Tag Archives: audience engagement

The importance of Tracking and Observing Visitors in Cultural Institutions

I’m not a big fan of measuring the success of visitation to cultural institutions by simply counting the numbers of people through the doors. I don’t believe that numbers alone give a true picture of visitor engagement and they certainly won’t give any indication of the way that visitors respond to the various spaces within a given cultural institution.

I confess that I love tracking visitors inside museum spaces because I always have preconceived ideas about what is going on inside various galleries and exhibitions and I am constantly surprised by what is actually happening when I analyse my results. On one occasion, I was observing visitors passing through a newly opened exhibition. I was thinking how good it was that there were so many families coming into the museum for this exhibition and I expected certain outcomes from my tracking and feedback studies for the following reasons:

  1. Because it was a brand new exhibition space
  2. Because it was school holidays and wet weather
  3. Because it was free of charge to visit.

The tracking process  that I use involves mapping the exhibition floor plan, then adding objects to that map, numbered within a cluster group or individually, depending upon their size and the size of the gallery overall. I use a technique learned from Dr Lynda Kelly  involving timed entry and exit points, visitor groupings (individual, couple, family group), age groupings and an observational scale based on Judy Diamond’s chapter on observational tools to record the movement of people, using four categories for visitor engagement:

  • Ignore (I)
  • Skim (S)
  • Attend (A)
  • Engage (E)

Visitors who pass within two metres of an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Ignore (I). Visitors who look briefly at an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Skim (S) but those who stop briefly with both feet for two seconds are listed as Attend (A). Those visitors who stop and actively read text panels or look at displays are listed as Engage (E).

For the exercise mentioned above, what surprised me when I actually observed the individual visitors and tracked their pathway, was that what I thought I saw was not what was happening at all. When I analysed my results, I found that people weren’t really in the gallery for very long and definitely did not engage with the exhibits for a significant time period which was a lost learning opportunity. However, there were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” and expressions of awe and wonder and very many photos taken of kids with various objects. Sadly, in most cases their curiosity was not sufficiently aroused for them to engage with the objects on a deeper level – by reading the associated text panels and using the interactive materials.

I’m not going to address the importance of  engagement for Transformative Learning outcomes in this blog post because it has been well covered in the literature and other museum blogs (see Dr Lynda Kelly’s blog posts for information on TL as well as a review of the literature). Secondly, when I track visitors, I don’t usually look at the cultural diversity of the audience but more their age group and the effects of their group status on how they move through the spaces. Again, a better brain than mine, Colleen Dilenschneider talks about misinterpreting or not interpreting data on diversity correctly in her recent post “Why Some Cultural Organisations Overestimate Success in welcoming Diverse Visitors” for those who want to think about visitors in an even broader sense.

The advantage of carrying out observational and tracking studies is that institutions can combine the collected data with visitor feedback surveys to get to know their audiences better and form a clearer picture of how people spend time within their walls. Such studies can highlight the parts of an exhibition or permanent space which are not being seen, being used properly or are not engaging visitors at all. Sometimes problem areas can be tweaked by making small changes to the space –  improved interior design, better text panels, signage, IT/general maintenance or even small changes to sound and lighting. It is interesting to see where people spend the most or least amount of time as they move through a cultural institution or specific exhibition. Other details can be recorded as well – such as:

  • Is there a particular item that is really popular with visitors?
  • Where do people stop and read text panels?
  • Are interactive displays working and easy to use?
  • Are there any blockages with the general flow of visitors?
  • Are there any blockages because of audio tours, queueing or people taking photographs?
  • In the case of couples and groups – is there some discussion about particular objects, interactives or related topics?
  • Are there any visitor comments which should be recorded as feedback to Front of House, Marketing or  Curatorial Management?

Visitors are usually unaware that they are being observed. Observers are often mistaken for floor staff and visitors may ask questions or give feedback just because they are there. Understanding how visitors use different spaces within a museum can help to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities in that institution’s engagement strategy. I’ve often noticed that it’s the unexpected spaces, guided tours and participatory events in museums that occupy visitors for longer. What is it that keeps bringing visitors back time and time again? Exhibitions come and go but the permanent galleries, regular programmes and new innovations keep people coming back. For the younger visitors (particularly 3-12 age group), cultural institutions offering:

  • Curriculum focussed school programmes
  • Kid’s trails and activities
  • Learning and discovery rooms
  • Creative kids spaces
  • Touch trolleys

seem far more popular with families than cultural institutions without family programmes. For younger visitors – creating art and craft, touching and examining objects, interactive play, conducting scientific experiments, being able to ask supervising staff a variety of thoughtful questions, interacting with living specimens, dressing up in costumes, enthusiastically following some kind of trail or just reading books and looking things up on the computers seems to enhance their participation. At other times I have observed docents leading school groups through gallery spaces and getting much better engagement and learning outcomes for children (in support of their school curriculum) than children passing through with families.

