Category Archives: Visitor Studies

World Autism Awareness Day – April 2

Autism Awareness Day!

Autism Awareness Day!

Ignore the glossy-eyed look – it’s 7:30 AM and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Traffic was minimal, and I got to work too early – enough time to quickly share a post!

Today is Autism Awareness Day, and one of our new staff members crafted some homemade Autism Awareness Day pins. Our staff is excited to help spread awareness, and this highlights not only a positive and supportive community, but also an openness to new ideas and program research!

Several staff show support for Autism Awareness Day.

Several staff show support for Autism Awareness Day. Photo: Courtesy of our awesome Marketing/PR guru

We recently started to investigate low-sensory programming, inspired by The Children’s Museum of Houston. The CMH works to reduce light, sound, and high number of crowds on low-sensory days, and offers specific recommendations for other times of year – i.e. in the afternoons during the school year, or early in the mornings during the summer, when crowds are smaller. This parallels our busy times with school groups here at the museum, specially during this busy spring season and post-testing season. The CMH also offers ear-defenders, to help cancel out noise which may be overwhelming. The website makes a special note on these low-sensory days, and highlights that no music is played. Additionally, it should be noted, the CMH is closed to the public on these specific days.

Does your museum or institution offer low-sensory programming?

What have you found which works – or doesn’t?

As we continue to explore offerings to make all our visitors feel welcome and engaged, I am curious about your experiences! At this stage in program research, we are exploring programs and opportunities at other museums – especially other children’s museums and science centers – and seeking professional insight and experiences. While museums definitely encourage bustling galleries with excited and engaged visitors, this does not always create a positive visitor experience – especially for visitors with heightened senses and needs.

Side note: As you can tell in this early morning shot, my gaze is directed toward my snazzy Brain Scoop poster, which, while decorative, also raises a lot of questions from other staff members unfamiliar with this terrific YouTube program, now hosted out of The Field Museum by their Chief Curiosity Correspondent.

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Favorite Childhood Museum Memory?

In keeping with the rebranded title of this blog, I thought I’d pose a question. What’s your favorite childhood museum memory?

Sometimes this moment acts as the catalyst which may drive folks into the field. For others, a favorite childhood museum memory is merely the first of countless, as they enjoy sites of heritage, art, and science throughout their lives as visitors and/or volunteers.

One of my favorite childhood museum memories is visiting the Swedish American Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Located mere feet from where some of my family were born and bred, the museum is located in the heart of a very Swedish neighborhood, Andersonville. I remember visiting this museum with my sister, mom, and grandma, and taking in the bright blues and yellows of the walls, exhibits, and museum store while fervently inhaling the smells of the Swedish bakery across the street. While short on actual content, the welcoming and warm impression that I got from the museum has stayed with me through today.

The Swedish American Museum is located in the heart of Andersonville, a Swedish neighborhood on North Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois.

The Swedish American Museum is located in the heart of Andersonville, a Swedish neighborhood on North Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois.

As museums work to create engaging and educational exhibitions, diverse programs, and special events, an important concept which event planners, programmers, administrators, etc.  keep in mind is the “tone” of the event. Visitors don’t need to come to the museum. Museums can’t force visitors through their doors (as much as some may want to…). For the most part, museums aim to create welcoming atmospheres of informal learning, where visitors are invited to explore, discover, and form a relationship with the museum. Whether the resulting relationship is a one-time visit, a yearlong membership, or a lifetime of dedication to the museum’s mission, the initial and lasting impressions that visitors get when visiting an institution may often stay with them, long after the content and facts may fade.

Side note:  I’ve since been back to the Swedish American Museum several times –  it’s fantastic. I can’t wait to return again. Perhaps in May this year, when we briefly return to tour the great state of Illinois…

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Science Snapshot: Artifact Experiences

Recently I proposed, planned, and implemented a new visitor experience program at the museum, “Artifact Experiences.” In an effort to interpret our collection (of +1,500 objects!), “Artifact Experiences” seeks to curate temporary, facilitated displays of artifacts from the museum’s collection that connect with a temporary exhibition, special event, or program. Since becoming a more hands-on science center, the museum’s collection is largely otherwise uninterpreted to the public. Combining my museum collections and education background, this program seeks to safely and carefully interpret the collection as appropriate. I created temporary object labels to specifically connect with the new exhibit, Tech City. I also placed the objects on muslin cloth during their temporary display. 

At all times carefully facilitated by museum staff, interested visitors had the opportunity to don gloves for a careful hands-on exploration. I also provided mini-magnifying glasses for curious eyes to get a closer inspection. The display offered visitors an entirely new opportunity to connect with the museum’s collection and mission, and I had a lot of great questions and enthusiasm from visitors. 

