Archive for August, 2013

In June, The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) invited professionals to respond to these questions for an upcoming issue of Dimensions magazine: When are evaluation and other visitor feedback strategies the most useful for helping advance a science center’s mission?  When are such strategies less successful?  We pondered this at a staff meeting and decided that a small but important tweak may be needed to begin addressing the questions.  First, let’s clarify that mission describes what a museum does and impact describes the result of what a museum does—on the audiences it serves.  We believe that anything a museum does—collect, exhibit, educate—is meaningless unless it is done in the pursuit of impact.  So, when is evaluation most useful for advancing a science center’s tree_fallsmission?  When it is done to advance impact not mission.  It’s a little like that old adage: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  With regard to mission and impact, we take a slightly different angle—if a museum does work or evaluation that does not lead to impact, are they really doing the work?

Evaluators are in the same boat as some museum practitioners.  Evaluation is a means to an end, just as a museum’s collections are a means to an end.  Unless evaluation is placed in a meaningful context, such as helping a museum pursue impact, evaluation doesn’t serve a purpose.  As an evaluator, I suppose I should say evaluation is always valuable.  But, that’s just not true.  I’m a self-proclaimed data nerd.  I love the minutia of evaluation—pouring over pages and pages of interview transcripts and pulling out those five key visitor trends.  I can get lost in data for days and find myself pulled in many seemingly fruitful directions.  “Oh, how interesting!” I will say to no one in particular.  I often find myself lost in the visitors’ world, chuckling to myself about a quirky response to an exhibit or wondering who someone is and why he or she responded to a museum experience in a particular way.  Getting lost in your work can be fun and, lucky me, happens to those of us who are passionate about what we do.  So, while pursuing tangents in evaluation data is fun for me, there is a flip side to this coin—a lack of focus that can be detrimental to the pursuit of a larger goal.  This is why we, as evaluators, push our clients to articulate what it is they want to achieve to keep us (and them) on track.

We consistently find museum practitioners to be among those most passionate about their work.  Thus, these moments of losing oneself in one’s work, whether researching or examining an object, designing an exhibition, or creating a program, are frequent occurrences.  When it comes to pursuing impact, this passion is both a joy and a burden.  It is a joy because most practitioners can easily articulate what they do for their audiences.  But, they often get lost in what they do and may not think about why they do what they do.  A practitioner articulating the “why” is similar to the entire museum articulating its intended impact.  Articulating impact provides a laser focus for all the work that museum practitioners do and helps keep them on track toward pursuing that larger goal.  So, our response to ASTC’s second question, When are evaluation strategies less successful in helping advance a science center’s mission?  When a science center and its collective staff have yet to articulate the impact they hope to achieve on the audiences they serve.  Otherwise, we can all do evaluation until we are blue in the face but those reports will continue to collect dust on hundreds of science centers’ shelves.  Of this I am certain—just like death and taxes.

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That’s right, you “app-ed” for it, a post about the intentional use of apps and mobile technology in museums.  I admit that I come to this post with a rather skewed perspective, for when my phone vibrates, it’s not a shiny wide-screened smart phone that I pick up, but my good ole’ 2008 vintage RAZR.  And though personally I’m a little terrified of the potential for a smart phone to replace my library-book reading time on the Metro and become the center of my world, professionally I’ve come to see how intentionally implemented mobile technology can be a “smart” option for enhancing the museum experience.

So you might ask, what’s going on with apps and museums?  Let’s start with a perspective most recently championed in Matthew Petrie’s controversial piece (see Nancy Proctor’s comments) in The Guardian.  He argues that there is a boom of museum visitors using smart phones, so why don’t museums do more to reach out to this built-in audience?  AAM’s Mobile in Museums Study makes a similar point, alluding to the many smart phone users visiting museums, who on average sport 29 apps on their phone!  In fact, AAM makes the case that apps are one of the top-three fastest-growing mobile interpretation methods in the museum world.  With stats like that, and the exciting selection of museum apps available, it’s hard not to get swept up in museum-app madness!

Museum Apps

But, if apps are the current wave of the future, how can we—museum practitioners and evaluators—think more intentionally about how apps might support visitors’ museum experiences?  While it may sound like common sense, museums may need to ensure visitors become more aware of their apps and mobile-support offerings.  In a recent RK&A study of app use in an art museum, about one-half of interviewees who were not using the app said they chose not to because they wanted a self-guided experience.  However, one-third of these interviewees  said they were unaware that the option to use an app existed.  Interviewees also were unaware of or had misconceptions about the availability of free wifi in the museum, their ability to borrow mobile devices, or that they could download the app for free.  A recent V&A study on visitors’ app use shows similar findings; most of their visitors were unaware of the museum’s free wifi connection.  So, in order for visitors to have meaningful app experiences, we need to improve the communication level and make app awareness a priority.

We may also want to think further about how apps are developed, particularly in terms of content and use.  To justify using apps as a new interpretive tool, museums can take advantage of the qualities that distinguish apps from other interpretive options (the ability for visitors to take pictures, share content, participate in a mobile community, etc.).  We also may need to consider whether an app is the best vehicle for the content a museum might want to feature.  These questions came up in the above RK&A study where we found that one-third of interviewees using the app only used it as an audio guide, ignoring or unaware of the app’s other distinct features.  This finding may have a familiar ring, as Koven Smith, a former professor of mine, notes in his article, “The Future of Mobile Interpretation,” a change in museum mentality may need to take place in order to elevate apps from glorified audio guides to interpretive tools that fully utilize their unique features.

The app currently under development for The British Postal Museum and Archive is really exciting in terms of how it utilizes app technology and fits with the mission of the museum.  A team of undergraduates from the Worchester Polytechnic Institute did the research on how to design the app and their paper is phenomenal.  Their app would introduce visitors to the museum’s collection through a stamp collecting activity.  Visitors can walk through the galleries snapping pictures of stamps and, thanks to the powers of image recognition, pull up more information about them.  The app design makes sense to me because it is activity-based (taking a picture), focused on the museum’s collection, and related to stamp collecting behavioral skills like observing details and curating a collection.  Another great aspect of the app is that, theoretically, it works outside the museum, too.  You can snap pictures of the stamps on your own mail, pull up information about them, and add them to your growing collection.

So, where do we, as museum practitioners and evaluators, go from here?  There is clearly great potential for what apps can do to enhance a museum experience, especially as museums lay the logistical groundwork to support visitors’ app use.  And though app designs still tend toward the didactic audio guide, museums are starting to experiment with new ways of thinking about and presenting their content as well as alternative ways visitors can interact with it.  As I think more about the evolution of museum apps, I return to the cycle of learning and the value that researching, reflecting, planning, and aligning has already had on museum-based apps and will continue to have on determining best practices.

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