Archives for September 2007

What I learned about museum exhibits in the self-service copy shop

I spent a good chunk of this afternoon in my local FedEx-Kinko’s copy shop, copying articles and chapters for my reader for the museum history and theory course I’m teaching this fall. While most customers were in the copy shop for 10-15 minutes, I was there for nearly an hour and half, and I find few things less exciting that turning pages on books, placing the book on the glass, and pushing the “start” button.

So I put myself on autopilot and observed people in the store.

Much has been written about how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, museums–and especially history and natural history museums–developed in step with department stores. And studies of the traffic patterns of museum visitors and department store customers could certainly be shared between the institutions to everyone’s benefit.

In a history or natural history museum, there’s usually some kind of narrative to the exhibits. Ditto (though we may not realize it) in department stores. The different mannequins and clusters of designers and clothing labels speak to particular customers, and the items on sale work in concert with one another in a silent cross-promotion. In higher-end stores like Nordstrom’s, sales associates are ready to help interpret these narratives for you–and, more importantly, to help you insert yourself into the appropriate narrative. Don’t believe me? Walk into a high-end department store and tell them you have a job interview coming up. You’ll find yourself to be the protagonist in your own story quickly enough. The sales associate who adopts you will tell you what a shirt “says” or what messages the cut of a particular suit jacket sends.

To those of us new to such service, it can feel a bit overwhelming, but if, like me, you’re clueless when it comes to fashion, chances are you’ll walk away grateful for the assistance.

Things are considerably different in the self-service section of my local Kinko’s copy shop. The store was busy this afternoon, and all of the staff were occupied assisting customers in the full-service department. Every once in a while a harried employee would find her way over to the self-service section to fix a jammed machine or to help a self-service customer who waited for assistance in the long full-service line.

But for the most part, we were fending for ourselves. It soon became obvious that I was the resident expert. (As a Ph.D. in the humanities who spent months in museum and library archives, I know my way around a photocopier.)

Among the questions I was asked by flustered customers of various ages, genders, and ethnicities:

  • Is this a copier?
  • How do I open it?
  • Why won’t it start?
  • Where do I pay?
  • What kind of card can I use to pay?
  • Where does the copy come out of the machine?
  • How do I copy onto a different kind of paper?
  • How do I align the paper on the glass?
  • Where do you work?
  • Are these your books?
  • How do I get my credit card out of the reader?

As a (reluctant) expert in photocopying, it took me about five seconds to use the touchscreen to select the appropriate paper drawer and then zoom out to the appropriate magnification to capture the entire page of each differently sized book. (Free tip: 95% or 93% reduction works really well for a two-page spread of most books, and allows for notes in the margins.)

I was shocked, therefore, to see people–even college students and recent college grads–struggling with the machines. After 20 years of using the damn things, their workings and quirks are transparent to me.

Apparently, this is not the case with most Kinko’s customers in my university town.

Stymied, people began to talk to one another, and then began pointing to me as a resource. And while personally I think it shows a major gap in customer service at Kinko’s if customers are providing assistance to one another, there’s a lesson here to be learned about patron interactions.

I’m thinking specifically about science centers. Your average science center is going to have a few exhibits on the floor that require the collaboration of two or more visitors. And chances are that same exhibit floor will be understaffed by volunteer or paid docents. Exhibit signs and labels can provide instructions on how to conduct the activity and information on phenomena being displayed.

What would happen if we removed some of these signs? Learning might suffer–but only if we limit our learning objectives to a narrow set of scientific concepts.

What if we redefine our learning objectives for any given exhibit to encompass the learning of new ways of constructing knowledge? After all, it’s debatable which is more important: that visitors learn the entire range of phenomena causing climate change or that visitors learn to feel comfortable discussing climate change with friends, family, casual acquaintances, and strangers. After all, they can always look up the facts after they leave the exhibit. But we miss an opportunity if we don’t get people talking and collaborating within the exhibit.

Of course, the best exhibits will draw from both the Nordstrom’s and the Kinko’s paradigms of customer service. We need to accommodate all learners, introverts as well as extroverts. But when you’re presenting a new(ish) subject–be it climate change or photocopiers–and your exhibit floor is understaffed, you had better be providing a climate where visitors can ask questions of one another. Otherwise you’ll end up with patrons who walk out in frustration, feeling stupid and unskilled.

What’s your approach? More importantly, what do visitors and patrons see as your approach?

FedEx Kinko’s before and after photos by Dave Boudreau, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Just-in-time learning

In my former job as an educational technologist, we talked quite a bit about how best to reach faculty who were too busy (or reluctant) to use technologies that might genuinely prove useful to them or their students. Eventually, we figured out that faculty don’t want to hear about technology until they need it–and then they want to learn about it immediately. It’s what I’ve seen described elsewhere as the “What I Want, When I Want It” (WIWWIWI) syndrome.

I definitely have WIWWIWI-itis when it comes to information and knowledge. On the one hand, I inherited my father’s incredible patience for the bricks-and-mortar world. I can wait in line without complaining, as long as no one cuts in front of me. I can wait for packages, and I don’t tend to complain when they’re a few days late. But all that patience goes out the window when it comes to learning. I’ve been spoiled by the Internet and by my university’s extensive online databases. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan is agonizing to me. If I want to know something, or learn something, my first stop is Google. Even though (and maybe because!) I earned a Ph.D., I have little tolerance for the tortuous prose of scholarly articles in the humanities. Give me an abstract, stat!

I suspect I’m not alone. (No, really!)

