Chapter 2: Participation Begins with Me

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. 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 cultural institutions is to take an audience-centered approach to the experiences offered. This doesn’t mean throwing out the things the staff thinks 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 typically 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, can 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. Visitors’ varied needs—to accommodate energetic children, 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. 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. This is the basic premise behind I Like Museums: 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 staff members and community members developed the initial I Like Museums trails, new ones are submitted on a continuous basis by visitors to the site.

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 they are, not what the institution offers. As a visitor, 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. 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 visitors’ active roles 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 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. Pull techniques have the greatest impact when they are integral to the visitor 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 hotspots painted around the site. The flashlights activated interpretative experiences including 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 sources). 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 the owners of their experiences.

Treating People as Individuals

Providing audience-centric ways to enter and access cultural experiences is the first building block in personalizing the institution. The next step is to take a more individualized approach to identifying, acknowledging, and responding to people and their interests.

There are some social venues, like rock concerts, where people enjoy being anonymous members of the crowd. But in most social environments, it’s lonely, even terrifying. The fictional bar Cheers was “the place where everybody knows your name” for a reason—being treated as an individual is the starting point for enjoyable community experiences.

Cultural institutions are often terrible at this, especially when it comes to visitors. Even at museums where I’m a member, I am rarely welcomed as anything but another body through the gate. This lack of personalization at entry sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual by the institution. I am just a faceless visitor.

To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness is a simple matter of providing good guest service. Vishnu Ramcharan manages the front-line staff (called “hosts”) at the Ontario Science Centre. He trains hosts with a simple principle: hosts should make every visitor feel wanted. As Ramcharan put it: “The hosts shouldn’t just be excited generally that visitors are there, but that you specifically showed up today. They should make you feel that you are someone they are thrilled to see at the Science Centre.” This may sound trite, but when you see Ramcharan’s smile, you feel as you do in the hands of any accomplished party host—desired, special, and ready to engage.

Personal Profiles

While kind welcomes are a good start, you can’t treat visitors as individuals until you actually know what is unique about each of them. To do that, you need a way for visitors to express their own identities relative to your institution.

Treating people as individuals is at the heart of strong social networks. Whether online or in the physical world, personal self-expression—through appearance, preferences, and actions—allows people to express themselves relative to others. We all use our personal identities to signal who we are, who we want to meet, what we want and don’t want. The more clearly and exhaustively you self-identify, the easier it is for an organization, community leader, or online service to connect you to people and experiences that are appropriate for and compelling to you.

In online social networks, the user experience centers on the personal profile. Websites like Facebook and LinkedIn require users to start with an exhaustive profile-making activity in which they detail their interests and affinities. The point of profiles is to give users value by connecting them to relevant people, products, institutions, and ideas. Some sites, such as LinkedIn, very explicitly show the path of “links” between you and others. The expectation is that you are not interested in everyone in the universe of LinkedIn. You are interested in users who are relevant to your self-determined interests and pre-existing contacts.

For example, I use an online social network called LibraryThing to get recommendations for books to read. I’m an avid reader. I use the library frequently, and I’m often frustrated by the lack of personalized recommendations available. Beyond the rack cards with the National Book Award winners or best beach mysteries, I have little information to help me in my hunt for great books. There’s no section for “literary, plot-driven stories with strong female characters” or “ironic and wacky but not too over-the-top romps.” Nor can I turn to the other people in the library for assistance. The librarians are often busy or are not available if I’m searching the online catalog from home. And while there are always lots of people in the library who like books, I have no confidence that a random member of the book-reading community will belong to my particular sub-community of interests—or that they’d respond positively to an advance from a stranger.

And so I rely on LibraryThing. My profile on LibraryThing is my library of books. I type in the titles I’ve read, and LibraryThing constructs a library-quality catalog of my books. My personal catalog is a node in the social network of LibraryThing, along with every other user’s library. LibraryThing automatically recommends books to me based on the pattern of books I’ve read. It connects me with other users who have books in common with mine based on the theory that we might have similar taste in books. I often end up directly contacting other users to learn more about other books in their libraries. My interest in those individuals is mediated by the network that ties us together.

The resultant experience is incredibly powerful. The more books I add to my library, the better recommendations I receive. I’m unlikely to switch my allegiance to another book-cataloging system because LibraryThing has evolved to be more than just a piece of functional software. It’s responsive. It values my personal interests. And it connects me to other people who enrich my reading.

