Posts Tagged ‘audience research’

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on ‘Understanding Museums’ in Germany. It was about researching museums and researching audiences, with a particular focus on new and innovative methods [1].

In the final plenary session, the organiser for the museum research aspect of the conference expressed his hope that the focus on researching audiences would not overshadow research of museums. I understand his desire to research collections, and displays more or less in isolation, and I will say that the session on provenance research was quite interesting.

However, the organiser’s comment was also a bit curious in my ears, as someone who passionately believes that museums are there not just for people, but because of people. Therefore, in my universe, audience research is the start and the end of all museums or heritage work. And please note that audience research here isn’t just research with those people that come through the door of the museum: it includes non-visitor as well. Audience research examines what they value about the heritage in our professional care, how they want to use it, engage with it – or not. It seeks to establish the barriers, the perceptions, anything that the museum is (apparently) doing wrong. But also what it is doing well: What do people value about it? What works? Why? In addition to this qualitative stuff, there’s the quantitative bit that can also give you an idea of how your museum works – and how it fails: the numbers, the stats, the visitor demographics. All of these things together are the basic foundation from which to do professional museum work.

‘Professional’ is quite important here. You would not believe the number of audience research I see in my work as a consultant that is frankly useless. People seem to think they can save money on this and just send the poor intern out to quickly whip up a survey and start asking people (or worse, just have ‘comment cards’ or the vexatious ‘visitor book’). In reality, audience research is quite a complex job. You have to know what you want to use this for and how. You need to think about sampling, bias, and analysis. You need to know how to administer your audience research: even doing surveys requires a professional approach. Planning audience research requires being familiar with the pros and cons of different methods, and not just relying on a one-size-fits all approach. Often, this is long-term data and developments you’ll want to capture, so there needs to be a proper strategy integrated into your management. Without that kind of professional audience research, your work will always suffer from an unprofessional, and thus shaky, foundation.

And why is audience research the necessary foundation? Because good audience research should inform business planning, business and options development, project development, infrastructure and visitor services, and interpretation. If you’ve cheated in the audience research, and allowed, for example, your biases to come through, or a notion that you ‘already know’ your visitors and non-visitors, then your entire project will suffer from it and most likely underachieve and under-deliver, be it in visitor numbers, satisfaction rates, or financial performance.

That’s why I found slightly curious the suggestion that audience research should take second place to museum research, understood here as research on collections, as far as I could gather. If you asked me, I would have it just the other way around. Without audience research, the heart of your museum can never properly beat.



[1] Here just a quick overview, and my thoughts:

Technology 1: Eye-tracking

It was quite noticeable that the non-British colleagues were very focused on technology-based museums and audience research. Eye-tracking and the use of video technology stood out. I wasn’t too sure at first about eye-tracking, especially with regards to understanding audiences, and how the museum worked for them. But then one presenter, Hanna Brinkmann of the University of Vienna, showed a ‘hot-spot’ map of a painting. It highlighted where most visitors looked (the face) and the areas they hardly noticed. She made the point that beside helping art historians understand how people ‘read’ art, it also gives a clue to interpreters about the things that visitors appear to be missing. That made sense, although I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a more cost-effective method available.


Technology 2: User Video Study

I was particularly intrigued by an excerpt from a User Video Study shared by Johanna Barnbeck of the University of Amsterdam. Basically this type of study attaches a camera to one of the group members, in this case a little boy, to capture their visit. Johanna found that people quickly forgot about the camera, and I thought this was a great way of seeing how visitors move through spaces, respond to exhibits and use interpretation socially, and potentially also to get some candid insights into what they think. I can see this method work also for the type of study that I’ve just done, which looked at the benefits that visitors took from heritage, and their relationship with it. I was conscious that I couldn’t eavesdrop into their conversations while observing them, and this would have been a potential solution (well, with funding). I think one would still want to have an explorative conversation, to follow up and probe on what they said and did. Apparently follow-up conversations were in fact part of the methodology that Johanna used.


Qualitative Methods

Several presenters also talked about using qualitative methods for audience research, sometimes, but not always in combination with technology-supported visitor observations. Unstructured interviews and narrative inquiry featured strongly, along with accompanied visits, with several presenters making the point that pre-determining structures, similar to pre-set answer options in surveys, means that what you can find is limited by your expectations, discourses and biases as a researcher. I thought that was an important point to make at a conference about audience research.


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Over recent months, living as an immigrant in Britain [1], I have gone through a process that leaves me feeling increasingly alienated from museums and heritage sites in this country. In still-used museum discourse terms, I’m probably becoming one of the ‘hard-to-reach’.

I feel let down by British museums. You see, these days, I daily feel in the firing line. Today, I am the other, the unwanted, even the enemy, if we go by some of the language used in the increasingly hostile discourse on immigration [2]. The UK Independence Party may have tried to soften the suggestion that upon a British exit from the EU people like myself will be deported (yellow stars anyone?), but when Radio 4 [3] not only fails to question the implications of such a notion, but actually appears to defend it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. This has become personal. This is my future that’s been threatened. This is my presence in this country that is being criticised, misrepresented and undervalued.