This Friday, February 7th I kicked off the new program with a small display connecting to the new exhibtion in our WOW Gallery, Tech City. Focused on themes of industrialization, manufacturing, and communication (all key elements to a modern city, eh?), the temporary display highlighted a small sample of our truly awesome collection. 

Curated pieces included: 

  • An Automatic Fire Alarm Repeater (c.1899) 

  • Hallicrafters Model 505 Television (1948) 

  • Wooden Planer (c. 1850) 

  • Dalton Adding Machine (1912) 


    An Artifact Experience


    Any suggestions for this program as it continues to grow and evolve? I’m eager to continue to safely highlight our collection while continuing best practices. 

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The Day I Worked at the Exploratorium

In early November I was lucky to join the Arkansas Discovery Network for a professional development workshop with the Exploratorium. The ADN has a long-standing relationship with the Exploratorium, which, to put it simply, is both like a “sister museum” of ours as well as a “mother ship” of science center innovation, insight, and creativity. I last visited the Exploratorium in December 2011 when it was at its original location at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was a wonderful experience, as I had just started learning about Frank Oppenheimer, its founder, during graduate school, and his key role in hands-on informal education. Now the museum is located at Pier 15/17 in a brand new facility, with down-right awesome tech features as well as being incredibly environmentally friendly. It was great to revisit this institution in its new setting, especially with my new position in the STEM/STEAM field.

During this workshop, professionals from institutions within the ADN (including the Museum of Discovery, the Mid-America Science Museum, The Art & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, and Amazeum) came together to learn from educators and innovators at the Exploratorium about audience engagement, teamwork, tinkering, and planning and implementing floor activities. It was invigorating, exhausting, and educational – but mostly fun!

The workshop took place from Thursday, November 7 – Sunday, November 11, and concluded with an activity on the museum floor (aka: I got to work at the Exploratorium for a day!!!) Our mission during this workshop was to design a “chain reaction”  tinkering activity or a Rube Goldberg machine. After designing the activity, we would then present it on the museum floor in the Exploratorium’s awesome Tinkering Studio.

I  am an official Tinkerer.

I am an official Tinkerer.

Our group began by first experimenting with circuits. This was neat, and a little nerve-wracking for some of the workshop participants. Educators, administrators, and executives attended the workshop, so there was a mix of academic and professional backgrounds – always a good thing for creativity! Some participants were more comfortable with circuits than others. After some basic circuit work we created our own mini chain reaction. Our supplies and materials ranged from wooden blocks, to deconstructed toys (think a dancing Santa toy without a face or costume), to Legos, pipe cleaners, and beyond. We also included circuits within our chain reactions, incorporating this element of technology as both a creative element, as well as a possible reactor to setting off the chain reactions. We paired into teams of two, each creating a mini chain reaction within a larger group reaction. This emphasized teamwork, as well communication within the larger group, to ensure each mini chain reaction impacted the next. One thing I found especially helpful about the organization of this activity was I was able to meet and get to know several individuals within the Network. As the new kid on the block, there were many folks to meet!

After we implemented our own chain reaction, we took our experiences and discussed the most effective ways to incorporate this activity on the museum floor. This part was a bit tricky. There were several nut and bolt issues to discuss. For example:

  • What was the age range of the activity? Should it be open to all?
  • How long should the activity last?
  • How many participants (or pairs?) should be allowed?
  • What supplies could (or should?) we incorporate?
  • Who should facilitate what? Or was facilitation necessary?
  • What was the most practical way to arrange the room?
  • How could other visitors aka non participants, become a part of this activity?
  • Should there be multiple sessions of the activity?

With a group of diverse museum professionals from multiple institutions of varying size and scope, we had several lively discussions on the most effective means to implement the activity. We had multiple brainstorming sessions within a day and half time period. In the end, we incorporated several of the group’s thoughts, while also utilizing our workshop leaders’ recommendations based on their knowledge of both the space and the activity.

The day of the activity arrived. We decided to have two sessions of a chain reaction. Each session lasted about 90 min, with visitors welcome to join throughout this period with the understanding of the time commitment. We decided due to the nature of the activity ages 10 – adult would be encouraged to partake, with a limit of about 12 teams in each session. There were several family groups, a few couples, and some groups of friends who joined together. The creativity of the multigenerational pairings was really neat to see. The age limit did cause some disappointment from younger Tinkerers, but most visitors accepted this caveat without any trouble. We arranged tables within the Tinkering Studio to allow participants ease of access to materials, as well as strong visibility to passerby, so other visitors could watch the session unfold. Materials included a range of ramps, wooden blocks, circuits, misc crafty materials, as well as fun supplies we purchased from Cliff’s Variety in the Castro District.

