Friday, June 28, 2013

Over-Estimate? Under-Estimate? What do We Think of our Visitors?

A couple weeks ago I spent a Saturday armed with a clipboard and post-it notes at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT.  I'm working with them on interpretive planning and the interpretive team (Shannon Burke, Beth Burgess, and Brian Cofrancesco--that's Brian above at left and Shannon at the end of the post) wanted to know what visitors knew about Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin;  how they thought about some tough issues like faith and race relations;  and what they would want to ask Harriet herself.

We talked to more than 150 people that day and on Monday, when we did a debrief,  Shannon made an observation that I continue to think about, and will carry it forward into my work.

"I think we over and under estimate our visitors,"  she said.  I looked at her a bit curiously, and she continued,  "I think we overestimate the knowledge they come with and their interest in deep details and underestimate what they're up for."   And I think Shannon is absolutely right--and the real trick in compelling, effective, creative interpretation is to figure out the ever-changing balance between those two poles.   For me, the best way to find that balance at your own museum is to actually get out there and talk to people, as Stowe Center did.

Many of us overestimate:
  • The knowledge our audience arrives with.  For instance, few of us have actually read Uncle Tom's Cabin so knowledge of the plot is pretty hazy.
  • Their willingness to absorb large amounts of detail while standing up (this goes for labels and guided tours!)
  • Their interest in the distinguishing details of objects.
  • Their willingness to be "taught" to as opposed to free-choice learning.
  • In historic houses, their interest in one bedroom after another (unless of course, ghosts are involved!)
  • The need for technology in every situation.
Many of us underestimate:
  • What our audiences are up for in terms of innovative experiences.  They can probably cope--and more accurately might enjoy and learn from-- a historic house that includes a mix of period rooms and exhibit spaces.
  • Their willingness to consider big ideas as a frame for their museum experience.  When we asked visitors at Stowe House what one question they would like to ask Harriet Beecher Stowe, the vast majority of visitors we spoke to had a version of the same question:  "How did you find the courage to write this book?"   That's a big important question and well worth considering.
  • Their interest in details.  Yes, I know this seems contradictory to an overestimate above, but it's true, some of our visitors want to delve deep so we need to find ways to make that deep-diving accessible but not compulsory.
  • The willingness of audiences to engage with stories of lives very different than their own--and their abilities to, with skillful facilitation, make fascinating connections and parallels.
  • Interest in the real thing--the authentic object particularly when the object has a compelling story.
From your perspective, what do we over- or under-estimate?


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Just want to say, Linda, that this is a great post and "must" reading for ALL museum staff, no matter what type of institution they work in. What a great way for staff to frame evaluation of current programs, exhibitions, and tours or to kick-off discussions about new directions. Thanks for it. Anne

jen said...

So much of this post rings true! At my museum, we're discussing the need to conduct visitor interviews. This really drives it home. We have a ton of text and media in the galleries, and I'm really curious to hear what visitors have to say about their experiences.

Ilene Frank said...

Love this post. Thanks Linda. Will share with staff.

Integrated Systems said...

This is a great set of thoughts. When I was trained as a classroom teacher many years ago, my professor of teaching and learning imparted some wisdom about young children that I still value today. He warned us not to confuse inexperience with lack of interest. Children may not know many of the things we know yet - but they are no less intellectually sophisticated than we are.

I think this is true for visitors. They aren't familiar with all the content of our institutions (and if we're honest, neither were most of us before we began working on those sites), but that doesn't mean they're bored, impatient, dumb, or incurious. They are intellectually sophisticated, no matter how much they know or don't know already, or how much detail they are interested in. They've come to visit because they hope to become interested in what they'll encounter. I try to assume that of every visitor, age 5 to age 105; they may not know about the events or characters your site interprets (yet), but they are ready to become interested, especially if they feel accommodated and respected by our institutions' communications style. Being open to exploration and willing to discuss big ideas is great evidence of that.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks all of you for your comments. This post has gotten lots of traction and I think it's because it's so simple. And Michelle, it's a great connection to not confusing inexperience with lack of interest. That to me is always a danger in doing front-end and formative evaluations because your visitors may not have experience with ideas or approaches you're considering, so they might not choose them in a list of choices, but it's up to use to tease out ways to be interested and to engage. Great reminder. And Jen, hope you get do those interviews (or even observations!) No substitute for talking with them.

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