VSG Professional Development Bursary report

VSG Professional Development Bursary report
I currently work at Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum as a Gallery Enabler. My core
roles involve working with school groups that visit the Museum and delivering the public
programme of events and activities at weekends. This programme involves a diverse array
of activities from storytelling sessions for the under 8’s to object handling collections to IT
based animation workshops. My role also allows me to develop activities for family visitors,
the most recent being the Cave Workshop, an activity that enables visitors to find out about
prehistoric man whilst exploring an archaeological reconstruction of a Neanderthal cave site.
There have been plenty of opportunities available to me whilst in this role and there are still
plenty on the horizon however, I would ultimately like to be a Visitor Services Manager and I
believe that having an understanding of visitor studies and research is paramount to this
which is part of the reason why I decided to apply for the Professional Development Bursary.
Although I wanted to use the bursary to generate a deeper understanding of visitor studies
and research, I did not want to do this through attendance of a conference or talk. Instead I
wanted to use this bursary to work with organisations that had dedicated visitor studies
departments and teams in order to get first hand experience as to how visitor studies is
integrated into daily operations and event programming. My experience of visitor studies
thus far has been limited to small organisations that do not necessarily dedicate resources to
visitor research, hence I wanted to complement this approach by spending time with larger
organisations and professionals that have expertise in developing the experience for visitors
and measuring the impact of these.
I had originally planned to spend a total of five days with two separate Heritage and/or
Cultural organisations, shadowing and meeting key members of staff and observing visitors.
What I actually ended up doing far exceeded my original expectations!
My first placement was to spend a total of three days with the Audience Research and
Advocacy Department of the Science Museum in London and then my second placement
amounted in total to five days with Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM), a research and
consultancy company based in Manchester. It was hoped that by working alongside these
teams and their organisations it would enable me to gain an understanding of visitor studies
from the perspective of both a Museum and also a commercial organisation.
The project
The Science Museum has recently opened a new exhibition entitled ‘Cosmos and Culture’.
It is an exhibition designed to use innovative interpretation techniques to encourage the
visitors to explore the objects further – there are no interpretation labels within the
showcases, however there are books that the visitor can pick up if they wish to explore
further and there are also six large Showcase Interpretation Screens which enable the visitor
to explore the objects in front of them further and also to take themed tours. By conducting
evaluation of this project the team were hoping to find out the success of their new
interpretation techniques and gain an increased understanding of their audiences. It is this
project that I was assisting on. Throughout my time with the team I mainly assisted with
visitor tracking and data collection. I was also invited to pilot an Accompanied Visit around
the exhibition space to test a questionnaire. I found the whole process very informative, it
made me look at the Gallery more critically than perhaps I would have had I just been
visiting on my own. Just this one exercise made me gain a different perspective on the
issues that visitors may or may not have regarding engagement with a gallery, exhibition
space or interactive, not just at the Science Museum but also in my current place of work.
It was also explained to me that front end evaluation for Cosmos and Culture was minimal
due to time and monetary constraints. The preliminary results from the summative
evaluation clearly showed how many of the issues within the Gallery could have been
avoided if this front-end evaluation was carried out. Even though there were positives and
negatives that were becoming apparent through the evaluation, the results would not be
wasted as they would be used to influence the next gallery or exhibition thus improving the
visitor experience.
Combined with the accompanied visits, the Science Museum was also undertaking visitor
tracking to observe how visitors used the gallery space. This is what I spent the majority of
my time doing whilst I was there. The more I carried out this process, the more I recognised
its value as an informative research tool – conducting these surveys and analysing the
results has again made me aware of just how much needs to be done in order to capture
and ultimately hold the visitors attention.
The three days that I spent working alongside Sofie and the visitor studies team were both
hugely beneficial and cemented in my mind the importance of visitor studies. I now feel that
if asked to do evaluation of the success of a gallery or exhibition space I feel that I would
have the tools to equip me to do this; it has not only deepened my understanding of the
subject and made me feel confident in approaching the task but it also highlighted how
beneficial visitor studies is with regards to solving problems, ensuring that an exhibition or
gallery space is engaging and interesting and ultimately in ensuring its success.
Working alongside MHM I was able to see visitor studies and research from a consultancy
perspective as opposed to a Museum or Gallery. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
reopened in 2006 following a £27.9 million redevelopment project completed in order to
increase the amount of available display space, increase the number of objects on display
and address issues such as accessibility and interpretation. The previous interpretation was
thought to be outdated and it was decided to use themes and story displays in order to
engage the visitors with the collections. Now that the honeymoon period of visitors was over,
the Museum wanted to complete an all encompassing evaluation and hired MHM to do this.
