AAM Rundown 2: 75 Ways to Connect in 75 Minutes

example of crowdsourcing and visitor participation

One way to encourage visitor engagement: create avenues for participation by crowdsourcing your exhibit

I have to admit, I missed some of this session because I tried attending another one. “An Update on Art and Science Collaborative Approaches” sounded like it had a lot of potential, especially for someone like me who loves both art and science. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as inspiring as I had hoped it would be. They tell you at the First Time Attendees meeting that you can’t possibly attend all the sessions you’d like to, so be prepared to make choices. That means that if a session isn’t meeting up to its potential, you don’t have to feel locked in. You can just get up and move on to the next one on your list. [sidebar: This is actually good advice for any conference you attend. You may feel like a jerk for walking out, but it’s your time, and if someone’s wasting it, you don’t owe them anything.]

So I left, and ended up in a room that was packed to capacity, and full of energy/ideas/laughter. Good choice.

Audience Engagement: 75 Ways to Connect in 75 Minutes


  • Phillip Bahar (Chief of Operations and Administration, Walker Art Center)
  • Krista Dahl (Visitor Experience Manager, Institute of Contemporary Art)
  • Samantha Norton (Manager of Floor Programs, John G. Shedd Aquarium)
  • Emily Quist (Visitor Experience Manager, Oakland Museum of California)

Alright, the speakers approached this talk in a very bullet-pointy sort of way, so that’s what I’m going to do. Get ready for a slew of ideas on how to improve the visitor experience in museums.

  • Provide activities to keep your staff inspired and connected with your material: at the Shedd, the docents/staff find a particular animal, create art about it, and talk about how it inspires them. They no longer see the animals as just background, and the frontline staff have something unique to talk about with the audience.
  • Celebrate achievements, and encourage peer-to-peer recognition.
  • Inspire staff with real-life opportunities for conservation activities. Science and Natural History Museums, Aquariums and Zoos all have a vested interest in conservation, but it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference when you’re just working on the museum floor or in a back office.
  • Have staff training sessions where the staff serve as faculty. Basically, it’s like taking the Pixar University or Democratic Education at Cal model into your museum.
  • Take a page from Apple and the Ritz Carleton: greet your visitors immediately, get a sense of what they need and pass them on to someone who can help them. Just make sure people get where they need to be in a timely manner (no one likes waiting around, confused).
  • Rotate your frontline staff throughout the day. The change of scene alleviates fatigue, and also gives staff a better understanding of your institution as a whole.
  • Make sure that every member of the museum staff spends some time on the floor. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own tasks and forget the bigger picture
  • Dress for the reaction and interaction that you want to have. Guard/security uniforms can be off-putting and make visitors feel like they’re not trusted. You can have staff guarding the artwork or specimens while wearing something that encourages visitor interaction (ex: tshirts with a big “?” on the back to signify that visitors should ask questions).
  • If a visitor is looking like they’re having a miserable time, make sure they get some personal attention.
  • Thanks to technology like Square, you don’t just have to wait till people come to the ticketing booth to sell memberships.
  • Empower the staff to address visitor concerns without a manager present. This means having training sessions or a manual on resolving certain types of common visitor issues, as well as giving the staff the tools they’d need to remedy the issue on the spot (ex: coupons or gift certificates for food, the museum store, free visits or membership discounts). In general it’s a good idea to practice how to determine when visitors have a question or concern.
  • Use staff-written bubble labels (ex: “guard’s choice”) throughout your collection to present a more personal, less authoritative image.
  • Create galleries in the staff lounges, or other similar ways for staff to express themselves.
  • Go back to the basics, and have a quick training session on smiling. It sounds silly, but it’s easy to forget to smile, and it can make a big difference to the visitor experience.
  • All the staff in contact with guests should get together for round table sessions, where they can talk about the issues they face, and the solutions they’ve  come up with.
  • Ask your departments to take their work out to the museum floor. If you’re lucky enough to have a “behind the scenes” room that visitors can look in on, make sure the various departments all get some time in that room.
  • Set up advisory councils made up of your target audience. They can help bridge the gap between your various departments and programs.
  • Approach something expected in an unusual way. For example, audio tours don’t have to be dry or arranged by the gallery’s spatial constraints — you can base a tour on a color, or a funny theme like “so you think you’re having a bad day” or “naughty bits”. In art museums, implement visitor programs where you look at a few pieces for a long time; you’ll certainly get your visitors to change the way they interact with artwork.
  • Welcome your members when they enter, and give staff a way of recognizing them out on the floor (ex: a special pin or sticker). You want them to feel special and well-cared for.
  • Not all members have the same interests, so curate your membership pool. Some may by individuals who like events, others like programs, others still just like visiting…
  • Have some socializing options like “think and drink” tours.
  • Create participatory opportunities to accompany exhibitions. For examples, check out Side Trip at the Denver Art Museum, In Your Face at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Material Bingo at the MoMA.
  • Engage all the senses with tinkering studios or art installations that visitors can walk/sit/climb on.
  • Forge new connections with tag-team lectures on unrelated topics, and see what new knowledge emerges.
  • Send art or specimens out into the community. Bonus points if you make it a game, where visitors find all the pieces outside the museum and get free/reduced admission to the actual institution.
  • Partner with food trucks. You create community partners, can make delicious themed pairings, and for people who buy from the truck you can institute reduced admission.
  • Similarly, you can partner with bars and other neighborhood institutions, particularly ones that are relatively far away. Provide transportation from the bar to the museum for a special evening event, and curators can come back to the pub with the patrons to continue the discussion. This way, you can link your museum to more distant neighborhoods.
  • Go beyond the guest book and set out visitor voice cards like the “I went to MoMA and…” initiative. Later you can curate the responses into various collections.
  • Hold “just for kids” or other target audience days. For example, you can have free admission for anyone from a certain zip code to reach out to neighborhoods.

We didn’t have time to talk in depth about online experiences, but here are some quick ideas:

crowdsourcing (heh that sounds familiar); citizen science (see Cornell’s bird watch); tagging; wikipedians in residence; microfinancing (ex: using Kickstarter); blogs (from your own staff, or outsiders invited to contribute); tweet behind-the-scenes happenings; online magazine based on storytelling (ex: the re-designed Walker Art website); knowledge production; meaningful apps; Augmented Reality tours…

Well, you can see how that would be a whole other session. Maybe next year…

One Thought on “AAM Rundown 2: 75 Ways to Connect in 75 Minutes

  1. kate on June 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm said:

    Thanks for posting this! I was too choose a less-than-inspiring lecture and ducked out soon into it to get to this one. I showed up right at the end though so I missed most of the good stuff. Thanks for this synopsis.

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