Of course some libraries have wonderful staff members who can help people find books they might like. But relying on staff and even volunteers is not scalable. That’s like me calling my volleyball instructor every time I want to organize a game. It’s ultimately more valuable for users, and more sustainable for everyone, if the system is set up to be responsive to individuals on demand.

Profiles in the Real World

I don’t walk around town wearing the list of books I’ve read on my sleeve. Online, I can construct complex personal profiles, but in the physical world, I have fewer explicit signifiers I can use to express my unique identity. I can wear a t-shirt for a band I like. I can walk my dog around town. I can display my tattoo. Each of these types of self-identification can lead to social interactions with people who belong to the communities of rockabilly lovers or dog owners or inked folk. The small presentation of self-expression becomes a kind of beacon that links me to others in a loose social network of affinity.

But my “sidewalk profile” is limited to my personal appearance and objects I carry. It is much more difficult for me to display my love of backpacking or Reconstructionist Judaism or off-grid living as I walk down the street. On the Web, I can display all of these. I can use different websites to express myself relative to different types of experiences and content. The people who I trust for book recommendations on LibraryThing are not the same as the people I am professionally connected to on LinkedIn. I can express the aspect of my self-identity appropriate to the situation, and then I can use that personal profile as the basis for a social experience.

Why does this matter when it comes to participation in cultural institutions? If you want to create opportunities for customized content or high-value social interactions, you need to provide visitors with a way to self-identify relative to your institution. This doesn’t mean letting them tell their life story. It means designing profiles that are specific to the experiences available at the institution. If the institution offers programs in multiple languages, visitor profiles should include their preferred language of engagement. If the collection is vast and varied, visitor profiles might include favorite iconic objects or themes. The right profile-making activity solicits just enough personal information to deliver high-value outcomes.

Let’s take a look at three very different systems for creating visitor profiles in museums.

At the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in New York City, visitors create comprehensive digital profiles they use to access and manipulate exhibits. The Wonder Technology Lab is a hands-on science center focused on creative use of digital technologies. When visitors enter, they start by “logging in” at a kiosk that records their name, voice, photo, favorite color, and preferred music genre. Then, each visitor’s profile is saved onto an RFID card that is used to access all the interactive exhibits. Each exhibit greets visitors by name at the beginning of the experience. When a visitor augments an image, he distorts his own face. When he makes an audio mashup, his voice is part of the mix. This may sound gimmicky, but it is emotionally powerful. It draws visitors into every exhibit via their own narcissism. What could be more personally relevant—and compelling—than your own image and voice?

Visitor profiles need not be high-tech to be useful. In the temporary exhibition Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, visitors created profiles by picking a character from Greek mythology with whom they self-identified. Visitors could take a quick personality quiz at kiosks near the exhibition entrance to determine which of eight Greek heroes, gods, or monsters they were most like. The kiosks prompted visitors to take a personalized tag and ID card from bins nearby for “their” hero. The cards provided more information about the heroes and connected them to specific artifacts in the exhibition. In this case, the profile didn’t change the exhibition content, but it served as a personal filter that drove recommendations for how to navigate Heroes.

Finally, at the New York Hall of Science, visitors receive different entrance stickers based on their membership level. Non-members receive one color, members another, donors a third, and so on. That way, every passing staff member can visually identify and respond to guests uniquely based on whether they are new or returning visitors. In this case, the visitor profile is a single data point represented by a colored sticker. But it still gives visitors an experience that is somewhat customized to their history with the institution.

Each of these profile systems is different, but they all add value to the visitor experience. A successful personal profile accomplishes three goals:

  1. It frames the entry experience in a way that makes visitors feel valued. If a staff member greets a visitor by name or attends to her particular interests, she is more likely to feel comfortable in the institution. When an employee shows respect for her background and abilities, he bolsters her confidence as a potential participant and contributor. Self-identity is particularly important when it comes to participatory experiences. If you want visitors to share stories, ideas, or creative work, you need to respect them as individuals who have something of value to contribute.
  2. It gives people opportunities to deepen and satisfy their pre-existing interests. If someone comes in who is fascinated by trains, the right profile can expose that interest and help the staff provide custom experiences to satisfy it. John Falk’s research has demonstrated that museum visitors evaluate their experiences based on institutions’ abilities to accommodate unique identity needs. The better you can identify a visitor’s need, the more likely you are to fulfill it.
  3. It gives people confidence to branch out to challenging and unfamiliar opportunities. In the book Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam argued that shared experiences around personal interests (like bowling) can help people connect across great diversity in race, wealth, and social class. Bowling leagues, knitting circles, and amateur astronomy clubs all help people enjoy their personal interests while connecting with new experiences and ideas.

