Friday, April 30, 2010

Visitor Participation in Children’s Museums - a survey post

Creating opportunities for visitor participation is an emerging trend in the museum-field overall. There are many reasons for this: it is aligned with visitor expectations, it helps museums develop relationships, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. So we were curious, how many children’s museums are finding ways to hear from their audience how is that happening, and what happens to visitor input once the museum has it?

What we learned is that just over half (23 of 42) of the children’s museums in our survey solicit visitor feedback. This is largely done through talk back stations (10) and post-it boards (14).

Some museums (10) incorporate visitor-written labels, and more (20) have a way for visitors to leave projects in the museum for other visitors to encounter and interact with.

This last type of visitor participation means that in some portion of these museums, visitor creations are incorporated into the galleries. That could be through hanging of wet paintings - as at the Denver Children's Museum, where the drying artwork creates an inspiring backdrop for new visitors - or as an changing environmental installation - as in Maker Kids at the Austin Children's Museum where throwems enlivened a dark tunnel.

So participation is happening, and children's museum seem to be experimenting with how to do it. And I realize that there are many reasons – historical and operational – why museums do not create more participatory models for exhibitions. And yet, this is not a new idea.

Some Examples

Going back to 1999, Gyroscope designed a temporary exhibit for the Museum of Science, Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts called Virtual Egypt. In it, we featured an artifact that had yet to be identified by archeologists. There were theories about what it was, including a section of a book with illustrations that appeared to be of the same object. But no one could say for certain. We presented the evidence to visitors and invited them to submit their hypotheses to be offered alongside those of the experts. Visitors became a part of the ongoing scientific dialogue and debate – a real one.

Another of my favorite examples of this approach to participation comes from the Brooklyn Musuem of Art graffiti exhibit in which visitors were invited to make graffiti art of their own in the exhibit. They were responding to the art through art making of their own, and their work became part of the exhibit.

The Eden Project, in Wales, has a talk back interactive. But they have taken it to a whole new level. Here visitors pick a colored ribbon to represent the environmental issue they believe is most critically important. Tieing their ribbon onto a giant net, their selection is added to those of other, previous visitors. The resulting iconic sculpture is a snapshot of the community's priorities for the environment. It carries real meaning, is beautiful, and it invites dialogue.

Go Big or Go Home

From outside the museum field, there have been some really significant experiments in the idea of co-created, not just participatory, experiences. I am talking about community-built playgrounds. Here, the community literally has loose parts and reconfigures them into playspaces. The parts are essentially a platform, or a series of affordances. The making of the space is a learning experience. This reminds me of a visitor experience master plan we once created for a museum that was all about kids reinventing the exhibit environment.

On Line

I have to mention the Frist which has a muse award winning website where visitors can upload digital pictures of the artworks they make in the museum, and then comment on them. Although the website was created through an IMLS grant which is about adult English language learners, the audience of 6,000 which currently maintain on-line portfolios includes many types of visitors, and creates a genuinely visitor-centered way for their audience to participate. I would love to see digital art in the museum curated from the on-line portfolio, to complete the circle and make it so that visitors could see themselves in the museum during their visit (the Frist could easily find out who is in the museum since all portfolio users have a unique ID card).

That kind of circling back between the web and the museum is what the Science Museum of Minnesota has been exploring through Sciencebuzz – although their visitor-participation is focused on learning visitor preferences for content themes and exhibit emphasis, rather than on co-creation.

What does Participatory mean?

But when we talk about participation we often talk about a very limited role for visitors. Not truly co-creating exhibitions and making knowledge through the making of things and of spaces. We usually talk about talk-back boards, as evidenced by the survey results. And when we talk about visitors making thing for the exhibits we usually mean temporary elements for looking at, or listening to, rather than for building onto collectively and incrementally over time.

For museums, the power of participation lies in the ability to customize experiences and extend visitors learning - leading to many more points of entry into the museum experience and a more durable relationship with visitors. For visitors, participation leads to many benefits including increased relevance and meaningfulness, improved understanding of oneself, and the chance to co-create knowledge. For both the organization and the visitor this process also establishes a dialogue, giving visitors an opportunity to take charge of their inquiry and providing valuable insight into the audience’s interests and concerns.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cognitive Research in Museums

I spent yesterday at the Museum of Science, Boston where a group of NEMA members gathered to talk about how three local museums are working with research scientists, and connecting academic research to visitors.

