I’m a big fan of gathering people’s views and ideas in a creative way. Don’t get me wrong: I’m also religious about doing ‘formal’ visitor surveys. They’re great for capturing evidence and hard data for our decision-makers in an economic fashion, and yes, if we ask the right questions, they will also give us some good insights, too. The thing is, formal surveys – quantitative or otherwise – are just so uninspiring, especially for visitors. They can also be desperately limiting with regards to the kinds of responses you can get.
But there’s another way. I like coming up with projects or events that collect people’s input, be it evaluative feedback or ideas for future development, by the backdoor, as it were. During these projects or events, people may not even realize that actually, they are being ‘consulted’ (oh, how I abhor that word). For them, they’re just having fun, and as we free them from any sense of expectation and structure, what they come out with can be immensely valuable and unexpected.
Let me share a recent example from one of our museums. Over a weekend, we provided visitors with differently shaped sticky notes to plaster all over the museum: hearts for what they liked, arrows for what they were critical of, and speech bubbles for any other comments, ideas, stories they’d like to share. The only guideline we gave them was to write on the note WHY they’d placed it. And off they went.
The kids were the ones who most astonished me. I’ll confess that I really only expected silly comments from them. Instead, they plonked an arrow right smack onto our kids’ table with pens, pointing out that without paper, this ‘kids table’ was just plain useless (oops). They were also the ones that highlighted that our red (!) button, which we expected visitors to press to get light in one of the cases, was off-putting – after all, isn’t red the colour for ‘do not’? Good point. And best of all: they put a speech bubble onto one of our portrait paintings: ‘If only you knew I come alive @ midnight’. I loved it! It had fun with the collection, and I saw tons of visitors look at it and laugh.
That was actually the most interesting aspect: to see how visitors interacted with the comments left behind by others. We got real conversations going:
- It doesn’t say how these tiles were manufactured or made. Were they baked, dried, moulded? Tell us!’
- ‘Does that matter here? They are tiles!’
- ‘Why display it if that doesn’t matter?’
Sometimes, these also discussed new ideas:
- ‘It is very quiet here, how about bird songs?’
- ‘Agree, where is birdsong or wind in the wheat?’
- ‘Agree with bird noise idea or something to bring this to life.’
The other thing that using the sticky notes made very obvious was how many visitors responded to the same things. Our ‘natural history display’ (really only one case with stuffed animals, surrounded by painfully boring painted walls) attracted a whole array of arrows and speech bubbles, with only the occasional heart thrown in. Many of these notes simply stated ‘I agree’ – a powerful reminder for why we need good practice and research in interpretation: because with the basics, we can actually anticipate people’s questions and responses. In this case, the point they made was that the display was actually, well, rather pointless, and boring.
The event also proved really good at uncovering the stories that were important to visitors: they marked what they liked, and they identified what they felt we had missed out. Some of it was motivated by the poster’s own individual and specialist interest, and no one seconded it. In other instances, people ‘agreed’ with their own sticky notes, or they actually named the same topic elsewhere in the museum. I think this is a really good way of starting an inclusive significance assessment, especially when it comes to uncovering the important stories for a city and its museum.
Finally, the event also made us look at the museum in a new way. To kick start the discussions, myself and some of the staff went through and placed our own sticky notes. All of us felt that in doing so, we looked at the displays more from a visitor point of view, and we got new ideas from this, as well as from discussing visitors’ comments. We already have a plan in place to action some of what has come out of the event, and we’ve kept a record of all responses to go back to in the future.
In short, we got a lot out of this event. It had a limited timescale (we’re only open a half day on Sundays), but still we got nearly 800 contributions. The best thing though in my view is that people actually had fun doing this, and the anonymity of the event meant that we got creative and candid responses that would be almost impossible to get in a formal survey.