VSG Professional Development Bursary report Introduction 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. Aims 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. Objectives 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. Finances 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 subsistence. 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) Total Cost £38.00 £57.00 £73.47 £57.00 £144.60 £129.93 £500.00 Conclusion 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 opportunities.