The museums - MOS, Boston Children's Museum, and The Discovery Museums in Acton - are all coordinating their efforts. In fact, the Living Laboratory at MOS is serving as a mentor and model for the other two museums. BCM has structured their partnerships with researchers on the MOS model, and DCM is using three of the exhibit components from Living Labs as prototypes for experiences at their own museum.

Yet, what struck me most about the conversation was the range of ways each of these museums thought about the role of research in their museum, the goals for that research, and the way the research could and should influence their visitor experiences.

How are they different?

The Museum of Science has a science literacy goal - they want adults to be interested in science, to feel like science is something they can understand, see it as relevant to their lives, and to have the tools to decode science information that they get through the media and other popular sources. Children are something adults are interested in, and therefore a natural subject for engaging adults.

The Children's Museum is also interested in helping adults feel comfortable with science; in particular with child development research, and with analyzing information. They are also interested in building strong learning relationships between adults and children and see research as one way to help adults understand what children's play is all about and how children learn. BCM also has a parent education program, Families First, and is not afraid to give parents information about parenting.

The Discovery Museums have similar goals of helping parents learn about children, and about themselves. At the moment, they do not have a lot of information for adults either as graphics, handouts or on line. A recent survey strongly suggests that they should move in this direction. But as a small museum (140,000 annual attendance and $1MM operating budget), they are not in a position to run a research lab - at least not until they expand. Instead, they are focused on installing some small exhibit components, and on parent communication strategies.

The big contrast here is that MOS does not believe that exhibit experiences can change visitor behavior and so does not see its cognitive science research program as telling adults how to best help their children's development. It is about science process and information analysis. For the Children's Museum, being a resource for adults on child development, answering questions and supporting parents, is a key part of their work. And this is the direction the Discovery Museums is heading as well. BCM goes even further - taking this to a level of advocacy. They want parents to know that school readiness begins at birth, and how to help their children be successful.

What do they look like?

The Lab - Well for one thing, they are out in the public, at least in part. At MOS you never leave the exhibition floor to participate in research. This is intentional. And at BCM the Playlab, while off the floor for logistical reasons, is also open on friday nights when the drop-in audience is at its most diverse. But they are redoing Playspace and plan to include an active lab space where visitors and researchers interact.

Exhibit Components - all of these museums see research having an impact on the visitor experience. MOS has an infant area with three experiments set up for adults to try with their children. This is what DCM is piloting as well.

BCM is looking at other ways to integrate the research into the new
Playspace which they expect to open in 2012.

Website - At the moment, MOS is the only one of these three museums using the web to link the research on the floor to research in general. BCM is taking a new look at their website and plans to use it more as an education tool and less as a pure marketing opportunity, so more to come from them in the future. The Discovery Museums is working with Boston University students to produce some original videos about child development for their website. That will be fun to see unveiled.

Who benefits?

Visitors are an audience for the research. Not the kids really - they are the subjects - but the adults get debriefed and this information is intended to help them learn a little about science, and a little about their kids. I asked if any parents really misbehave, thinking that their child has done a bad job or acted inappropriately. The answer was yes, sure, but that great pains are taken to explain that each child is contributing to the sample, and their behavior helps demonstrate the range of behaviors that can be expected from children. So linking the individual child to children in general.

The researchers, it turns out, get many benefits from these partnerships. They get experience in an informal learning setting, and they have access to many possible participants. New research questions arise out of conversations with parents. They also receive extensive training in science communication with the general public. All of this helps them find funding.

Museum educators - they interact with the researchers through briefings, workshops, and on the floor. So the research program adds a dimension to their professional development.

Resources to run program?

MOS has had NSF/ISE funding for the last 3 years but it ends in June. In addition they have had a fellow position funded by a private donor. Someone asked if researchers weren't expected to use their grant funding to help pay for the use of the museum. MOS is planning to do this moving forward. BCM's current research lab was paid for by MIT, which also outfitted it with all the equipment. Because of this other researchers who use the space work out the details with MIT. This arrangement has been very successful for BCM.

