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by Nina Simon





In the summer of 2009, I took up beach volleyball. My first day of adult beginner volleyball class, the instructor, Phil Kaplan, said, “You're all a little nervous today. You don't know anyone else, you don't know how to play. It's ok. By the time you leave you will have lots of friends to play volleyball with.” In week one, Kaplan learned all thirty-five of our names. He split us into groups by skill level and gave each group instruction based on their needs. He asked a volunteer to set up an email list and encouraged us to schedule other times to practice together. Some of us used the list to start playing on our own, and by the fall, we had formed a tight group of friends who played together weekly. Almost a year later, I still play volleyball and socialize with many of these folks.

We went from being isolated strangers led by a strong instructor to becoming a self-organized group who are socially and substantively connected to each other through a new activity. We didn’t leave the class, thank the teacher, and fall back into our private lives—which is what usually happens when I take a course or a guided tour. How did this happen?

Kaplan did a few key things that differentiated this experience:

1. His class was audience-centered. He grouped us by our needs and abilities, provided customized instruction to each group, and shifted us from group to group as our individual needs changed.

2. He treated us as individuals instead of a crowd of students. I didn’t see the other people in the class as a bunch of people who also wanted to play volleyball. I saw them as Pam the rower, Max the dentist, and Roger the dancer. Kaplan encouraged us to get to know each other personally and make new social connections.

3. He gave us tools to connect with each other. During class, Kaplan asked us to pair up with different individuals to play and learn together. He modeled a friendly, social attitude that we emulated. But he also made it easy for us to access each other and the volleyball courts outside of class. He encouraged us to manage our own correspondence and keep playing and learning together.

Cultural institutions are like volleyball courts. Expert visitors and staff already know how to play. They are confident about how to use the space, what’s available, and how to connect with content of interest. But there are many casual and infrequent visitors who would like to participate but don’t know how to start. These people need friendly hosts like Phil Kaplan who can respond to them personally and help them find the activities, information, and people who will be most relevant to their needs. By welcoming people personally and responding to their specific interests, you can foster an environment in which everyone will feel confident and energized about participating with your institution and with each other.

Audience First

The first step to personalizing your cultural institution is to take an audience-centered approach to the experiences you provide. This doesn’t mean throwing out the things you think are important, but it means framing them in the context of what visitors want or need. Instead of starting by describing what an institution or project can provide, audience-centric design processes start by mapping out audiences of interest and brainstorming the experiences, information, and strategies that will resonate most with them.

Traditional points of entry—the admissions desk, the map, the docent tour—are not designed to be audience-centric. Ticket transactions occasionally confer information about particular offerings of the day, but not necessarily offerings of interest to the visitors at hand. Maps feature abstractions that reflect institutional organization of content, not visitor interests or needs. Even staff interactions, such as docent tours, often present content in an impersonal (or worse, self-absorbed) manner. While some docents are excellent at adapting their tours responsively to their audiences, eliciting or intuiting visitors’ needs can be a challenge. Visitors come in the door knowing who they are, but they may not know what content is of greatest interest to them.

This inattention to visitors’ unique needs inordinately affects people who are unfamiliar with cultural institutions, visitors who are still learning to decode what a museum experience is all about. To novice visitors, maps and tours are not obvious starting points full of useful information from which they can dig deeper. These supposed entry techniques introduce further layers of abstraction and ritual to the museum experience that may be confusing or off-putting. These visitors need to see how cultural institutions are relevant and valuable to their own lives, and the easiest way to deliver that is via personalized entry points that speak to people’s individual needs and interests. These varied needs—to accommodate energetic kids, to be inspired, to see something novel—are rarely represented on institutional maps and program listings. Labels like “Blue Wing” or “People of the Land” don’t help visitors understand what they can see, do, and experience in various places and programs. How can a visitor learn to "make her own meaning" from a museum experience if she cannot make meaning from the map?

Theme parks address this issue well. Like museums, they have aggregated areas with abstract titles (e.g. Tomorrowland) and within those, rides with only slightly more descriptive names (Space Mountain). But on the maps, alongside the names of the rides, there is shorthand information—what kind of ride it is and what ages it’s appropriate for. Many theme park maps also feature pop-outs with lists of “must-dos” for visitors of different type—teenagers, people who only have 3 hours, etc. These recommendations are not only based on what visitors might enjoy (roller coasters vs. swings) but also on their particular constraints and situations. And the maps always include information about where to get a snack, find a toilet, or relax between high-impact activities. Theme parks are serious about helping visitors figure out what experiences will be most appropriate for them in all ways.

