Posts Tagged ‘visitor surveys’

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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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.


I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.


But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.


To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.


I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.





[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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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.

Sticky notes on cases.

An example of the sticky notes on two cases.

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