BCM shares the responsibility for this work among a few staffers. Moving forward their vision is to organize all Research and Evaluation under on fellow, and coordinate those activities throughout the museum.

DCM has one staffer working on this project, among the many other things that she does.

In addition, to do human subject studies the museums also need to have an IRB in place. This is something that these museums have asked their research partners to help with because it can be pretty complicated and involved.


This list is not comprehensive, and it does not include the possible partners who have approached one of these three museums about future studies. But it gives you a sense of departments (and the range of disciplines) that are doing work that relates to the museum audience and which can be conducted in that setting.

Types of studies?

Again, I am not trying to be comprehensive so much as give you a sense of the incredible range of research questions that can connect with a museum. All of these topics have been avenues of research at either MOS or BCM:

* Mathematical cognition - such as estimating large numbers
* Stereotyping
* Causal learning through play
* How does competition affect learning?
* How do kids conceptualize art and music? for instance, if you play 2 kinds of music and say each is the favorite piece of another child, which child does the subject want to be friends with?
* How does art-making affect mood?
* Austism and play

My questions

At the end of the day I was left with a couple of key questions. One is: what makes something a cognitive research exhibit? We were talking briefly about the Providence Children's Museum and their interest in taking research relationships that they already have to the next level. Someone suggested that Play Power could become a cognitive research exhibit with the addition of a few labels. That really made me wonder how we were defining a "research exhibit". Play Power is great. I love it, my kids love it. But how is it that a few graphics makes the difference between the charming exhibit already there, and one that is about research?

More generally, I'm interested in how research can inform the visitor experience. We are all used to working with evaluation reports that look at how visitors actually use exhibits, and act in them. And in children's museums we are also working with a developmental framework when we develop exhibits. But aside from re-enacting research experiments, aren't there other ways that research can influence how we design and plan our exhibits, our graphics, and maybe most importantly, our expectations about visitor outcomes?

When we were working on Skyline one of the major goals was to design an exhibit that could be used to research how DESIGN could encourage adult participation with their children. We thought of adults as "play partners" and we identified behaviors that indicated different levels of involvement. It was meant to be iterative so that the exhibit would lead to new insights and those could in turn be tested directly in the exhibit. This is a little different from what MOS, BCM, and DCM are doing.

There was also an interesting question raised in the meeting about living labs for other kinds of scientists. Science Museum of Minnesota has a paleontology lab. But a chemistry lab? Or putting an anthropologist in the Human Body Connection? How about robotics and engineering labs in museums? I'm working on a project right now where there is a similar idea to do a living lab for media innovators, although I don't know what it will look like yet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How Important are Exhibits? - the next installment of our survey report

As a visitor, exhibits are what I see of a museum. As an exhibit developer, exhibits are a large part of my work. As a museum planner, exhibits are but one way in which my non-profit clients fulfill their mission and serve their audience. And, the recent building boom among museums has put huge pressure on exhibits, often in tension with the community building and other work museums do. So I wanted to know: What role do exhibits play in children's museums? How do children's museums divide their efforts?

We surveyed 42 children’s museums in the Association of Children’s Museums US membership and found that not all museums even have exhibits. In fact, more museums offer pre-scheduled facilitated activities (41) than offer drop-in exhibits (38).

Of the 38 Museums that do offer exhibits, 30 also have self-directed drop-in workshop activities and 36 have staff-facilitated drop-in (or on-demand) workshop activities available.

Clearly, these museums do not see exhibits as the solution to every problem. They are complementing their exploratory environments with programs and activities that help them to meet their visitors’ needs. And in some cases, they may be offering only programming and not be managing a physical plant at all.

This may be good news. We know that self-choice learning is central to the development of inquiry skills, critical thinking, knowledge seeking behavior, goal setting, and other fundamental skill sets that contribute to lifelong learning. These are things that exhibits are particularly good at, especially when the social dimensions of museum-based learning are taken into account.

How can museums offer visitors "a critical dose"?

