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.

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