In 2007, a collection of museums in North East England decided to take an audience-centric approach in a marketing campaign called I Like Museums. 1 I Like Museums is an online directory of eighty-two museums in North East England that encourages visitors to explore "museum trails"—short lists of institutions—that are based on audience interests, not institutional content. The basic premise behind I Like Museums is: whatever experience you seek, there are museums in North East England that can provide it. Yes, there are content trails, like "I like military history." But there are also trails like "I like keeping the kids happy," for adults facilitating family outings, or “I like a nice cuppa,” for people who want to relax with some tea. While the initial I Like Museum trails were developed by staff members and community members, new ones are submitted on a continuous basis by visitors to the site. IMAGE 2-1

In a survey of 2,071 visitors to nine institutions involved in I Like Museums, 36% of visitors who were aware of the campaign cited it as influencing their decision to visit. These museum trails were accessible and relevant to people because they started with who YOU are, not what the institution offers. You don’t have to decode whether Lady Waterford Hall or the Centre for Life or any number of enigmatic institutions might accommodate your unique interests. You can find a place to play, a place to be inspired, a place to shop. These are all personalized entry points to museum experiences. And by displaying them all together on one site, I Like Museums encourages people to think of museums as multi-use venues, good for different people on different days in different ways. The website subtly gives you more and more reasons to visit a museum beyond viewing its collection.

The Tate Modern took a similar approach in their physical museum in 2006, when they released a set of quirky pamphlets featuring different tours of the museum based on emotional mood. Visitors could pick up the "I've just split up" tour and wallow in angst, or the "I'm an animal freak" tour and explore their wilder sides. 2 Like the I Like Museums trails, these pamphlets allow visitors to quickly select a starting point that in some way reflects personal interests.

Pulling Out Meaning

Both I Like Museums and The Tate Modern’s pamphlets invite visitors to pull specific content of interest instead of consuming content that is pushed out indiscriminately by the institution. Pull content is a term educators use to designate information that learners actively seek or retrieve based on self-interest. Pull techniques emphasize the visitors' active role in seeking out information. Visitors are always somewhat active in their pursuit of interpretation, deciding whether or not to read a label or play with an interactive. But when you invite visitors to retrieve interpretative material rather than laying it out, it gives them a kind of participatory power. They choose what to reveal and explore.

The most familiar pull device in museums is the random access audio tour, in which visitors punch numbers into an audio guide or their phone to selectively listen to interpretative material. Random access is a strange term to describe what is really "direct" access--information that can be consumed out of sequence. Random access was the technological innovation that transformed museum audio tours from forced narratives into open-ended explorations. Museums with multiple-channel audio tours geared towards different audiences often use different visual icons for each tour, so you can see that a particular painting has an audio commentary on the teen channel and the conservator channel, whereas another sculpture in the same room might just have audio commentary for children. You can pick what you want to hear thanks to random access.

Audio tours, like the Tate Modern’s pamphlets, are optional. For pull techniques to have the greatest impact, you need to find a way to make them integral to the experience. For example, in 2004, a team from the Swedish Interactive Institute created a unique pull device for exploration of a historic blast furnace site in the old steel town of Avesta. The site itself featured no interpretative push material--no labels or media elements. Instead, each visitor was given a special flashlight that could trigger interpretative material when pointed at special hotspots painted around the site. 3 The flashlights activated interpretative experiences include light projections, audio tracks, and occasional physical experiences (i.e. smoke and heat). There were two layers of content in the hotspots--educational (how the blast furnace works, explanation of certain elements and history) and poetic (imagistic stories from the perspective of steel workers, based on historical content). Visitors could walk through the blast furnace site and receive none of the interpretative material if they chose, or they could use the flashlights to activate content. The flashlights were both a figurative and literal tool for visitors to illuminate the blast furnace and its stories.

This technique, like all audience-centric initiatives, requires staff members to trust that visitors can and will find the content that is most useful to them. When staff members put their confidence in visitors in this way, it signals that visitors’ preconceptions, interests, and choices are good and valid in the world of the museum. And that makes visitors feel like owners of their experience.

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