However, really having an impact on visitors’ behaviors and attitudes requires sustained relationships and may also be more effective when staff is available to mentor and scaffold. This suggests that programs play a vital role in helping museums fulfill their missions. In addition, many museums are working toward becoming a critical resource in their community by promoting repeat visitation, linking museum experiences to the home and school, and facilitating collaboration. Some of these goals are also better met with staff facilitation, and structured programs.

In fact, 13 of the museums in our survey, so nearly 28%, say they have activities that visitors can complete over multiple visits to the museum while 9 offer projects that visitors start at the museum and finish at home, and 5 encourage visitors to start a project at home and complete it in the museum.

Creating an iterative relationship

At the same time, only 6 museums in our survey are using social networking sites or other web resources to create an on-going dialogue among visitors. And only 5 of the museums in our survey have a way for visitors to email themselves from the museum, creating opportunities to revisit and reflect on their museum experience from home. So it appears that children’s museums are still focusing largely on the visit – on touching visitors directly - whether that is through an exhibit or a workshop, held on-site or off.

Children’s museums, by and large, are not encouraging visitors to use the internet to post and comment on projects made at the museum, or on museum experiences. They are not seeing a website as another exhibit platform. They are embracing the idea of peer-to-peer learning and cooperation by offering activities in their museums that work better when more than one user to work together (20 say they do this). Yet they are not taking advantage of the web to build a community around the museum organization.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Informal Science Panel... on the Radio!

Local Bay Area radio call-in show "Forum" hosted a panel at the Exploratorium called "From The Exploratorium: Engaging Kids in Science":
"With California schools facing a huge budget crisis, what's being done to maintain and grow quality science education in the state's K-12 schools? In a special remote broadcast from San Francisco's Exploratorium, we look at innovative programs going on in the Bay Area to bring science to communities with limited resources."
There were some great comments, questions, and discussions around not only the value of Inquiry-Based Learning, but practices explored. On the panel were leadership in learning from the Explo, and the Bay Area school system.

It's exciting that these ideas are being aired with a broader audience. 

Podcast should be available later today via the link above. Have a listen.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Searching Museums

maria mortati, museums, gyroscope inc

Yes, I'm being facetious post Museums & the Web, but this looks like an area of tremendous opportunity if you haven't embraced it yet. 

Web site Search utility is often under-realized. However, it's probably the one feature on a museum website that offers your on-line visitors the closest thing to an in-house experience.

Major art museums are out in front on this- at the conference it was noted that MOMA has figured it out. Especially with their Collections Browser. It's a bit buried, but it's a cool utility. In reviewing it, Nate Solas of the Walker stated that people like being able to search in different ways and get results in meaningful ways: "Concept Browsing is a great way to surface deep content and provide a sense of fun and discovery vs. straight up Search".

Expanding the backend behind Search and Browse on your website, and reframing it on the visitor experience end makes a lot of sense from a practical to an educational and finally, a cohesive branding perspective. It's about expanding access- to even things you can't show at the moment (or ever).

The SFMOMA does a great job of making this clear with their "Explore Modern Art" being at the top of their main navigation. My wee gripe being it's not blindingly clear what ArtScope is, and "Explore Our Collection" is a bit buried. I'm averse to feeling like an outsider especially at a modern art museum.

Thoughtful interlinking amongst your content, collections, and yes, even your gift shop, looks like a worthy next step for an expansion or enhancement.

It's also a good strategy for smaller museums that may not be able to afford capital campaigns but could swing some web development.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Museums & the Web 2010: a few rules of thumb

Museums and the Web is an annual museum/tech conference that caters mostly to developers. Archimuse, runs the conference and does a good job of capturing the detail from sessions on the site

Here are a couple of quick hits from my time in Denver– much of this we’ve written about before, but it’s worth repeating:

If you want visitors to contribute to your on-line project, hang out in the spaces where they are and respond. Don’t expect to put up a visitor created content experience or participatory design web site if you aren’t there yourself.

For example, if you want a lot of followers on your Facebook page, then you have to find like-minded folks, friend them, post relevant info to their needs (that of course reinforces your identity) and follow up. Keep the party alive.

All aspects of a website reinforce your institution, not just the graphics. Christina DePaolo from the Seattle Art Museum suggested that everything from the text on your site (no matter how informal), to the experience of surfing it, needs to reflect your institution or brand. Do so cohesively.

