10 tips for visiting museums with girls

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

I know this content of this post isn’t news for the museum professionals who read this blog, but I get some search traffic from people looking for more general information about museum-going. This post is meant for them. :)

Did you know that during conversations they have about science museum exhibits, parents are three times more likely to explain scientific concepts to boys than they are to girls?* Here are some tips on helping your daughters and other girls get the most out of museum visits. (Note: All of these tips apply to boys as well!)

1. Before going to the museum, check out the museum’s web site. Many museums offer tips to teachers (and, by extension, parents) on how best to prepare children for a visit to that specific museum. Some museums even have materials designed for teachers, including background materials as well as worksheets for kids or (better yet) pre- and post-visit activities. (See, for example, these resources from the National Museum of American History.) If you can’t find any such materials on the web site, try calling the museum’s education department to see if they have any age-appropriate materials available related to the current or permanent exhibitions. Let these materials inform your visit to the museum.

2. Familiarize yourself with the subject of the exhibitions before you go to the museum–but don’t overdo it. This might be as simple as reading a few pages on Wikipedia. If you can find children’s books or newspaper or magazine articles on the topic, share these with your children. But don’t pressure your kids to absorb too much before the visit–you don’t want to burn them out. Just pique their curiosity–and give yourself some background knowledge so that you can help your kids understand the context of the objects and activities at the museum.

3. If you’re going to a very large museum, make a preliminary visit without your kids. Large museums can be tiring, so it’s a good idea to get an idea of what’s in the exhibition halls before you show up with your daughter. Bonus: If you’re at an art museum that has an audio tour, take it! That way you can gain a better context for the art and you can use this knowledge when you visit the museum with your children.

4. Call ahead to find out when the museum is most crowded–and then avoid those hours. For many museums, the best time to visit is early or late in the day on a weekend, or after 3 p.m. on school days.

5. Talk to your kids while you’re in the exhibition. Ask them questions about the art, science phenomena, or objects on display. Ask open-ended questions that require an answer of more than a word or two. Connect what you’re seeing with your daughter’s interests or other experiences in her life. And remember: don’t shy away from scientific topics, especially if you’re a woman yourself. You want to model for your daughter the satisfaction we get from asking intelligent, interesting questions and seeking answers.

6. Talk to museum staff and volunteers on the exhibit floor. In science centers, aquaria, and zoos, there will often be education staff available to engage with your family and to answer your questions. These people–many of them volunteer docents or “explainers”–tend not only to be trained to work with children, but also have a passion for the subject.

My experience in art museums, unfortunately, is that there are fewer people available to answer questions, unless you tag along on a docent- or curator-led tour. In this case, don’t be afraid to approach the security guards and ask them questions. Chances are they’ve overheard information from the tours and can share something about the art with you. Despite their sometimes stern demeanor, many of these guards enjoy being asked about their expertise or opinions. If they can’t answer your questions, they might be able to point you to someone who can.

7. Don’t be afraid to interact with other families. Too often, museum visitors wander around in their own little family silos. Most kids like to interact with other children, so if you see an opportunity–for example, at a hands-on science center or children’s museum–to let your daughter try an activity with another child, encourage her to play.

8. Even if you’re especially well-prepared for your visit, don’t be didactic–that is, overly instructive. Pay attention to cues from your daughter to see what interests her, and follow her lead.

9. If appropriate, purchase souvenirs at the museum store–and I’m not talking about the cheap little plastic crap near the register. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but if there’s something relevant to the exhibitions that is affordable, interesting, and age appropriate, then purchase it for follow-up activities (see #10). I especially like The Savvy Source’s tip to purchase postcards of the art you have seen in a museum, and even to start a collection of such postcards for your children.

10. Plan some follow-up activities. If you’ve been to an art museum, make plenty of art materials available to your children for the days following your exhibit. We have a table set up in a corner of our kitchen where our almost three-year-old sits down a couple times a day to draw, paint, glue, cut, and hole punch his way to happiness. It’s a mess, but he gets a lot of joy from it, and learns a lot, too. (His preschool teacher is amazed at his attention span for arts and crafts. Little does she know we’ve inculcated him at home. Heh heh.) You could even place the postcards from tip #9 on the wall for inspiration.