For adults – well designed, aesthetically pleasing interior spaces, themed talks, guided tours, after hours events and workshops can add value to the overall visitor experience. Perhaps this kind of engagement appears less threatening on the surface but is still focussed on learning and engagement. MuseumHack posted a recent article “Why Design is Important to Your Museum”. For me the key quote is that:

“In the age of the Internet, museums can benefit

from applying this principle of design to their

spaces, as well as the services they offer. What

makes museums unique is no longer the information

they contain, but rather the context they offer to the

objects within their collections.”

My observations have strengthened my opinion that visitors like to see the presence of facilitators, invigilators, educators, security and guides in the gallery or exhibition space and not a total DIY experience. Generally, I have observed that visitors:

  • stop to ask questions or for directions or assistance
  • might ask for extra information about a display or gallery
  • might have their own narrative to share triggered by seeing an object on display
  • may have feedback for the museum about their visit.

It seems a pity when the audience is captive in the space, not to utilise that opportunity for engagement and feedback and to build relationships with the public, particularly when museums and galleries are striving to be “must see” and “repeat” destinations. I can’t see the point of developing growth and management strategies for cultural institutions without measuring audience engagement and feedback. Pen and paper studies are time consuming but relatively cheap to conduct and actually give a true snapshot of what is going on at a given time and space. Perhaps  museums could learn from the mistakes of the department stores in the current economic climate. It may be that cutting floor staff numbers will not increase profits and will definitely detract from visitor engagement.

Further Reading:

Australian Museum. Tracking and Observation Studies. https://australianmuseum.net.au/uploads/documents/9301/tracking_studies.pdf

Steven S. Yalowitz & Kerry Bronnenkant.Timing and Tracking:Unlocking Visitor Behavior http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10645570902769134

Museum Team at USS Constitution  http://www.familylearningforum.org/evaluation/types-of-evaluation/timing-tracking.htm

Isaac Arnsdorf. The Museum is watching you. Online Wall Street Journal (2010) https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704554104575435463594652730


Museum Digitisation – A Case Study

I support the digitisation of museum and gallery collections. There are so many places that I’d like to go to but realistically I won’t have the time or money to travel to all the destinations that I have on my bucket list. Enter the digital museum. Museums with a strong digital presence allow the virtual visitor at least some entrée into their collections. When collections are digitised it also assists researchers access to a wealth of new information to study without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own home.

One of the best stories that I’ve read recently was in Cosmos Magazine[1] which reported on The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launching the Qatar Digital Library – a new bilingual, online portal which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science. Their vision was to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of a changing world by leading innovation in research and education[2]. (See Fig 1.)

Fig 1. Home page of Qatar Digital Library

The British Library (in London, England) has amassed one of the world’s greatest research collections and with the Qatar Foundation has undertaken a huge project to digitise more than half a million pages from their collection consisting of images, manuscripts, maps, sketches, personal archives and East India Company Office Records. The project is an ideal example of the role of the contemporary curator who as part of a project management team of curators, cataloguers, conservators and digitisation experts works to create a valuable online digital resource[3] from a significant collection of objects located in the British Library. The Qatar Digital Library[4] aims to bridge the gap between past and the future by providing access to information about the history and heritage of the Gulf and Arabic science. Before digitisation, researchers would have manually searched a printed catalogue or physically visited the library to access a particular item which would then be retrieved from the archives.

One of the pages now accessible online

One of the maps from the archive now available to study online.

The web-based, interactive, multilingual information is more searchable and accessible for new audiences in Qatar, the UK and other online researchers and hopes to inspire new forms of interpretation from the original historic documents. The project has created high quality contextual and interpretative material to facilitate the use and understanding of the digitised content. Digital technology has provided a  platform for the discovery of history from the gulf region by allowing access to the original primary source scientific documents in Arabic which can be reinterpreted in the future without physically visiting the British Library.

As part of the process, the curator has taken primary sources, such as a photograph album, showing the everyday life in Afghanistan (social, architectural, trade) during a one month period, and digitised the pages allowing the voice of the object to come alive for the researcher. Supporting text has been added to contextualise the objects for the online audience in the same way that they would be supported by curatorial staff in the British Library.[5]

In order to encourage new audiences, the project team has actively tested the portal with possible users such as academics, archivists and young people, to find out what they need from the content and how they would use the collection for their own purposes. The feedback has been used to create a better system. The online catalogue is intuitive and researchers will be able to access the collection more easily than the original objects in the British Library. Evaluation of the new website will be carried out to determine the project’s success by measuring website users, site feedback, media coverage and other Key Performance Indicators.


[1] New Digital Home for 1,000 years of Arabic scientific manuscripts viewed online at http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/28/new-digital-home-for-1000-years-of-arabic-scientific-manuscripts?rq=Qatar%20digital%20library viewed online 20/2/2016

[2] Qatar Foundation vision and mission statement viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/qatar/ on 20/2/2016.

[3] The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/january/british-library-and-qatar-foundation-extend-partnership-to-digitise-images-of-gulf-history  on 20/2/2016

[4] Qatar Digital Library viewed online at http://www.qdl.qa/en on 20/2/2016

[5] Some of the information cannot be accurately interpreted without advice on the circumstances in which the records were created which is normally provided by archivists in the reading room at the British Library. Links to related material may also be provided by the curatorial staff in the British Library.


Museums in the 21st Century


Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity


To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.


Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.