Sometimes, every department wants their content on the home page, but that can make for a lousy intro. If you’re still having a hard time determining what goes where, Dana Mitroff Silvers of the SFMOMA suggested that you try bringing the public in to help.

When you’re too close to the trees, make topic cards and bring them out onto the floor– let the public take a stab at organizing them into content “buckets.

Connect with your collection/exhibits on your website (even if it’s not out on the floor) and do it in a variety of ways. Finding both obvious and unexpected ways to connect back and forth to your physical collection is ideal. 

Nate Solas from the Walker Art Center suggested if you are going to provide “deep links” into your site's content, be sure to give visitors a sense of where they arrived. They may be coming from a Google search.

Speaking of which, next let's look at why it's good idea for museums to do justice to their search feature.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons license from

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Strength in Numbers? Children's Museums and Partners

A number of our clients represent a merger of two or more organizations, or strategic partnerships that have formed an umbrella operating structure to coordinate activity and public identity. We have also worked on projects where our clients are organizations similar to children’s museums – such as libraries or preschools – which want to either start their own children’s museum-style facility or incorporate best practices from the field. So we wondered, to what extent are children’s museums intentionally partnering with other organizations?

Among the museums that took our survey, partnership with an umbrella organization, a parent organization, or participation in a merger is quite rare. Only 9 of the 42 respondents have such a relationship.

In the past 18 months there has been a lot of talk about mergers, co-locating, joint building projects, and other creative relationships between non-profits designed to provide some measure of economic security. We conducted this survey before the implications of the economic crises for the sustainability of small non-profits became clear. So this may be one area where planning for future projects will change the numbers, and we may see a wave of new partnerships being realized in the next few years.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Children’s Museums Organizational Structure

It is often the case that our role as exhibit developers and designers lacks clear boundaries. On the one hand, the line between where exhibits stop and the building begins is not fixed. This is especially true given our belief that museums are at their best –for communicating a sense of place, creating a memorable experience, and eliciting playful learning behaviors – when the exhibits and architecture are integrated.

On the other hand, exhibits are only fully realized when they are being used. So museum operations and organizational culture, from staffing to risk tolerance, are a necessary part of the exhibit design conversation. In that model, although the physical space of the museum is a design problem, educational questions are at the center of any solution.

Yet the traditional organizational chart for a children’s museum distinguishes between exhibits (the physical environment) and education (strategies for delivering on visitor outcome goals). Recently, we have seen a surge in Visitor Experience Departments that create an umbrella, bringing design and learning together into a single conversation. We wondered how many Visitor Experience departments there are in children’s museums, and whether the balance has tipped in favor of this new model.

From the data we collected, it looks like the traditional chart in which an Education and an Exhibit Department work side-by-side is still the most common. 33 Museums in our survey have both of these departments. In comparison, only 26 museums in our survey have Visitor Experience departments.

Moreover, it appears that some museums have kept their Education and Exhibit departments while adding a Visitor Experience department.

This is very interesting. To me, a Visitor Experience department suggests there may be multiple strategies for serving visitors –exhibits is one strategy, educational programs and staff-facilitated experiences are another, and there may be others as well under the same umbrella (including perhaps overall customer service issues) - while establishing one overarching coordinated effort that encourages people with different skills and perspectives to collaborate on multi-faceted solutions.

Retaining Education and Exhibits under Visitor Experiences seems to contradict this approach, and suggests that those two departments are still both delivering discrete services to the museum’s audience. I am curious how that structure functions, and why it was selected in those cases. What role does the Visitor Experience department play when Education and Exhibits both continue to exist as well? And to what extent do the Exhibit and Education departments in fact merge their efforts into a single visitor experience?

Another question that we asked was whether children’s museums have Collections Management departments. Some children’s museums are collecting institutions –think of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Boston Children’s Museum, and Please Touch, for example. Nonetheless I was surprised to see that 7 of the museums in our survey have Collections Management departments. This is a small number, but larger than I expected. It suggests that collecting may be more widespread than I realized, and that it is not limited to larger, older institutions.