My museum-going hangups

This combination of real-world patience and my insistence on WIWWIWI when it comes to learning makes museum-going a wee bit dangerous. I’m an unpredictable visitor. I can stand in front of an African-American quilt for 20 minutes, lost in the pattern, hearing jazz in the improvised shape of each piece. In such situations, I feel additional information would be intrusive. I know something about quilts, enough to satisfy my visual consumption of such a piece. But place me in front of a contemporary painting, and I’m flustered. Regardless of whether I think I “get” the piece or not, I want some quick information. How have other people–amateurs and experts–interpreted this work? I want to absorb multiple interpretations, and I want them immediately.

When I walk into a science center, I want to try the manipulables. And I’m happy to read the labels’ explanations of the phenomena on exhibit. But often I also want to find out more about a phenomenon while I still have the manipulable in front of me. The best way for me to do this would be an Internet search or a chat with a very knowledgeable explainer. But docents and explainers tend to have a superficial knowledge of the phenomena on exhibit–because that’s all many visitors need–or they have a scripted explanation that I find tiresome. (This is true of history museums as well as science museums.)

WIWWIWI on the exhibit floor

How do we deal with people like me? I suspect all visitors experience this frustration from time to time.

The answer is not, I suspect, simple or singular. But I’ve heard of some innovations and I’ve brainstormed a few (though I suspect they aren’t truly new). So here’s my list of just-in-time learning aids that might be tested in your institution. I’ve tried to include tactics that benefit your institution through increased goodwill and greater contact hours with patrons (and potential donors).

Give me WIWWIWI materials.

  • Provide docents or explainers that not only know the exhibit script, but who are truly passionate about the pieces on which they’re elaborating. Assess your front-line staff’s and volunteers’ interests to be sure they’re in the best place for them. Use “mystery shoppers” to help you determine where individual staff and volunteers perform best.
  • Similarly, provide docents with notepads so they can take notes about visitor interests and jot down visitor contact info to marketing or education so they can follow up with specific visitors. If I can’t learn something right now, at least reassure me that you can–and will–point me to further resources. I’ll be grateful, you’re getting my e-mail address or phone number, and you’ll have an opportunity–and permission–to make further contact with a patron.
  • Docents might use these same notepads to write down titles of books, URLs, names and contact info or sister institutions, or other resources for visitors. Tear off the sheet of paper and hand it to me, the happy visitor.
  • Alternately, place little pieces of paper and golf pencils throughout the exhibit. Let me take notes and take the paper with me or leave comments for you in a dedicated box.
  • Give me access to a kiosk where I can learn more about a specific work. These kiosks should allow touch-screen browsing, as well as provide me with a place to enter my e-mail address so that your institution can send me more information on subjects of interest to me–but only subjects I indicate are of interest.
  • If your visitors are the kind who carry PDAs, then be sure they can access the Internet (or at least a museum intranet) so they can enrich their own learning.
  • Provide mobile-phone-friendly web sites for your visitors so they can learn more by browsing on their phones. Give them numbers to call to learn more about specific artifacts or works of art.

Combine WIWWIWI materials with resources for further learning.

  • Give me a way to get additional information on specific pieces or activities in your exhibit–whether that be a series of web pages, a resource list I can pick up in the exhibit, an audio tour, or via a series of follow-up e-mails.
  • Host an adults-only discussion cafĂ© once a month where visitors can meet and greet and discuss the exhibits. Let your marketing and development people circulate among the groups to hear what people are saying and to encourage further involvement with the institution.
  • Set up a account for your museum so that visitors can browse–and even subscribe to–the tagged pages your exhibit team might have used while researching the exhibit. Encourage visitors to return the favor by using the “for:” tag to send interesting web-based resources your way.
  • Give me a list of terms I can use to search the Internet. Sure, it’s nice when you provide me with a list of specific resources on residential restoration in my region. (Enough r’s for you there?) I’m happy to explore carefully selected websites on the particular challenges of restoring a Craftsman or Victorian home. But I may also want to know how to incorporate some of those Craftsman- or Victorian-era pieces into my 1970s ranch house. Tell me to search for “architectural salvage.” Give me a few fish, but also teach me how catch them myself.

Let me contribute.

  • Next to a particularly interesting or popular exhibit or artifact, place a keyboard and screen where visitors can type their comments. Once the comments are screened by staff, the comments can rotate on the same screen between visitor entries or you can have select, particularly moving phrases projected onto the wall. If I’m in an exhibit about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, for example, I’m probably itching to tell you that my disabled great-grandmother, then a very young girl, had to be carried from the rubble as my great-great-grandparents fled the ensuing fire. It’s a small anecdote, but I’d feel better having shared it, knowing that I’ve contributed some knowledge to the larger institutional project.
  • Solicit (multimedia) reactions from me. Let me draw, ask me for family photos or artifacts for an upcoming exhibition, let me record audio. Provide me with a venue to share my insights or expertise with other visitors. If they want to listen, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. But there should be unobtrusive ways to hear other visitors’ thoughts. It’s the same phenomenon I’ve observed in my university classrooms: I’m more likely to share my own thoughts if I already know what someone else thinks. That’s why I have my students blog–and comment on one another’s posts–before class discussion. Students already know what others think, and they come prepared to engage with them–they’re a couple steps beyond where they would be if we went into the class “cold.” The same might apply to your visitors. Let them download particularly interesting audio from other visitors both before and after their visit to your site, or incorporate such visitor reactions into your audio tour.
  • Let me have a vote on future exhibits. I’m more likely to come back for another visit if I get a sense of what might be on your docket for the coming year(s).

What are your thoughts, both as a museum-goer and as someone who works within an institution, on just-in-time learning (and its follow-up)?