Monthly Archives: December 2011

What are the big trends in interactive exhibits for 2012?

Journal entry by Flickr user JoelMontes

Since it’s the end of the year, I’ve been staring at my list of “things I’d like to do in 2012” and trying to turn them into a workable personal professional development plan.  In looking at all the events and places I’ve highlighted, it turns out an emergent theme in 2011 has been looking for/at trends in museums and trying to be more proactive than reactive. Between Museums and the Webthe Horizon Report and the Salzburg Global Seminar, MCN, and the daily drip of inspiration coming in from Twitter, it’s been a heady Fall.

At the same time, I ranted a very little bit about computers in museums. The upshot of this was starting to talk to Seb Chan about putting together some kind of conference presentation on new justifications for computer interactives. I had one of those flow moments, where a bunch of seemingly disparate elements all suddenly snap into alignment and seem like a coherent whole.  Maybe this could be my theme for the coming year! Studying new approaches to interactivity in museums!

Now I’m wondering if I can turn an unwieldy pile of people, places and events into a course of sorts that would push me to learn more about new ways you and your friends are using interactivity in museums.  There’s lots to learn!

Here’s my admittedly incomplete list of things that I want to know more about and incorporate into my practice. Can you add other trends or examples to the list?

What else have I left out?

Visitors’ preference for computers, Part Two

In Part One of this post, I mentioned Reach Advisors’ report on visitors’ preferences for computers. In their nationwide surveys of 40,000+ from over a 100 museums, they found that only 11% of visitors liked using computers to receive information. In response to the crowing of the Luddites online, I felt compelled to offer up a little analysis of their analysis. Just remember, I’m not a professional evaluator, just a consumer of evaluations. You’ve been warned.

I ended my last post with the question “What’s going on here?” Their “findings” and the way they’ve chosen to present them are pretty sensationalist. But I have some problems with their methodology. The big one is their sample.


40,000 people sounds like an impressive amount, and it is. But if you look closely at their report, you see that their response rate across all the museums they worked with hovers around 5%. That’s a tiny amount of the visitorship of any museum, and that 5% were not a random sample of visitors. They are exclusively people who volunteered to fill out a survey from the museum. And if you’ve ever read visitor comment cards from your museum you know that by and large they are written exclusively by people with strong feelings one way or the other. The Museum of Science has been conducting random visitor surveys for some time, and one of the things we’ve learned is that members’ opinions differ greatly from non-members when it comes to satisfaction. Without a random sample, it’s not really possible to make broad claims about museum visitors, or even “core” visitors as they call them. With a 5% uptake rate, they can’t even say how their sample differs from the museum-going population as a whole.

Definitions (or “a car is a car, right?”)

a car by Flickr user indy_slug

a car by Flickr user Peter Martin Hall

My main beef is the way they’ve defined “computer interactives” to be the most boring, vanilla implementation of computers in museums — the lonely kiosk. I agree with their reasoning that it would’ve been too hard to explain to visitors all the ways that computing technology might be embedded in an experience that doesn’t look like a computer. For solid results I think you’d need to have an evaluator on hand explaining it. But then, I wouldn’t be quite so liberal with the proclamations about their results. I’m not a big fan of kiosks either. But my beef with them is usually a design problem, not an inherent quality of their “computerness” which is how it is possible to interpret Reach Advisors’ report.

I’ve always taken it as a given, but maybe it needs saying. In the hierarchy of interactions, the pinnacle has always been person to person. If we could station an interpreter at every exhibit, there’d be no need for people who do what I do. Given that we can’t have people everywhere, we settle for interactive exhibits to give visitors as rich an experience as possible. Which takes me to the part of the report I actually love, which I mentioned in the first part of this post.


Looking back over the report, it almost feels to me like two different people wrote it. After starting out with some grand statements about visitors and computers, they wind up saying what every exhibit designer or developer hopefully learns on Day One; that every situation is unique, and that reflective practitioners focus on the ideas and experiences they want the visitor to have, and then design an experience that delivers on that,using the best technologies to achieve it. I wrote about this some time ago, in a post called Listen! What’s the Work Telling You?

The takeaway message of the report seems to be, “Be a thoughtful developer and don’t just use a tool or technique for it’s own sake!” This is terrific advice, and one that more people should take, but it’s not really a conclusion in the classical sense. It doesn’t necessarily flow from their data; it’s just good practice. A thoughtful designer chooses the right tools for the job. And there are some experiences that are best handled by a computer, like manipulating data, and displaying dynamic responses to changing inputs.Some experiences are best handled as mechanical interactives. And many only work as staff-mediated experiences. It’s the developer’s job to pick the right one.

And finally…

Lest you think I’m a complete ingrate, sneering at the huge amount of work Reach Advisors has done and shared for free, be assured that is not the case. I think this report should be a great conversation starter. I’ve already had some great talks with colleagues at other museums about the report itself, about what else we could/should ask visitors, and more. I just wouldn’t use the report as anything more than suggestive data.

What did you think of the report?

Visitors’ preference for computers, Part One

Oh no! I feel another multipart post coming on… How many parts, I don’t yet know, maybe just two. I’ll strive for brevity.

