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October 09, 2012


Dan Crowther

Those percentages make perfect sense, if for no other reason than the availability of special programs is significantly less than exhibitions that are on display nearly 100% of the time. Couple with that the fact special events need to be well advertised to get a decent turn out compared to a regular exhibit which is always available.

Probably a better statistic would be impact to attendance. If for instance "programs" are getting a 6% of total attendance then their 6% impact represents 100% possible meaningful experience rate vs 75% for exhibits.

Nina Simon

In our highly anecdotal research here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, we find that visitors frequently conflate the idea of "exhibits" with "everything that happens in the museum." We often hear from visitors that they came for the bike exhibit or the fire exhibit... both of which were one-night only special events from our perspective. Granted, these festival-style events are a huge part of our museum, drawing more than half our visitation, and I know that is not the norm. But still, it seems that our visitors think exhibits and museum experiences are synonymous.

Do you think that is possible in your research?

Bob Beatty

I think both Dan and Nina are on to something in their own interpretation of the data. First, in that there are simply fewer events (or programs) and second that visitors often use terms like exhibit and program interchangeably--just like lots of non-museum folk think the term curator represents every job in the museum world but it's actually a highly specialized job function.

That being said, I think the data do make sense and support some research I've seen (some of it here) and my own experiences. Programs are all well and good, but objects just speak a particular power to people and temper experiences in a visceral way.

Now, this comes from a person who cut his teeth in museum education so in no way am I diminishing the importance of education (programs in your parlance) in museums, just that it makes sense to me that this is the case.

But I would like to see some further exploration of terms as Nina asked. It would certainly be helpful to see if there isn't some confusion in terminology with visitors that does not necessarily exist with us museum folk internally.

Sharon F., CA

I appreciate the posters above and the variety of perspective this topic has generated.

In my experience, while the exhbition may have deeper meaning, many of our visitors have expressed that once they have "seen it, they have done it." Events, programs, etc. bring folks, more often. This allows the visitor to experience the exhibitions again, hopefully in a new context given the program/event. Many visitors report that they saw something new this time that they did not see the first time around. Our focus has been on building our attendance and revenue, so in creation of those programs we aim to appeal to a wide variety of people to give them exposure, once they are here to all that we have to offer, ie exhibitions and programs/events/activities. Additionally, we find that its not an easy to task when you have an exhibition that spans a length of time longer than a year, to get any press coverage or stories written about what you are offering - generating additional excitement. Whereas we find the media will cover the shorter term items like a program or event because there is an urgency or end date.

I look forward to more study and discussion.

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Hi all, and thank you for your comments.

I agree that because exhibitions are up all the time their prevalence may be somewhat responsible for the results, but Bob is also right in that, for most of the museum goers in our sample, the majority of meaningful experiences centered around their visceral response to original objects, which are more prevalent in exhibitions than in programs and special events (though not always so!).

But I do want to clarify that we did NOT ask respondents if their most meaningful museum experiences took place in an exhibition, program, or special event.

Instead, we asked them to tell us a detailed description about their most meaningful museum experience, period. As analysts, we were the ones deciding if it was an exhibition, program, or special event based on the context of what respondents were saying they experienced, which was relatively clear for most comments (about a quarter were unclear, and we coded them as "none of the above" for this coding category). Thus, for this specific analysis, what visitors call these things was not as important as how we defined it as based on our close analysis of their actual description of the experience (although it is relevant to other analyses).

Finally, Sharon lays out a host of excellent reasons to do programs and special events. Meaningfulness is only one metric by which to assess what we do, albeit an extremely important one. Education, exposure to new audiences, encouraging repeat visitors, all of them are also quite important.

Fraser McDonald, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

Great topic... and timely, too. On Tuesday, October 16 at 8:30 p.m. EST the Membership Program of the Canada Science and Technology Museums based in Ottawa, Canada will be hosting #museumchat on Twitter (@3Museums1Card) where we'll be chatting with our Members and anyone else who'd like to join in about museum events in general. We'll be examining what they like, what they don't, what they want, what they expect, and more.

