Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's happening to this blog?

Hello everyone. As you may have noticed I have not made any new posts to this blog since May. Why? Well, on 7th June we launched the Australian Museum's new website. Since then, I have been beavering away uploading content to my revamped Audience Research Unit website. That site includes two blogs.

The Audience Research Blog continues the types of posts I have been doing here, primarily answering queries I get via email, reporting on conferences/workshops etc, posting interesting links, discussing Web 2.0 issues (my passion!) and generally pontificating as I do!

The Visitor Voices Blog highlights the voice of the visitor through uploading comments received about our various public programs - uncensored!

There will be RSS feeds attached to those blogs very soon, so please visit, join our site and start commenting!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Visitor response to taxidermy displays

This from Becky Hitchens: I am a student at Durham University in the UK on the MA Museum and Artefact Studies program and for my research paper I am looking at the public reaction to taxidermy mounts. I have been doing a lot of visitor research in museums in the UK and wondered if the situation and responses were similar in Australia. I could not find any information on your web-site as to whether or not you held a collection of taxidermic animals and if so whether you used them. I wondered if you had received any visitor comments, positive or negative, about the use of taxidermy specimens in the displays? Also, did you do any visitor research prior to redisplaying the gallery or any evaluation of displays since? My research has generated that there has been a shift away from viewing taxidermy as obsolete relics of colonialism, towards a more positive reaction to taxidermy and that few visitors are disapproving of their use. It would be interesting to see if your experiences correlate with this. I would appreciate any information you could give me. Thanks for your time.

Becky this is a very interesting question. Natural history museums are traditionally associated with taxidermy mounts. Some f my happiest and longest lasting memories of museums (especially the Field Museum, Chicago and the Natural History Museum in New York) are the beautiful displays of a variety of stuffed animals in stunning poses. Apart from their value in learning, the aesthetic value should not be forgotten.

Information I have gathered about specimens comes from the Uncovered: Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition we had in 2004. The exhibition focussed on why, how and what the Museum collected, through detailing the stories, images and voices behind some of the most important discoveries of the last 175 years.

A comprehensive summative evaluation was undertaken of the exhibition that consisted of two visitor surveys; one tracking study; an analysis of 20 visitor conversations; visitor counts and focus groups. The data that revealed how visitors engaged with taxidermy specimens came from the visitor survey and conversations.

When asked what they liked the most in the exhibition, some visitors surveyed commented specifically on the taxidermy displays (particularly the birds):

  • Gruesome fascination of stuffed animals and pickled snakes
  • The stuffed birds, they were over 100 years, fascinating that they are preserved so well
  • Stuffed birds, I'm an amateur bird watcher
  • Birds. They way they were presented you could actually see their feet
  • The large lobsters. The size is tremendous
  • Birds. I consider it's important to have taxidermy displays on show

Another interesting finding emerged from the conversation data. Minda Borun's research with family visitors to museums has shown that exhibits that enhanced conversations were multi-sided; multi-user; accessible to all in the group; encouraged multiple outcomes; used a variety of modes for communication; were readable and relevant to visitors' lives. In our study, these exhibits were characterised by familiar and unfamiliar specimens; specimens that were obviously dead; text that asked a provocative question; where visitors could make connections to their lives; specimens that were considered a bit weird; and specimens that were tiny, prompting visitors to ask how did they discover these. Specific exhibits in Uncovered that both enhanced visitor conversations and were taxidermy-related were:

  • birds section—particularly the cases of large dead, stuffed birds that encouraged visitors to talk about the practices of museum taxidermy and collecting
  • frogs/geckos displays—massed display of frogs and geckos in liquid enabling visitors to see the whole specimen
  • possums/echidnas—exhibited many different examples of possums and echidnas, some familiar and many not
  • bats—one of the first displays encountered when entering the exhibition

Finally Becky, in 2005 the Natural History Museum in Washington and did a study of visitor responses to their new mammals exhibition. I did a review of this exhibition on ExhibitFiles and the actual evaluation report is here on the Smithsonian website.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Connection Generation