And while all this is going on, the First World War-dominated outputs from many museums are also spinning an inward looking narrative of ‘Britain’s just war’ against an enemy, and ‘heroes’ that will ‘not be forgotten’. Suddenly, I find myself thinking that I really don’t care to see yet another exhibition telling me the story of Britain’s sacrifices and battles. That’s not because I am no longer interested in Britain’s war stories, or British history in general. Rather, in combination with the current public discourse on immigration this has become the extension of an exclusive story that makes me uncomfortable. I neither feel safe at the prospect of visiting such exhibitions, nor happy.

If nothing else, I would have liked to see balanced stories that show the not-so-glorious aspects of history, to give a counter-weight to the current portrayals of Britain as a country once again under threat, fighting against injustice – this time from the EU and its migrants. But really, if British museums and heritage sites are serious about policy aspirations of mutual understanding, integration, and diversity, or even just the Museum Association’s vision that museums change lives, then they should be taking a stance. I’ve previously blogged that I think museums have a moral obligation to be the final line of defence, to hold a mirror up to society as a challenge to be better, and to be humble in the face of the tragedies its actions have caused in the past. Well, I think the time to hold up that mirror is now.

Crucially, that’s not a mirror that reflects me. I don’t need, nor am I interested in, an exhibition or programme about Germany. I don’t live in Britain to connect with Germany. I’m here because I want to live in Britain. If I’m beginning to be less inclined to visit museums and heritage sites here it’s not because they don’t ‘relate’ to my being German. Frankly, my heritage isn’t the issue here. The issue is a social and political environment that is casting me out, and which appears to be uncritically, if not intentionally, supported by museum and heritage narratives. That’s the problem. And I suspect that my experience as an immigrant at the moment, which leads me to feel this way, pales into utter insignificance compared to the experience of those who maybe were born here, but who happen to not be white, or straight, or middle-class, or well-educated, or whatever else classes one as ‘hard-to-reach’. Maybe their experience too is that it’s society as a whole that misrepresents them and turns them into ‘the other’, and they simply don’t care to get yet more of this by coming to a museum or heritage site. The exclusion does not lie in an excluded narrative about ‘the other’. The exclusion is the exclusion of a challenge to the mainstream, of a critical perspective not on the other, but the ‘majority’, and quite probably the very structure of the museum itself. I quite agree with the MA’s vision for museums to have an impact on social change: changing this societal context will tackle ‘exclusion’. Let’s get to it.


[1] Now here’s a label I never felt had any relevance for me. I was always simply a person who had moved from where she was born to elsewhere. And always because ‘elsewhere’ was a place I loved and wanted to spend more time in.
[2] A month ago a cabinet minister (!) talked about British towns being ‘under siege’ from immigrants, and ‘swamped’. He had to tone down his language, but ironically not over the siege part, but over ‘swamped’. ‘Under pressure’ was the expression sanctioned by Downing Street. It’s really not any better in my ears.
[3] For those of you not living in the UK: Radio 4 is the ‘serious’, publicly funded news outlet of the UK. For the US, think NPR. For Germany, think Deutschlandfunk. So having them not question the other side of this coin to me is nothing short of astonishing. I want my TV license money back that funds these guys. Which by the way is just one of the many (financial, as that is all that seems to count these days) contributions I make to British society. Just sayin’.  Because no-one else is.

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Target audiences are meant to do two things: guide our practice as we become more visitor focused, and increase visitor numbers. I’ve come to believe that in both areas, target audiences actually do more harm than good – at least the way we’re currently using them.

In general, audiences are segmented by the following: age, physical ability, mental ability, cultural background, motivation to visit, use of interpretation, experience sought [1]. These segmentations are applied to baseline audience surveys to identify the faithful and those underrepresented, and both are then converted into target audiences.

Of course, many studies have also shown that the ‘soft’ criteria (identity, experience) are not constant at all, but change for each visitor – from visit to visit, and sometimes even during a visit [2]. In practice, however, segments are treated as stable, and their behaviour as predictable.

Another point is that the criteria used to segment audiences aren’t actually mutually exclusive. Someone aged 15 is potentially as much a facilitator as someone aged 65. A Brit is as likely to have a disability as someone from an ethnic minority. Targeting one attribute ties up resources with only limited overall impact. In fact, as I have argued here, it may cause more problems around exclusion.

Another key question that hasn’t been as thoroughly considered is which practice these audience segments are actually meant to guide. Non-personal interpretation? Personal interpretation? Visitor infrastructure? Marketing? The assumed answer in practice seems to be: all of them. This very quickly causes confusion and problems as the needs of target audiences may be in conflict or so varied that no coherent development seems possible.

So what to do? It strikes me that the key thing missing from all our heartache over target audiences is the heritage itself. At the moment, our audience research seeks to channel data into segmentations based on visitor attributes alone. But some heritage tourism research [3], and incidentally my own research too, suggests, however, that we need to build a picture that is site-specific, and allows us to reflect on the particular value the site has for visitors.   Rather than impose generic audience categories, this means specific criteria can emerge that are relevant to the particular site in question, and which are in fact determining factors that cut across other visitor attributes. These factors will be on a spectrum, requiring a multi-tier provision, similar to what in interpretation literature is often described as an information hierarchy. For some sites, the factors may indeed be around knowledge, while for others it may be more about national identity. The point is, whatever categories emerge, they will be meaningful for this particular site and its visitors.