Reach Advisors have come out with a new finding from the large museum study they conducted in 2010, and I love it, though maybe not for the reasons that others will.  You should go read the post. It’s short (2 pages) and isn’t weighed down with charts or facts. It’s just findings and lots of helpfully highlighted bits ready to be tweeted and emailed broadly.

The gist of this post is that computer interactives are one of the least attractive ways visitors prefer to receive content, coming in at only 11%. This is across a big national sample of visitors (n=40,000+) to all kinds of museums. This is pretty earth-shattering stuff, right? Well, yes and no…

The first time I read this post, I sat there and said, “Whoa! That doesn’t jibe with my own experience or evaluations I’ve seen previously, so what’s up? If computer interactives suck so bad, that’s a big deal.” Better go dig into it a bit more and see what’s there.

The first thing I did was look at our own findings.  Our Star Wars exhibition was evaluated at two venues, and the results for both venues are largely the same.  Go read the report.  At MOS the percentage of diligent visitors (%DV) was 51% and the sweep rate was 208, what Beverly Serrell would classify as an exceptionally 

thoroughly used exhibit. It was also full of computer interactives, two of which were in the top ten exhibits in terms of holding power. Considering their competition included Luke’s Landspeeder, Darth Vader, and Yoda, their inclusion in the top ten doesn’t jibe that well with Reach’s finding.

Now before you get all snippy and make rude comments about people who come to Star Wars exhibitions, let me say that the exhibition drew a broad family audience. There might be a dork in the group visiting, but there were more non-fans than fans. But I agree it is not a typical case, being a paid exhibition. People who have plunked down a wad of cash to see a timed-ticketed show are more likely to use as much as they can.

So what other data are out there? Luckily for us, we can all look at the findings from a study Smithsonian did in 2010 of preferences and expectations for information and electronic services by Smithsonian visitors. It’s a pretty thoroughgoing look at what average SI visitors (not just the ones who volunteer to fill out an online survey) felt about technology. They asked over 1,000 visitors, and found that 26% felt that computer kiosks were useful tools. Not surprisingly, text (brochures and labels) comes out on top, followed by live guides, and films. Are Smithsonian’s visitors’ more than twice as interested in computers than the U.S. visitors polled by Reach?

Next part – What’s going on here?

Next Boston Museum Tech Meetup, Thursday December 15th, 7PM!

Hola comrades,

It’s that time again, and our last chance to get together in 2011!!  Our next meetup will be on Thursday, December 15th, at 7PM. Rather than conduct polling, I’m going to be selfish for once. I’m getting back into Boston on Wednesday morning via a redeye (bleah!) and am therefore proposing that we meet on Thursday, so I can stay awake long enough to enjoy your company.

As we have for the past few months, the meetup will be at the  Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square, Cambridge. I’ll be there a bit before 7PM and try to scope out a good spot.

Come on out and hang with your peeps new and old and get some early holiday cheer on!


P.S. Tell your friends!

Digital Publishing

Note: I just finished rewriting my thesis intro and conclusion for the last time, hopefully. I must be a little mental, because I’m writing this instead of sitting down with a nice Scotch and relaxing and celebrating… It can’t be helped, though. This post has been banging around inside my head for a long time and it had to get out.


At a loss for words by Flickr user SeanMcTex

Ever get the feeling the Universe is trying to tell you to pay attention by showing you something over and over again until you see the light?

Several weeks ago, I went to an open house our publications people held to explain their process to the staff, and looking at the timelines for how many months ahead of time you had to submit info for inclusion in our magazine, I couldn’t help but think that museum print production processes not only aren’t 21st century, they’re not even 20th century. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we thought of our member magazine as a mobile app that we published stories to all the time, rather than monthly, or quarterly?” My old friend Patty Toland’s company had rolled out the Boston Globe’s new site, which is a monument to responsive web design and a model worth exploring. Go hit the site yourself with anything that can access the web and you’ll find that regardless of your device, you have a Boston Globe experience. Just brilliant. Could we do similar?

At the same time, work on the Horizon Report 2011: Museum Edition was wrapping up.  One of the most interesting parts of working on the Horizon Report was getting out of my exhibits bubble to think more broadly about technologies in museums. And one of the trends that resonated most with me (surprisingly) was digital publishing.  I’d noticed that many of the apps on my iPad were magazine-type ones that aggregated and served up content in interesting ways. Mix all this with a healthy dose of the incendiary questions Koven Smith’s been asking about the point of museum websites, and you get quite a heady mix of possibilities, largely unexplored by the museum community.

Then, in the space of a week, Seb Chan posts “The museum website as a newspaper – an interview with Walker Art Center” on Fresh+New, and the ever-mysterious Museum Nerd posts “The Walker’s New Website Is An Earthshaking Game Changer” So, I say to the Universe, “OK! I get it!! Here’s what the future can look like, and it’s pretty awesome!”

If you haven’t read the two above-mentioned posts, do so now. Then visit the Walker’s new site, and see for yourself. For extra points, go look at your favorite Museum site and compare them.  What do you think? Is the new Walker site what more museum sites should look like?