Staff picks in bookstores highlight specific volumes in a personal, friendly way.

Profiles aren’t just for visitors. They can also be used to help employees and volunteers express their own personal interests relative to the institution. One of the simplest ways to do this is via “staff picks.” Walk into almost any locally owned bookstore, and you are likely to find handwritten cards featuring a few sentences from a staff member expressing his or her ardor for particular books. These picks focus on personal and informal commentary on books rather than formal or hierarchical information.

Museums have a long history of inviting curators or guest artists to design custom shows that highlight their idiosyncratic perspectives on the collection. These can be done formally, as in Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society (1992) or Damien Hirst’s exhibit of favored works at the Rijksmuseum (2008). But this can also be done internally with staff members and volunteers. In 2008, the Exploratorium launched prototype Staff Picks signs featuring diverse members of the staff sharing informal thoughts on what they love about particular exhibits.

Museums with wide-ranging content typically group exhibits by topic, with curators writing labels about their areas of expertise. But culture is interdisciplinary, and it can be quite interesting to see how a design curator interprets a historical piece of furniture, or how a scientist sees a piece of landscape art. Because the roles among museum staff are more varied than those in the bookstore, there’s an opportunity to promote learning from multiple perspectives using staff picks. Highlighting the unique perspectives of scientists, designers, and educators in cultural institutions can give those individuals unique identities and offers visitors a more nuanced blend of interpretative material.

When staff members are encouraged to express themselves personally, it models respect for diverse individual preferences and opinions. When front-line employees feel confident sharing their personal thoughts on the institution and its content, it gives visitors permission to do the same.

Designing Profiles for Cultural Institutions

There is no single right way to construct a user profile. While many profile-making activities are creative, with users inputting unique content about themselves, others are selective, with users picking from among a few options. The key is to make sure that the institution is able to be responsive to people based on their profiles. There is waste in over-profiling—both for visitors whose time is squandered answering profile questions and for institutions that can’t meaningfully use the data gathered.

There are two basic kinds of profiles: aspirational and you are what you do. Aspirational profiles are those in which people express themselves based on their own self-concept. This is the kind of profile that people create via their clothes, personal statements, or status updates. The Walters Art Museum’s Heroes exhibition tags were a kind of aspirational profile; each visitor picked the hero who appealed most to her or was most related to her interests.

Aspirational profiles are fundamentally different from the profiles that visitors receive in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Titanic traveling exhibition. Those exhibitions offer visitors the opportunity to randomly identify with a historic person who was affected by the Holocaust or traveled on the Titanic. While those kinds of activities do help visitors connect with powerful stories of individuals from the past, the profiles do not reflect anything personal about the visitors themselves. Aspirational profiles, in contrast, are based on visitors’ own personalities, preferences, and interests.

“You are what you do” profiles are based not on what users say about themselves but what they actually do. For example, I have a “you are what you do” profile at my local rock climbing gym. When I walk into the gym, the staff member at the desk asks me for my member number and then greets me by name. On the screen in front of him, he can see how often I come, what classes I’ve taken, and any issues on record. Beyond my name, no part of my profile is self-defined. He knows me by my actions relative to the gym, and he offers me personalized information based on my past behavior.

“You are what you do” profiles have great potential in cultural institutions. If you can find ways to capture even a small amount of the data generated by visitors’ experiences—the exhibitions they visit, the amount of time they spend looking at different objects, the blend of experiences they pursue, the amount of money they spend on food or the gift shop—you will understand them better and be able to respond accordingly.

Many profiles blend these two types, providing value to users based both on what they say about themselves and what they do. In 2009, I worked with the Boston Children’s Museum to develop a blended onsite and online experience, Our Green Trail, to encourage visitors to be more environmentally conscious in their everyday lives. We decided that the online component would serve as a profile reflecting and rewarding green behaviors performed in real life. The online environment was designed as a “green village” in which each user has a virtual home. In the initial setup, users create aspirational profiles. They pick their homes and name them. The homes start as normal-looking buildings but can transform into “green” houses with various environmental improvements. People don’t improve their virtual homes by interacting online; instead, their homes advance when they perform green activities in the real world—taking a reusable lunch bag to school, turning off the lights, conserving water. Users can express commitment to take on a particular challenge aspirationally, but their virtual homes only change when they self-report completion of the activity. In this way, the virtual homes serve as “you are what you do” profiles for the players’ real lives. A quick glance around the green village lets people see who is excelling at living a green lifestyle.

