Attention Museums & Visitors: Designers Want to Be Graded

How can your institution set up successful visitor evaluations, and how can the cultural sector build better habits to make more and better evaluations happen in our industry? In this post, we share the who, what and why of our research into how successful visitor evaluations unfold.

Every new museum exhibit is like an experiment. Curators, historians, writers, and designers hypothesize ways to inspire and educate visitors. For designers, experiences are testaments to creative and technical skills – and offer insight into the designers style, techniques, influences, and guiding principles.

Within our design practice at Local Projects, we focus on a key objective: what can visitors do within our exhibits?

We openly embrace the concept that visitors are not passive, and that the exhibit itself is only as relevant as it is able to connect to the visitor. We strive to connect to emotions based on the belief that emotional reactions create memories. We also believe and demonstrate in our practice, that you have to meet the visitor where they are. If the world has moved to the digital space, you need to speak to your audience in the language that connects to them and by doing so you will empower the content, push past burnout and visitor fatigue, and truly engage your audience. 

Over the 15 years of the studio practice, we’ve received countless qualitative feedback that this assumption delivers for visitors. Increases in visitation and repeat visitation at our newly opened exhibitions, and positive anecdotal feedback from visitors signal that our approach is broadly successful.

But how can we know for sure that the experience has changed a visitor’s perception of the topic or impacted their life? How do we measure the success of these ideas and how they play out? 

The best toolkit we have at our disposal is visitor evaluation. How engaged are visitors throughout? What do they retain from their visit? What excited them and what was a bit of a slog? 

We wanted to learn more about how our exhibitions performed, and how visitor evaluations play out at our partner institutions. In 2019, we hired a third-party researcher to speak with some of our former clients about their experiences with visitor evaluation.

This week, we’ll start with the first part of the process: exploring how your institution can set up the right environment to get buy-in from every level of your organization to conduct robust visitor evaluations.

The folks they have talked to reflect a broad cross-section of institutions and departmental roles. However, their finding was conclusive regardless of the interviewee: as institutions look to expand to new audiences, they need to first understand better their current audiences through visitor evaluation. Yet two big obstacles stand in the way: a) limited resources to conduct in-depth visitor qualitative research and b) concern that by evaluating current audiences, they are not reaching new audiences.

In this two-part series, we’ll examine how institutions can kickstart the visitor evaluation process and integrate that new knowledge into their operations by setting the right conditions. Tune in over the next week as we examine the three stages that will set you up for visitor evaluation success. They are:  

  1. Conditions for Evaluation
  2. Organizational Workflow
  3. Methodology

Set a precedent for evaluation practices using a single experience or exhibition, or a major redesign of part or all of the institution.

The results of most in-depth visitor evaluations end up being highly valuable at the leadership level, and with enough buy-in, evaluations can become more deeply integrated into the fabric of the institution. Having real metrics on visitor engagement helps create a case for the future growth of the whole institution.

Understand where leaders are coming from

Cultural institutions are highly reactive when it comes to evaluation practices, especially at a leadership level. Hearing their concerns, and trying to understand the perspective of senior leaders can help develop evaluations that work at the top. That means finding ways to integrate feedback into the workflows of those leaders, and doing so in a holistic way – making sure improvements to experience are a shared responsibility across departments.

Low on resources? You can start small

At the MCNY, the curatorial department task interns with making observations about visitor engagement and dwell time – what they call a ‘gut check.’ The staff readily acknowledges that more sophisticated evaluation practices exist, such as those deployed by outside firms, but can discover much from simply tracking dwell time at each experience.

Creating the Right Conditions for Successful Visitor Evaluation

There are two important stages left to set your institution up for success: synching with your current organizational workflow and choosing your evaluation methodology. Tune in next week for more, and thanks for reading.