At the close of each chain reaction session a large group gathered to see the reaction take place. Both reactions went off (mostly) without a hitch. The most rewarding aspect of the activity was seeing the dedication of participants (90 minutes can be both a short and long amount of time, depending on your enthusiasm!) and their joy in watching the chain reaction take place.

The workshop was a terrific opportunity to facilitate on the floor of the Exploratorium and to learn from our workshop leaders about audience engagement techniques. In many ways I am still processing the trip and the workshop experience – so much of what I gained from the workshop came not just from implementing the activity, but also from exploring the museum floor, interacting and meeting professionals in the field, as well as visitors at the museum.

This post attempts to sum up a great professional development opportunity. Do you have similar experiences with professional development? What has been your best experience to date? I’d love to hear your experiences. Also, I’d be interested in hearing if anyone has been the Exploratorium since their reopening. Thoughts?



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Four Things Museums Can Learn From Sharknado

While I pack, unpack, pack, and repeat a few times during an especially busy July, I thought I’d share this fun & insightful post from Museum Minute. Even if you haven’t (yet) seen Sharknado, this article nicely sums up some key concepts that museums and all non-profits can easily embrace to better serve audiences. What do you think?

Museum Minute

This is not a paid endorsement for The SyFy Channel. In fact, I understand that SyFy isn’t for everyone – just like C-SPAN and Powerblock TV isn’t for everyone.

I’m a sucker for SyFy movies. As someone who lives and breathes history, which I find incredibly exciting (and at times exhilarating), the thing about history is that it isn’t always so happy. That being said, there is always something to be learned from history, a silver lining (no matter how small or seemingly unimportant), and the repercussions of history cannot be argued. While it’s hard for a history lover for me to admit, I completely acknowledge (and agree) that history can be a downer. After a long day of reading about chattel slavery, the civil war, segregation, genocide, etc., I truly appreciate a bizarre SyFy film.

So, why am I talking about SyFy films?

If you missed the cultural…

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Visitors Count – Continued

Summer marks a strong tourist season here in Springfield. As the state capitol we get many individuals and families from across the state, country, and even international visitors enjoying the season. It’s a great time to meet so many visitors interested in learning more about Illinois’ natural and cultural history. This month and next, I’m continuing my work with our Education Section with Visitors Count (see more in an earlier post here).

This is a great program which will allow us to grow from our visitors’ insight through surveys. Another way we learn from our visitors is through paper and electronic guestbooks in our lobby, through comments shared with staff and volunteers, and finally through keeping track of reviews on websites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor. At the end of their visit, we encourage visitors to share their experiences online so that other visitors will learn about the ISM.

When I travel, I consult websites such as Trip Advisor to help plan my trip. I recently made my very first review on a website, and their web staff mailed me a luggage tags as a special thanks! What other sites do you and your family explore? Do you share your experiences? Why or why not?


Let’s pause for a commercial break…

With resources like Hulu and Netflix, it seems like I hardly ever watch live television. Recently I turned on the TV to enjoy the series finale of NBC’s The Office and flipped through neighboring stations PBS, ABC, and CBS during the episode’s breaks. While I had mixed feelings about the show (Should it have ended at the close of season 7? Do Dwight and Angela belong together after everything?), I was struck by the commercials – and the presence of museums in the advertisements.

Have you seen these two different commercials?

Liberty Mutual American Experience “Sacagaewa” (PBS)

AT&T HTC First “Museum” (NBC)

The Liberty Mutual commercial plays upon views of traditional museum dioramas, and suggests an ability to only communicate stagnate and stale historical narratives. Museum dioramas such as the one pictured are fairly common components in some cultural and natural history museums – dating from a specific period in exhibition design, museum education, and historical interpretation. What troubles me about this commercial is it suggests museums do not change or strive to create engaging or changing narratives…and audiences should consult an insurance company instead. The commercial acts as both a criticism of historical simplification and the possible effectiveness and storytelling ability of museum dioramas.

The AT&T commercial details museum visitors drifting through a gallery engrossed with social media in place of the works featured in the museum. Recently Nina Simon, the powerhouse behind Museum 2.0, commented on the AT&T commercial noting that the integration of social media and technology in our daily lives is overwhelming and distracting, and that the “commercial could have just as easily been framed in another context that affords focus–work, a dinner party, playing sports.” Because the commercial was featured in a museum however, it does push those in the field to examine how museums can create engaging connections for visitors.