There was a very large list of things that the Museum wanted to discover, such as: how the
visitors were engaging with the galleries and the story displays, whether the redisplays were
attractive to their target audience, visitors initial reaction to the building, length of visit etc.
MHM were using a variety of evaluation methods and collating an enormous amount of data
e.g. head counts, visitor observations, vox pops, focus groups etc and it was some of this
data that I was able to assist in analysing during the three days that I was there.
During my time with MHM, I was able to analyse Mystery Visitor booklets. These were given
to a variety of participants, some of whom had been to the Museum before, some of whom
hadn’t and they were asked to record their thoughts and opinions on all aspects of the
Museum and in particular, two specific galleries. Initially I was quite daunted by this task. I
had been asked to identify issues that the visitors were having, things that they liked, things
that they didn’t etc, however having never done something like this before I was not sure
what would be a useful quote to write down and what wasn’t. However, what I soon realised
and what I found quite surprising was that many visitors were identifying similar issues. This
again demonstrated the usefulness of conducting evaluation such as this – especially as it
could then be used for the basis of what I was to do next.
One of the things that I had not expected to do as a result of being awarded this bursary was
to travel with Tom and Guy of MHM to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow to
conduct an evening forum with the participants that had previously completed the Mystery
Visitor booklets. It was during this time that I was able to not only see the Museum for myself
but also to observe a forum taking place. During the three hours that the participants were in
attendance they took part in and completed a range of workshops and activities including
further visits around specific galleries noting things that they did or did not like, using post it
notes to answer questions located on flip charts around the room, group workshops and
finally a facilitated discussion. I feel that being allowed to observe this forum was extremely
beneficial to my understanding not only of the individual components but also how to
manage and run the evening as a whole. Observing the facilitated discussion made me
realise not only how much pre planning is involved (MHM had a pre prepared list of
questions that they used to steer and guide the discussion if it was going off track) but also
how intensive they are. There were a variety of people in the group, some of whom were
more dominant than others, some of whom were quite shy and it demonstrated to me the
verbal tools that were used to encourage all members to participate equally. I believe that
observing this forum has provided me with the beginnings of the tools that I would need to
run a similar event. I would by no means say that I was proficient in the art of conducting
forums and focus groups but I do believe that I would be able to conduct an event similar to
this albeit more nervously.
My final placement with MHM was back at their office in Manchester where I continued
pulling quotes from the Mystery Visit booklets and also from the notebooks that the visitors
had been carrying around whilst visiting the galleries during the forum at Kelvingrove the
week before. I also got to analyse the headcount data, the results from which would be used
to determine which were the least and most popular galleries. Although this seems like quite
a simple tool it was really effective in illustrating the popularity or not of all the galleries within
the Museum.
The more analysis that I was able to complete with MHM, the more I built up a bigger picture
of how all the research and data they were compiling came together. It was clear that the
results of one evaluation method supported the results of another. I found all of this
completely fascinating.
What I got out of it
Once I had finished both of my placements I wrote down three words that I believed summed
up the experiences that I had; fascinating, inspiring and eye-opening.
One of the main things that I believe that I have gained from completing this experience was
an all round view of the whole process – from the front end to the summative evaluation.
Spending time at the Science Museum has enabled me to see the benefits of tracking and
accompanied visits and with MHM I have been able to deepen my understanding of the
importance of forums, focus groups, mystery visits and head counts. I believe that all of
these methods have enabled me to better understand the holistic experiences that visitors
have once they are within a venue. Having seen the whole process from beginning to end, it
has confirmed in my mind the importance of visitor studies and research. As a result of being
awarded this bursary I believe that I am able to ensure that the principles behind visitor
studies underpin, wherever possible, any work that I do. This is something that without
having had this opportunity I don’t believe I would be able to do as well.
I have included, within this report, a breakdown of exactly how I spent the money that I was
awarded as part of the bursary. I have only claimed for part of the cost of the hotel
accommodation in London as the remainder fell outside the realms of the bursary, as did the
Travel /Accommodation
Return train ticket to London Euston
(24th – 27th August)
Return train ticket to Manchester
(28th August)
Return flights to Glasgow
(16th and 17th September)
Return train ticket to Manchester
(20th - 23rd September)
Accommodation in Manchester
(20th – 23rd September)
Accommodation in London
(24th – 27th August)
In conclusion I wanted to say thank you to the Visitor Studies Group for deciding to award
me the Bursary initially, it has given me an amazing opportunity from which my
understanding and interest in visitor studies and research has been deepened but also I
wanted to say a big thank you to Sofie Davis of the Science Museum and Kelly Bagley, Tom
Wilkins and Guy Turton of MHM who were all so accommodating, helpful and understanding
during the time that I was working alongside them – I could not have asked for better