Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Word from 8th Grade: That was Awesome!

The term focus group often seems scary or off-putting to some groups I work with--but really, it's just a term for listening to what visitors--and potential visitors--have to say.   Last week,  as part of a new IMLS-supported project at the Ontario County Historical Society,  staff members and I spent two days listening to community members talk about the museum and about the concept for the new exhibition, "Greed and Other Human Desires:  The Early History of Western New York."  You can check out the project blog here to learn more.  

Much of the visitor research work in the museum field focuses on larger institutions as those museums have the funds to commit to full-scale evaluation. The work by Reach Advisors, particularly their survey of Connecticut cultural consumers,  begins to bring audience perspectives from all kinds of museums, including small ones, into the picture.  So I was interested to see what our groups had to say both as it related to larger contexts as well as our particular project.

All the conversations were fascinating, but I was particularly struck by the comments of two groups of 8th graders.  These were students,  chosen by their social studies teacher, with a particular interest in history:  many of them were History Day participants and all were headed towards AP history courses. Here are some of their thoughts on what museums do.
 On labels
  • Kids don't really like reading.   [but then some disagreement from several others who did like to read.]
  • They had like the artifact and a small description—not too small, but not like a history lesson.
  • I had to go on a field trip that I liked up until my teacher told me I had to be reading a lot because if I wasn’t reading I wouldn’t learn.  I’ve learned more from museums than having to read right off a wall.
  • Part of a museum is seeing it, otherwise it would be a library.
On computers
  • If you go somewhere with your family, you don’t want to be stuck at one computer screen, you want to be able to pass it around and talk about it.
  • I don’t like them that much.
  • It’s weird that it’s dirty. [this was a conversation about germs]
  • I feel like with the computer—it’s only one answer you can get.
  • At a museum, you clicked on a computer and read about it—it was a cartoon, Ice Age and seemed kind of boring…clicking.
  • There was 100% agreement in both groups that computers were the least interesting part of a museum visit.
On Hands-On Interactives
  • You could get to feel like what they were doing and how they were doing it and what went through their mind.  You get the sense of “whoa, that was hard for them!"
  • Pops out more in my memory when you’re actually holding stuff
  • It’s easy to forget words and pictures;  easy to remember when you’re actually doing stuff;  touching.
They all felt that the use of reproductions for interactives was critical, as it was important to touch and feel.
On the Power of Imagination, Immersion and the Individual Story
  •  Like with the Holocaust, you know that people died, you know these things happened, when you focus on one person, like Anne Frank hiding and stuff, it makes it real.
  • I always find it interesting when I see pictures of a long time ago, to imagine—how things used to be.
  • Being able to go in, see what it was like.
  • The longhouse—that was awesome [at Ganondagan State Historic Site]
  • I like real life examples—if you’re telling about how they dressed,  they had mannequins—the visual was really cool.
  • You can find different answers if you look around.
  • I always like it when an expert can tell you something about it.
Several comments highlighted what's often a shortcoming of local history museums.  The students very much wanted to understand local events in the context of a larger picture,  to understand, as one put it, "More the quieter events during a larger period of time."   That's something many local museums can be better at.

Most boring museum?
For one, it was an art museum.  “The most boringist thing I’ve ever gone to—they’re hanging on the wall.  Art is art.  You stand around with a whole bunch of people, it’s quiet, you can’t even talk to your other family members,  don’t talk, and don’t scuff your feet.”   For another, a sports hall of fame.  "My dad made me go. I just didn’t think anything was interesting. You just stand there and read."
 On the role of parents and museum-going
  • My parents have never really gone anywhere of their own will, actually.
  •  Went to Albany for basketball tournament—and went to state museum. She [my mother]  was really was interested—They [parents] don’t have as much time.  When we want to go, they go, so they just go too.
  • There are some adults that are just naturally interested in history.
  • My dad likes things in the advertisement, that say you can do something.
And how could the museum let you know what's going on?
  • I don’t read the newspaper
  • Facebook, my home page
  • Posters and flyers, because kids go around town;  some kids don’t go on Facebook,  just coming to school you see posters
Facebook generated a fair amount of discussion.  They didn't quite see why a museum would be on Facebook or why they would want to like a museum there.  However,  they were more interested in the idea of seeing historic photos of where they live on Facebook and were most interested when we told them, if their parents granted permission, their group photo would be on the museum's page.  Said one boy, "You should make those blogs and facebook things more known! "

Our conversation also included their thoughts on the topics of greed, survival and ambition--the subject for another post.  But what I hope my readers take away from these great students (aside from the thought that parents have no lives of their own) is that these conversations are easy to do--and that they can easily become a part of a local history museum's work.  

And the how-to:  check out the resources at the Committee on Audience Research as a starting point.  It's critically important to be clear in your own mind about what you want to know and design questions that reflect that.  And it's even more important to LISTEN!  The goal in these sessions is to hear from the group, not to share what the museum's up to or the problems you have.   An evaluation professional can be immensely helpful in the process, but these simple conversations are something a museum of virtually any size can undertake on its own and still learn a great deal of useful information.

All of us on the project team agreed that we all learned some surprising things--and that these students now have a connection to the new exhibit.  It's a terrific two-way street that benefits all.  These simple conversations are just one way to prevent local history museums from becoming those dinosaurs.   Thanks, 8th graders for teaching me something new!


Conny Graft said...

Great posting Linda! Interesting that these kids did not think computers were so exciting...if their parents had been listening they would have been elated. So many parents in studies I have done said they go to a history museum to get their kids "unplugged and unwired". Kids who are not AP history bound may not have the same opinion...but that's OK. Thanks for sharing this on your great blog!

Sharon Simoncini said...

Linda - my daughter is in 8th grade. It would have been interesting (to you? to me?) to see what she thought!

Linda said...

Hi Conny and Sharon--

Conny--interesting the intersection between what parents want and what kids want. We'll be doing some other groups with kids from different areas so we'll learn a bit more.

Sharon--I know, it's always interesting to hear what our own kids think--ask Reid about museums and let me know what she says!

Sarah Sutton said...

What a great post. Listening to the audeince is always so'd think that good feeling would be enough to encourage more of us to do it more of the time.

Linnea Marie said...

Thanks for sharing the 8th graders' voices. Great comments to think about.

Linda said...

Sarah--I agree, there's always something almost joyful about the chance to sit down and talk with visitors/potential visitors about museums. I love it everytime! Linnea, thanks for reading--easy to share such thoughtful comments from kids.