Not surprisingly a few museums in our survey are still small enough that they have no departments at all.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Who Comes to Children’s Museums?

According to our survey of 42 children’s museums, the majorities of visitors are repeat users and live in the community.

The largest audience segment is families with children in preschool-kindergarten (40 museums serve that audience). Grades 1-3 are also a major audience for children’s museums (38 serve this group).

In addition, over half (26) of the museums in our survey say they also serve upper elementary ages all the way through grade 6, and nearly a third of respondents (17) say they serve teenagers.

Target Audience

We asked the children’s museums to also identify who their target audience is. This pie chart makes it clear that while teens and older children are coming to children’s museums, they are not who the museum is designed for.

Looking just at the children who are coming to these museums, they seem to mostly range in age from NB – 8, with somewhat more preschoolers than children in early elementary school. This appears to be consistent with other studies that have been done in the field. The Bay Area Discovery Museum, for example, has done an audience demographic survey and found their average visitor is age 4.

It should come as no surprise that children’s museums appeal to very young children and their adults. Broadly speaking, children’s museums often describe their audience as Early Childhood, which has been defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) as NB-8, exactly the audience we see in this survey.


Families appear, in this pie chart, as the single largest audience for children’s museums. I am thrilled to see families identified so clearly as a major audience.

Historically, children’s museums were for children and adults were seen as chaperones, but were not the target audience. Over time, some children’s museums added content for adults – labels, and take-home flyers for example. But the field has changed and there is now widespread recognition that adults are a key part of the visit, as well as an audience in and of themselves. So it is exciting to see children’s museums thinking about serving the whole family.

To address family audiences means serving both individuals (kids, adults, seniors) and groups (family units). It means finding ways to tune activities for a range of developmental levels, as well as for intergenerational learning. It is complicated and I am curious about the ways children’s museums address adult learners in particular. Are adults seen as an audience only in relation to their children – as play partners and lab assistants, coaches and cheerleaders, etc. – or are they understood as having as many needs, and diverse learning styles, as their children.

From the responses we got to the survey (see pie chart above:ALL AUDIENCES SERVED) it looks like most (33) of the museums consider parents an audience and most again (36) serve teachers, but only 7 have any kind of relationship with hobbyists, 8 with researchers, and 11 with other museum professionals. So although almost half of the audience for children’s museums is adults, it seems most children’s museums are considering adults as an audience together with their children, rather than an audience in-and-of itself.

This is interesting in part because it is happening in other parts of the museum field. For example:

Children’s Museums could be serving adults whose children are in the social services system (Providence Children’s Museum does this), they could be the host site for mommy-and-me groups, book groups, and museum research departments, they could partner with education schools to provide course credit for time spent working at the museum, etc. I am sure that you all can name many more groups of adults who would have an interest in what your museum does, and could make use of the organization’s expertise.


I want to take a moment to focus on the teen audience in children’s museums. The fact that teens show up in this survey as an audience at all, when the target audience is pre-school and the majority of the audience is under age 8, is fairly surprising. Are they coming to a children’s museum as part of a family outing with a younger sibling or do they see this as an age-appropriate outing for themselves?

Some of the respondents did address this. One commented that their age range has grown following an expansion and exhibit renewal. So that may represent a spike, rather than a trend. Another is a combination science and children’s museum. It is likely that in this case older kids are coming for the science center and then also checking out the children’s museum. And a third museum in the survey is, in fact, not a children’s museum in the typical sense but an urban museum using technology as a basis for creative project-based learning. Their average age visitor is 8.

Those museums are not the norm for organizations in the ACM membership. More commonly children’s museums find it very challenging to target older kids. The Boston Children’s Museum is one example of an organization that at one time considered 11 year olds part of the core audience. They had a teen clubhouse just for older kids. After evaluating their attendance, BCM realized there were not enough ‘tween and teen visitors to justify dedicated exhibit space. Instead, they decided to focus on programming for older kids, and leave the exhibits for the younger ones.

I like the strategy that BCM ended up with. I have long believed that children’s museums have the potential to attract older children by creating age appropriate roles for them, such as junior staff, or camper. I think it is interesting for children’s museums to find ways to include older children in their audience – just not primarily as visitors.