligence that separates museum workers and visitors, it is facts, ideas, concepts. To paraphrase a fellow museum worker, it’s just that we read different books. Keeping this in mind, our spaces and our actions should be about sharing ideas without making people feel dumb. Above all, we should show people that we like them and we should express that we like that they are in our spaces.

At the end of the month, I'd love to have a compilation of people's answers to the question if they think museums show they like their visitors and how. Share here in the comments or on social.

And, if you really just wanted to read my song, try this section. Feel free to sing it with a Johnny Cash roughness…
I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Many a collection rare, man.
Programs and interactives to spare, man.
Of museums, I've a-had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.

I've been to
Akron, Chicago, St. Paul, Minnesota,
Salem, Cincy, Toronto, Iona,
Santa Cruz, Philly, Glasgow, Ottawa,
London, Jersey, Miami, Tacoma,
Phoenix, NYC, Orca, LA,
Manchester, Lancaster, Worcester, and, I'm a killer.

As always find me at @artlust on Twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG.
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