If you’ve been to a science exhibition, go to your local library and find books of related science experiments. I recommend just about anything by Janice VanCleave–her experiments are simple to do and make concepts clear.

Parenting and education bloggers have been very generous with tips on museum-going. Here are a few:

What are your thoughts? Share your tips for (and frustrations about) visiting museums with children in the comments.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

*Kevin Crowley, Maureen A. Callanan, Harriet R. Tenenbaum, Elizabeth Allen (2001). Parents Explain More Often to Boys than to Girls During Shared Scientific Thinking. Psychological Science 12 (3), 258–261. (Abstract)

Museums and Civic Discourse

Last Saturday, I was fortunate to attend the “Museums and Civic Discourse” symposium at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. The room was packed with some West Coast and national leaders in the field–really some amazing women there (and a few men, too). The symposium sought to imagine what civic discourse in museums might look like, as well as brainstorm ways that museums can advance civic discourse beyond their walls. The day also was a celebration of the publication of the museums and civic discourse issue of Museums and Social Issues.

Some of the issues the symposium raised for me:

  • What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?
  • What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?
  • How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?
  • How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

Note: Some of what I write about below was raised during the symposium, while some of it came to me afterward; the details of who said what are now mixed up in my mind. Apologies if I’m not always giving credit where it’s due–corrections are welcome.

What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?

These spaces are unlikely to look like traditional exhibits, especially those you see in older natural history and art institutions (first-generation museums) and push-button exhibitions (second-generation museums). They may look something like science centers or children’s museums (third-generation museums). These spaces must allow for interactivity, encourage curiosity, reward discovery, and facilitate problem solving.

These places don’t necessarily look like auditoriums, although a panel/forum discussion might begin in an auditorium and move into spaces more conducive for small-group, face-to-face discussion.

These places are comfortable, familiar and/or stimulating, and, in a best-case scenario, free of charge for community members to access. They will be on public transportation routes as well as have plenty of parking for cars and/or bikes. In other words, we want to remove any psychological hurdles to attendance: “It’s too hard to find parking in that part of town,” “I don’t have a car to get there,” “I can’t afford that museum’s admission fee,” etc.

For more information on what these spaces should look like, check out Herman Miller’s research on “places to teach, learn, and grow.” The company lists six must-haves for up-to-date learning spaces:

These spaces may also be outside of museum buildings completely–for example science cafés, where a “casual meeting place, plain language, and inclusive conversation create a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for people with no science background.”

We may find ourselves reaching out to constituencies we never really imagined. Do you run a science museum? Do you have an exhibit on AIDS or STDs? Have you reached out to the local African-American church? AIDS is a major concern in African-American communities, and data published this week shows that STDs are a growing epidemic among African-American teen girls. Years ago, when I was a reporter in Long Beach, California, I remember a nurse telling me about the presentations she did in African-American churches about HIV transmission and AIDS treatment options. Why shouldn’t science museums, or museums focused on African-American culture and community, get involved in this kind of advocacy?

It’s also possible, of course, to encourage conversations within museum spaces–and then partner with organizations (like churches) to continue the conversations off-site. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a faux diner where visitors can “order” seafood and get immediate feedback on their choices via video. Visitors can also tuck the aquarium’s tiny brochures about sustainable seafood into their wallets so they know what not to order the next time they’re dining out. The little cards are useful, but when I purge my wallet, I’m likely to toss it because my wallet is already thick enough. So how then does an institution continue to reinforce a message about sustainable eating? Institutions wanting to spread information about sustainable eating should partner with local supermarkets to get the word out to community members. For example, my local supermarket chain, Nugget Market, labels the fish at their butcher counters with red, yellow, or green labels to indicate each fish’s sustainability as seafood. Why not go further? Encourage the supermarket to label all its meats and dairy products in that manner: Which product manufacturing processes are the most polluting? Which kinds of food production consume the greatest number of resources? Extend this labeling to fruits and vegetables, and you’ll even reach vegetarians like me. :)

Depending on your particular issue or institutional mission, partnerships (both traditionally likely and unlikely) might include working with:

