Visitor Feedback, By Blog Post

In our socially networked world, posts about museums make the rounds fast.  These posts are often applauded, decried, or laughed at.  But they are useful for something more: we can mine these posts for specific ideas about what’s working or not, and use this as a springboard for reflecting on and improving the work we do.

Jake, a rather amazing 11-year old from Scotland, recently shared a list of “21 ways how I would create an amazing museum.”  A few ideas that grabbed my interest:

  • Link exhibits to things in the real world. Jake offers a great example of this, a label that explains where the museum it got its specimens. What a great way to demystify the work that museums do.
  • Have links for when you go home. We always wonder if anyone is using the QR codes or following up on information provided when they get home.  Jake is.
  • Find great ways of explaining things. While this might be obvious, the examples Jake provides are inspiring.  Comparing sunglasses to the ozone layer.  A visual about decomposition.
  • Make visitors ask questions about the world.  This is my favorite, and the questions Jake poses – from labels at London’s Grant Museum of Zoology – are brilliant. How much should we spend on protecting endangered species ? Why should we save some and not others ? Could the £2m spent on protecting beavers be better spent ?

Jake’s post led me to think more broadly about visitor feedback.  His post is inspiring, and written in a tone that might make museum staff think, “yes, we should do that!”  But visitors share feedback in a variety of ways. Howard Hwang’s article “Why Museums Suck” was written in 2001 but somehow emerged and generated conversation in the museum world in 2012.  The article, while obnoxious in tone,  made some good points:

  • A real life interpreter / educator in the gallery makes a difference, and that person’s manner – humorous vs dry – is critical.
  • Clean bathrooms are important, as is good, affordable food and a comfortable climate.
  • An amazing building captivates.
  • Museums should encourage and respond to important questions about the word.  For example:

I used to ask my history teacher why art was important. She told me that it helps us understand how people expressed themselves in ancient times. I asked why we’d want to know that. She told me to stop asking stupid questions. So I’d be like, how is that a stupid question? Then I would get detention. But it’s not a stupid question, is it?

Why don’t art museums address, or even acknowledge, this very important question?

The blog Art Museum Teaching used this post as an opportunity to write about great teen programs; the Walker Art Center published a response by a teen that is in effect an ad for their teen programs.  Great opportunity for marketing, well played.  But the post also offered an opportunity for reflection.  How do we take advantage of feedback, including (especially) negative feedback?  Museum educators often complain that it is difficult to get visitors and program participants to complete evaluations.  Here is an evaluation!

One response to feedback like this would be to gather together all comments over the course of a year, and mine them for information and suggestions.  What are visitors responding to?  What is working for them, and what is not?  What might museums try to make the experience better for this type of visitor, and how to do it without compromising the experience for other visitors?

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