Connection Generation is the first book written by Iggy Pintado. Connection Generation is a study of how connectedness affects our place in society and business and the challenges and opportunities this compelling development presents. As the Amazon Editorial Review says:

"We're all connected at some level. Whether you're a student, teacher, business owner, corporate professional, entrepreneur, manager, executive, or someone who is interested in how connectedness is changing our world, Iggy Pintado's Connection Generation is a must-read. A recognised leader in global connection technology and dedicated observer of societal and business patterns, Iggy believes that by understanding the attitudes and behaviours of individuals and groups, we can better manage the powerful link between communication and connection technologies to determine our individual and collective future. With nearly every facet of civilisation linked together, it is imperative that we understand how we connect into society and how this impacts on our capacity to adapt and grow. Consumer or leader, this book answers the vital question everyone is asking: Am I prepared for the lightning-fast connectivity changes taking place in the world?"

When talking with Iggy sometime ago we definitely shared views about how take up of social networking/connecting via Web 2.0 tools is not a factor of age, but of outlook. It is imperative in organisations, in particular, that we stop making excuses about how we cannot implement Web 2.0 thinking and actually do something about it. We have discussed some of these ideas on Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog: A simple argument for why museums and cultural institutions should care about social media.

Good luck with the book Iggy, and the Tweetblitz that is happening today. I'll be watching with interest.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

after you have done the research

I was alerted recently of the importance of the virtues of having a well-organised system for reporting research findings, and making it available throughout the organisation.

I saw a summative exhibition evaluation report produced by one organisation that was so short in its shortcomings that it highlighted many things we take for granted. It fell short due to poor resourcing in terms of staff skills and time, and lack of useful software for data handling.

The 'report' consisted of a spreadsheet with summary data and graphs (mostly pie charts) with all kinds of errors. As a result, some of the data was misinterpreted when drawing conclusions for the specific exhibition. But even more important, there was no attempt to dig a bit deeper and look at audience sub-groups (teens vs adults; men vs women; people with children vs those without, etc.). And most limiting of all, there was no opportunity to compare the audience profile of this exhibition with other exhibitions, or with general visitors. And no opportunity to compare audience responses to various exhibitions or programs.

Seeing this, I see the role audience research can play in supporting organisational learning, not just day to day reporting.

What is needed for organisational learning? At least some of the following things:
  • dedicated audience research specialist who champions the information and fosters use throughout the organisation
  • good filing system that allows staff to identify past research and access it; this might be a catalogue with key words as well as titles, topics and dates
  • standard report guidelines or templates that establish professional reporting
  • reports include comparative data where relevant.

I picture a simple library of resources that builds over time.

Lynda has done a great job at the Australian Museum of establishing and fostering just this kind of resource. Maybe she can add some other points about her experiences in setting up systems that make research findings available across the organisation.


Friday, April 17, 2009

NZ Conference post 4

Final day of conference today with focus on community, collections and innovation/technology.

I'm not blogging today – am tweeting insead and here's the feed. It's been a great experience and I even managed to buy some more wine goblets from the Tairawhiti Museum.

NZ Conference post 3

Spent an amazing day at Whangara Marae where we reconnected (or in my case connected) with Maori culture. A marae is a sacred Maori meeting place (see here for further information).

Reminded me how powerful the Maori language and culture is, as well as fun, funny and welcoming. Some points I gleaned:

  • Need to understand the culture before you begin to build the building (or, in our case, the exhibition)
  • People's life stories are interwoven with their work history
  • Importance of genealogy in Maori culture
  • Maori struggles for repatriation and recognition in museums mirror those of Australian Indigenous people
  • Cultural objects need to be steeped within the context of their culture and kept warm
  • What is the true version of truth?
  • Need to remember that we who work in museums are there to 'serve the people' (not the other way round, something wroth being reminded of I think)
  • Focus on the core business
  • Need to have and maintain good relationships – if people don't get on nothing happens

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NZ conference post 2

What are my views about what NZ sector could be doing (and should not be doing) in a combined visitor research program?