  • churches
  • supermarkets
  • malls
  • managers of indoor public spaces (such as those found throughout San Francisco)
  • public transit
  • local bands and symphony groups
  • local environmental justice activists
  • commercial entities related to your mission/issue (e.g. partnering with a local utility on an environmentally-themed forum and campaign)
  • universities
  • school districts (think beyond the obvious: try to reach new audiences on kindergarten enrollment days, or at open house and back to school night)
  • pet stores
  • radio stations
  • restaurants and bars (think themed “science pub quiz” with prizes)
  • furniture dealers (get them to donate flexible furniture for your new stimulating discursive spaces)
  • local sports franchises
  • . . .and so many more organizations

We also need to ask ourselves what it is about our museum spaces that makes visitors uncomfortable–what is keeping them from speaking to other visitors? There’s not a whole lot we can do right away with American cultural mores that keep strangers from speaking freely with one another, but we can try to chip away at visitor reticence by ensuring all visitors feel relatively at ease. (Of course, we can also put visitors ill at ease in order to get them talking–I’m thinking in particular of the “Colored” or “Whites Only” doorways through which visitors must pass in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Field to Factory exhibition.)

This process of understanding what puts visitors at ease involves not only surveying visitors and undertaking observations of visitor behavior, but also placing ourselves in spaces that make us uncomfortable. For example, a few years back, I visited the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters in Southern California. My husband, cousin, and I had decided to visit on the day after Christmas because we’d always wondered what was going on in that building with the big “Happy Birthday Jesus!” sign on the roof. From the moment we entered, there was so much about the decor, the commercial spaces, and all kinds of details about the building that made us uncomfortable to be present in that space; there was no way we were going to engage with other visitors. What was supposed to convey to TBN’s intended audience a lesson about the gospel of wealth (the gilded banisters, the paintings and sculptures that adorned the place) only spoke to us of corruption, of money that was sent by working-class folks to pay for
“ministries” but that instead was invested in garish buildings.

What details of your museum might visitors find off-putting if not suspicious? Again, the point is not to make your visitors feel entirely comfortable–some of the best learning takes place because we are uncomfortable–but rather to identify those points where you can remove obstacles to engagement for visitors who are not in your core constituency.

What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?

One person participating in the final large-group discussion expressed her concern that she doesn’t want to dialogue in her scientific institution with creationists or racists. Nina Simon paraphrases this comment as “I don’t want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs.” I think Nina is spot-on. While I can in some ways understand the impulses from which this speaker’s sentiment arises, I also feel we can’t bar the doors of our institutions from “those people.” Can we moderate the discussion a bit? Certainly. Can we discourage racism and ignorance? Yes–and serving as a forum for civic discourse is one way of discouraging such beliefs and practices.

That said, we have to pick our battles. Museums, of course, are perfectly within their rights to serve as forums for discourse only on subjects that fall squarely within the museum’s mission. And sometimes it is difficult–if not impossible–to talk with people who refuse to open their minds to other possibilities. But we can’t lump all “those people” together into one camp, because we need to take a different approach to discourse with each of them. For example, take talking with creationists or racists. My experience in talking with creationists is that they feel they have enough pseudoscientific research to support their claims–or, rather, to refute the claims of evolutionary biologists, and thus can be difficult to engage in meaningful, mind-changing conversations. Racists, on the other hand–and here I’m talking about your everyday ignorant racist, not people who participate in organized hate groups–may not have thought through why they hold the opinions they do, or they may express particular beliefs they feel are grounded in reality but which are actually easily refuted by more level-headed folks.

Sometimes we need to come at an issue from an alternative angle, perhaps by conversing at the intersection of two issues. Take creationism and racism, for example. In talking with a creationist, I might push her to more fully explain her beliefs, and in so doing, I might discover that some of what she believes is rooted in racism. (See this interesting article on how both evolution and creationism have been used to promote racist beliefs and behaviors.) Would I accuse her outright of being a racist? No. But in leading the conversation down that path, she might better understand why–beyond its obvious false statements of “fact”–I find her belief system troubling. And maybe that would make her reconsider her position. (My guess is also that some of your harder-core racists–e.g. white Christian nationalists–are also creationists, which raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

But just because these conversations could take place doesn’t necessarily mean museums need to be facilitating them. And certainly not all museum staff participating (as institutional representatives or more casually on their own time) in such discourses are keen enough facilitators to handle such hot-button issues.