I also think that we need to be clear first what practice we’re using our audience research for. The determining factors above should always play a key role no matter if we’re talking marketing or interpretation. However, I think it helps to approach development by thinking in terms of a flow diagram: is the determining factor the starting point, or something else, such as how much time visitors have? For example, if you’re developing your event programme, the international visitor rushing to her next destination is unlikely to attend our two hour evening lecture, although she may be as passionately connected to our site as a local visitor. It makes sense, therefore, to start the diagram with visitors’ origin, and make the determining factor the second tier – you get the picture.

And finally: I still think that much of what traditional target audiences are meant to achieve is actually primarily a matter of best practice interpretation, taking away barriers, and good public relations.



[1] I’m sure we’ve all come across various segmentation models. In the UK, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s Culture Segments have held sway for years (although this model seems to be falling out of favour now), and in the more museums/interpretation-oriented world, Falks’ idea of ‘small identities’ is still talked about widely (2009, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience). The latter three criteria (identity, use of interpretation, experience) have been particularly stressed in visitor studies/tourism/heritage literature over the last ten years or so, and hailed by many as a sign of enlightened audience focus in practice. The former, meanwhile, nevertheless continue to be strong among practitioners, partly due to the emphasis these criteria receive in interpretation/communication literature, partly due to the way in which especially public bodies, including funders, conceptualise those that are meant to benefit from museums or heritage.

[2] A look at various identity studies, for example, shows this – something that Falk also noted. My own visitor observations, incidentally, also showed how visitors’ behaviour can change even while going through one exhibition gallery.

[3] See for example studies by Yaniv Poria et al.

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One of the unexpected outcomes of my current research into heritage interpretation and public benefit is that visitors actually tell me what they expect of interpretation.  I didn’t start out with this in mind; perhaps in my own version of researcher’s arrogance it didn’t even occur to me that they would be able to articulate this expectation.


But boy, do they know what they want.  And the fact that I didn’t set out to ask this question of them (‘Now, do tell me what you want from interpretation’) actually meant that their answers emerged naturally, and unencumbered by my own assumptions [1]. I’m not finished with my interviews yet, and there’s still the proper analysis to do, but already I’m getting a sense of something that I shall henceforth call ‘The People’s Charter for Interpretation’.  And here are just some of its articles:


1) Interpretation must provide guidance

Visitors want us to tell them where to look.  They want us to help them navigate what can be quite an overwhelming flood of stimuli: a massive stone tower over here, an open field over there, and a museum full of artefacts in the middle.  Guidance doesn’t hinder their own exploration.  It just gives them a good starting point.


2) Interpretation must give context.

Many of the visitors I’ve spoken to aren’t only interested in this one event, or this one building in front of them.  They want the context, the background, the whole fabric of before and after that explains why this event took place, or why this building is here.


3) Interpretation must enable you to make up your own mind

This came out especially in Germany, where people expect interpretation to provide all the (relevant!) facts, so that visitors can decide for themselves what ‘the truth’ is.  In this, visitors once again come across as much more informed and considered than what we often give them credit for.  They can handle controversy.  They just want it presented in a fair way [2].


4) Interpretation must provide room for emotion

Further analysis may make me change the phrasing of this one.  At the moment, I feel that visitors aren’t asking for ‘emotional interpretation’.  What they want is interpretation that doesn’t shy away from the realisation that the subject at hand, the ‘fact’, the event, the story may have an emotional resonance in people.  I have the motto in mind that we had a Culloden Battlefield: to treat the events and people ‘with respect and dignity’.  That wasn’t emotional, but it allowed people to be emotional (and they were).


5) Interpretation must hurt

This is my favourite, and it’s how one gentleman in Germany expressed it.  He did actually give the example of times gone by, when a little boy would be slapped at the site of a border stone, so that he may remember its location in the future.  It turned out that he didn’t actually propose that we slap visitors as they come through the door. What he meant was the physical encounter with an event or site.  He felt that interpretation should help visitors to physically work at understanding the site, by moving around purposefully, doing activities that are physically interpretive.


These are just some of the things visitors have told me so far.  Some of it is different from what we as interpreters tend to talk about, and some of it isn’t.  What’s amazing to me, as always, is just how many insights visitors actually have.  We would do well to start all our professional debates with a good old chat with them.



[1] That’s another thing that’s becoming more and more obvious to me: Researchers can really sabotage their own quest for knowledge by plonking their own concepts onto an unsuspecting public.  They don’t speak our language, and they really may not be much interested in what we’re trying to get at, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to say or contribute.  I find people mostly enjoy talking about their experiences, and it’s in sitting back and listening that the best insights turn up.

[2] I was tempted to say ‘in a factual way’, but in interpreter speak that would throw us back to a false belief in ‘facts’ and potentially boring texts that recite these.

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