Like Sharon, our business focus has been on building attendance and revenue while achieving our mandate to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada. Hosting events is a great way to achieve those results, and create long-lasting memories for visitors at the same time.

Robert Connolly

Great topic - but I am curious on one point - the "transformative" Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie. The CP website advertises that participants can

"Become a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad, fleeing from captivity, risking everything for freedom. What will you experience on your quest for a new life? . . . Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and be encouraged by a Quaker family. Truly experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana's history."

The two minute intro video on the website ends with the smiling white CEO of Conner Prairie inviting folks to come and visit and experience the "magic" of history yourself.

I have shown this two minute clip and website for the past four years during my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis. I don't provide any lead in - just "let's take a look at this" Generally, two or three students have very strong negative reactions. This past Tuesday night, the 18 students - a mix of anthro, fine arts, history, Egyptologists - sat "stunned" after exploring the website and viewing the intro video.

I have never participated in the North Star program. From reading the testimonials on the website and web reviews, I get that it probably comes off better than the advertising. However the advertising for this program I find absolutely offensive as it trivializes slavery to being some rough physical conditions and getting yelled at for 90 minutes.

I realize from attending the AAM in Minneapolis this past year that Conner Prairie is touted as one of the success stories in an economic turn around. However, as the North Star program is advertised I don't see this as transformative at all - rather deception. You are not going to "truly experience" anything of slavery.

I suppose this is not going to be a popular position, but the Conner Prairie North Star advertising has bothered me for quite a while. (And last year I wrote them a tempered letter on same expressing my professional concerns to which I received no reply).

Dale Jones

Great post -- but I have a somewhat different take on the value of programs and live interpretation at museums. I have found both in research I have done and from anecdotal information that seeing powerful museum theater or participating in a superb tour can have quite a powerful effect on visitors. Studies I did in the 90s indicate that 95% of visitors preferred the museum theatre they saw at the 1840 House in Baltimore to exhibition experience; the same percentage came from a study at the Walters about a performance there. A study I did on live interpretation at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County indicated that visitors found the experiences there to be both quite engaging and meaningful.

In "Applied Interpretation: Putting Research into Practice" (2007), Doug Knapp examines 30+ longitudinal studies and concludes that the two main factors contributing to meaning and long-term memory are hands-on engagement and, the main factor -- personal connections.

I suspect some of the reasons for the low percentages you get can be based on several factors, the main one being that many people have only experience "bad" tours -- but there are many out there that are excellent.

Anyway -- my quick thoughts. Thanks again for a great post!

Dale Jones
Making History Connections

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Hi Dale -

Great comment. I agree with you that museum theatre can be amazing - one of our client projects is doing some museum theatre and it is having a very powerful effect.

Interestingly, though, we don't tend to find hands-on experiences as big a factor in long-term memory or meaning as the original objects people see and the compelling narratives those objects convey that visitors connect with. That is, in the memory work we did in 2010, where we collected nearly 30,000 adult memories of childhood museum experiences, hands-on was eclipsed by objects, even among adults in their 20s who ostensibly had a wealth of hands-on experiences in the 80s and early 90s. Similarly, this most recent study of 4,000 meaningful adult museum experiences found more meaning in object experiences than hands-on.

This isn't to say that hands-on experiences are not important or that they are not memorable or meaningful. They are and they do show up in memories and meaningful experiences . . . just not as much as the objects and the stories those objects tell that visitors connect to. We are strong proponents of museums having a healthy mix of objects and hands-on experiences, as they serve different, but both important, purposes.

But I think you hit the nail on the head that the majority of the "tour" type experiences people have had, while maybe not bad, just are not remarkable. (In fact, when we were reviewing the findings we had a fair amount of discussion about how few staff or docent experiences were mentioned by our respondents.)

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