I believe that museums can and should take on such issues. Too often these complex issues become black-and-white in the public eye. Evolution vs. intelligent design. Racism vs. antiracism. When these issues are presented as dichotomies, we feel compelled to pick a side and fight for it tooth and nail. But if we ask new (or at least new-to-our-audience) questions that don’t let people settle comfortably on one side of another, then we open up avenues for discourse. I can see a museum hosting a forum with the title “Is creationism racist? Is evolution?” And the answer to both of those is “at times, deployed in certain ways, yes.” But it can be deeply discomfiting to hear that your side of an issue has been compromised morally or ethically. It forces you situate yourself more thoughtfully. You might, over the course of an evening, move from “I believe evolution is the only way to explain life on earth” to “I believe evolution is an excellent explanatory mechanism for life on earth, but we need to be careful how we explain its workings because there are huge cultural ramifications to this discussion, especially concerning human evolution.”

I think museums also can provide facilitation to these discussions–we can help people rediscover (or learn for the first time) how to have conversations, how to be listeners and be listened to, how to talk civilly with people whose opinions they find distasteful or offensive. After all, haven’t we already been challenging and correcting people’s beliefs through exhibit signage and interactives? Let’s make those challenges collective and connective by transforming them into civic discourse.

How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?

I guess I’m not sure how much museums can tackle “civic discourse” head on, other than by providing space and hosting/modeling good discussions. We need to provide inspiration and space for people to start the conversations that will snowball into larger civic discourse. At the symposium on Saturday there was some discussion at lunch as to what constitutes discourse vs. discussion vs. conversation. I don’t have an answer (yet), but we can’t wait for museums to figure that out before we dive into the realm of civic discourse.

Here are some sample forums I think museums might host in a variety of formats and spaces (online and off), as well as some ideas for community-based research projects museums might facilitate, particularly if they have scientists on staff:

  • What would we do as a community if our city ran out of oil? What contingencies should we put in place? For what actions should we be lobbying local and regional government bodies? (Thanks to Nina Simon for her references to the serious game World without Oil.)
  • In an era of high-stakes testing, how can we be sure our children discover the joy of learning?
  • Do we redevelop our downtown area for the wealthier people we hope will live there once construction is finished, or for the working-class people who already live there? For example, at the redeveloped mall, do we put in a supermarket (since there’s no grocery store downtown) and a Target or do we anchor the mall with Nordstorm and Saks?
  • What’s the best neighborhood in which to site a much-needed but unattractive and potentially polluting industrial process/plant?
  • Why are asthma rates rising among children in our urban area, and how do we remediate this trend?
  • What are the best ways–in terms of ease, feasibility, and cost–to reduce our city’s carbon footprint by x thousand/hundred thousand/million tons? (What are we willing to give up? What big and little changes are we ready to make? What are we willing to pay? And what are our next steps?)
  • Where does our community get its food? Is this the most sustainable and widely affordable method of procuring sustenance?

When does conversation become elevated to the level of discourse? When it engages diverse constituencies in a common discussion about important issues with the goal of defining specific steps to take as community members or recommendations to make to community leaders.

How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

What’s your institution’s plan for engaging visitors online? Now that the InterConnections Report has concluded that “Internet users are more likely than non-users to visit museums and public libraries and to visit them more frequently, particularly in the case of museums” (22), there’s no excuse for not engaging with Internet users because these netizens are already more likely to visit a museum than people who don’t use the Internet. Interesting content online–content to which visitors can contribute as well as learn–is only going to help your museum raise its visitor numbers and its profile in your community.

What’s keeping your museum staff from embracing key online social networking platforms? Technophobia? Lack of conviction that these tools work? A dearth of time? My personal experiences tell me that even a small, focused investment of time into social media provides a good rate of return.

I think it’s very important not to overlook online spaces when we’re thinking about how to encourage and facilitate discourse. Social media, when used properly and in partnership with key influencers, can be exceptionally powerful in all kinds of ways. I’ll write more soon on how to identify appropriate social media platforms for achieving different institutional goals, how to develop a social media campaign, and how to measure and evaluate the results of that campaign.

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 café 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 del.icio.us 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 del.icio.us “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)?