How can we continue to create positive and engaging experiences? Museums and cultural centers continue to embrace technology and social media – from ipads and QR codes in galleries to behind the scenes information on tumblrs, Facebook, and more! A recent example – Earlier this month The Christian Science Monitor detailed how the Cleveland Museum of Art engages its tech-savvy visitors with technology. Like many sites of informal learning, museums continue to evolve, push, and grow with the different learning styles, needs, and wants of museum visitors.

What do you think? Do these commercials highlight popular conceptions of the museum experience? What can museums do to market themselves and highlight growing and evolving efforts to meet audience wants and needs? As a museum professional or museum visitor, have you seen great examples of visitor engagement?

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Hey Girl: Public History Ryan Gosling

This morning I had a sudden thought – What happened to the amazing Public History Ryan Gosling tumblr page? A majority of students in my graduate program followed it during our time in the trenches – er – classroom. As our coursework reached an end in May 2012, Ryan seemed to disappear…

Created by graduate students studying Public History at the Loyola Univeristy of Chicago, Public History Ryan Gosling is a blog using the tumblr platform that pairs the popular “Hey Girl” meme with theories and concepts behind public history. 



The tumblr was an amazing success – easily reaching + 60,000 individuals and creating all sorts of Public History and Gosling dialogues! In an October 2012 post, the creators of the site analyzed the effectiveness of using popular culture and social media as a communicative device for historians. 

So what happened to Public History Ryan Gosling? Well, from quick observation, it looks like the student authors of the blog may have gone on to pursue internships and/or jobs. In their interview, the creators note the “ephemeral nature of online culture” and point out that “Public History Ryan Gosling lost his cachet within months” and by fall 2012 the site was “somewhat outdated and irrelevant.” 


With the Internet’s attention span all of about 20 seconds, this raises the question – How can historians, museums, and other sites of informal learning effectively utilize social media to communicate with the public? One thing is certain – the frequency of updates and posts are essential – as is the quality. 

What are some ways your institution – or cultural organizations you follow – effectively use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and tumblr? What would you change? 

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A Career in Museums?

As a child I envied my peers who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. You know the type – Firefighter. Teacher. Doctor. Nurse. Mime. I remember thinking, I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. 

Since then I have discovered that I love working in museums. I enjoy engaging visitors and making museum collections accessible. Every day something new is going on – a new program to design, a new project to research, a new volunteer to train – I don’t remember the last time I was ever bored!

Recently I had the opportunity to help represent the field of museums at a high school career fair. Eager students flooded a gym set up with about fifty different exhibitors, with career fields ranging from dance to pharmacy to funeral home management and beyond. There was a wonderful turnout by both local organizations and interested students. It was great to talk with students about what they were interested in studying at college and potentially pursuing as a career.The day was energizing a number of ways. Often students asked what they could do to prepare themselves for potentially working in the field. Our answer? Visit museums. Volunteer. Intern, etc. Exploring a career in museums comes with its share of challenges – as does any number of professions these days. As an emerging professional almost done with graduate school, talking with these high school students was refreshing and reminded me of when I first began considering a career path in the museum world! Their ideas and curiosity about the field made the morning and afternoon fly.

When did you first start to consider your career? Are you pursuing what you thought you wanted to be “when you grow up?”

ISM represented the field of museums at a high school career fair. We had the subcategory of "archeology" as well - although this is just one aspect of the expertise on staff!

ISM represented the field of museums at a high school career fair. We had the subcategory of “archaeology” as well – although this is just one aspect of the expertise on staff!

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Visitors Count!

DIANE: It’s so refreshing to go to a museum with someone who doesn’t slide across the marble floors in their stocking feet.
SAM: Hey, those paintings look a lot better if you go by fast.

(Cheers, Season 3, Episode 9, “An American Family.”)

A museum visit – as highlighted through this Cheers quotation – can differ dramatically depending on the visitor. In an effort to better understand what makes (or breaks) a museum experience, visitor studies help institutions and organizations better meet the needs of current and future museum audiences.

As an intern, I am excited to be on board while our institution works with the American Association for State and Local History in the new Visitors Count! program. This program partners AASLH with the Center for Nonprofit Management of Nashville, and facilitates surveys, analysis, and benchmark results against other organizations in the field. As part of the Education Section, so far I have assisted with survey question feedback. I look forward to learning more about the program and about audience research in general as our work continues.

What really impresses you as a museum guest – or professional – when you visit other institutions? As a museum visitor, is there one thing you would change about your average museum experience? More gallery seating? A free coat check? All ideas welcome!

Read more about Visitors Count!

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