  • focus on what you need to know, not what's nice to know
  • always ask – what will I actually do with this data, if the answer is nothing or I don't know then don't do it!
  • a smaller amount of research well, not a large amount superficially
  • develop a couple of really good statements about what people learn/do/attitudes and use them over a time period (ala the Creative NZ model)
  • maybe try self-complete or online surveys to save on costs?
  • a pilot study in year 1 – see where it's taking you
  • think carefully about what you want to get from a non-visitor study – is it worth sampling them? (not really IMHO)
  • embrace the tools of social media – go where the people are (Flickr, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc) as this is where real opinions are expressed, plus it's free!
  • use students (they are great) but think about how will the findings be integrated, accepted and used (this can also be the problem with using consultants – need an internal champion in the institution who will nag staff into using this stuff)
  • ask – what do we want to focus on? Numbers and/or visitor experiences, learning and impact? (probably both)


  • get bogged down in definitions
  • just measure the measurable – find out what's important, then work out how t measure that, it can be done
  • think about visitor research as a cost – think of it as an investment
  • try and be all things to all people – a couple of key indicators in your regular surveys will do
  • use SPSS...or any complex program thingo where you have to rely on someone else to provide the data (unless they're good and there's a genuine atmosphere of team work and sharing)
  • forget the power of qualitative data – this is where you get the rich stuff you can talk to politicians/funders about
  • expect that everyone supports museums – remember that us and our friends are not representative of the population, so what we like/do is not where everyone else is necessarily at (and usually are not!)
  • be boring

Here's some resources for you:

culture – access – innovation: Museums Aotearoa Tairawhiti Conference

Kia Ora. Attending this conference in Gisborne as a guest of Museums Aotearoa (kindly sponsored by the NZ Ministry for Culture & Heritage – a big thanks). Program looks fascinating and really looking forward to catching up with old friends, meeting new NZ colleagues and sharing some great Gisborne wines.

Today am attending the Visitor Research workshop looking at the needs of institutions, regions and the sector across NZ and how we can develop a framework so museums can see where they fit in, as well as a lobbying tool. The workshop was attended by around 35 people discussing what they currently do and what they'd like to do.

So what am I doing here? Putting in my two cents worth! (but really helping them work out a plan from my experience I suppose).

Simon opened by talking about the bigger picture aspects of what's happening in NZ/Australia and raised the following issues:

  • Standardisation
  • Sharing information
  • ICT – using it to gather info, share info and also looking at how visitors are talking about you on social networking sites
  • Reducing costs (by sharing, using ICT)
  • When/where to collect data

Some of what's happening across NZ:

  • Te Papa: monthly surveys, motivations for visiting, as well as compliance reporting. Also mentioned key point that not only about gathering information but what we do with it
  • Creative NZ: concentrate on performing arts as well as visual and digital arts. Survey called New Zealanders and the Arts (three-yearly survey, 2K visitors aged over 15 + booster samples with specific cultural groups) – attitudes, attendance and artists themselves to look at the health of the arts broadly. Found general support for the arts by NZers
  • Massey University and non-visitor: defining this is hard, use social networks to define and research non-visitors (interesting idea, might pinch that one!), they can be eloquent about the purposes of institutions but when it comes to visiting it's about relevance, barriers (time and cost), some younger non-visitors felt too much emphasis on NZ identity and not broader, global issues (interesting observation, we have found this too)

Following general discussion, we then broke into small groups to look at four areas. Simon summed up with following key points:

  1. Need to build on the academia/museum relationship and strengthen. This will help reduce costs and foster innovation
  2. Need to focus on the impact of technology, both in user-generated content, reducing costs and as a way to disseminate information
  3. Need to identify both basic, quantitative building blocks of information, as well as the ,more 'fuzzy', qualitative areas of research to be done
  4. Overall a good start and will need to build on the forward momentum.

Notes from the session will be typed up and circulated via Museums Aotearoa. My next blog post presents a cautionary tale when embarking on a large program of sector-wide audience research...