When it comes to staff, most institutions maintain extensive “you are what you do” profiles in personnel files but do not give staff the opportunity to self-identify aspirationally as well. In 2004, I visited the Center Of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. In the staff break room, they had a wall of photos, names, and titles of all staff members so that people could easily identify each other across the institution. This is a great (and typical) way for staff members who work in a large organization to recognize each other as individuals. But COSI took it one step further. Each nameplate featured the staff photo, name, title, and “dream title.” One educator’s dream title was “chief banana eater.” A visitor service representative proclaimed herself “queen of bubbles,” and so on. This very simple addition allowed staff members to express their aspirational (and creative) selves along with functional information about their work.

Wearable Profiles

Each double-sided card featured a personality type on one side and a connection to an artifact in the exhibition on the back (not shown).

When the staff at the Walters Art Museum decided to invite visitors to create profiles for their Heroes exhibition, they did not want to deal with the logistical complexity or cost of a long profile-making activity. They wanted profile making to be fun, easy, optional, and high-value. So the staff created a simple wearable identity system. They provided bins with small metal tags featuring eight characters from Greek mythology. Visitors self-identified with one of the eight and wore tags indicating their preferences. Many visitors, strangers and friends alike, used these tags as the basis for conversation and to seek out content in the exhibition about their selected heroes.

Wearable identity is one of the simplest and most flexible forms of self-identification. Many museums already require visitors to wear buttons or stickers to indicate that they have purchased tickets to enter the galleries. Why not use this wearable identification as a way to personalize the experience? Admissions staff can offer visitors different colored stickers or wristbands based on a simple one-selection question. Alternatively, visitors can personalize their profiles with a word or phrase selected quickly and printed onto a sticker.

Wearable identification acknowledges visitors as individuals by encouraging them to share something unique about themselves. It provides opportunities for deepening because staff can give tailored recommendations and information based on visitors’ profiles. It also encourages social bridging among visitors who are strangers by giving them external tools to identify those who share their interests.

These kinds of profiles are only useful if the institution can deliver an enhanced experience based on them. In Heroes, the enhancement was the opportunity to find and explore hero-specific content threads throughout the exhibition, and to connect with other people about their different identities.

Imagine you have just one question to ask visitors that can be used to contextualize their experience relative to your museum. What would you ask them?

Profile questions should help frame the specific experience available at particular institutions. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what relaxes you, you shift into a relaxed state of mind. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what challenges you, your adrenaline rises. Questions as simple as “What era in history do you wish you could visit?” in a history museum or “What’s your favorite color?” in an art center can help people express themselves uniquely and get in the mindset of the institution.

Wearable profiles can be content-related (i.e. different colors for different content interests), knowledge- or skill-based (different colors for people who self-identify as novices, students, amateurs, or experts), or social (one color for people who are interested in engaging with strangers, another for people who aren’t). In a music center, for example, you might offer nametags that read “Country Western,” “Punk Rock,” and so on to allow visitors to self-identify relative to their musical preferences.

For more general situations, prompts like, “I’m interested in…” or “I’m inspired by…” can allow visitors and staff to express their affinities and meet people with shared interests. Jay Cousins, a German technologist, has been experimenting with “talk to me about…” stickers to promote social interaction at conferences. People write about their interests and slap the stickers on the backs of their shirts or laptops.

A participant in the Palomar5 Innovation Camp in Berlin, Germany, advertised his social interests with a simple “talk to me” sticker. Photo by Carolin Seeliger.

Commenting on their popularity even in the most unlikely situations, Cousins noted:

Deutsche Telecoms Innovation Day – Will men in suits wear stupid looking bubbles expressing their passions – 8/10 said yes.

These are all aspirational examples, but you can also develop “you are what you do” wearable identity that reflects the exhibits visitors have used, the art they’ve enjoyed, or the concerts they’ve attended. “You are what you do” profiles can also indicate the status of members, supporters, collaborators, or other special visitors, as at the New York Hall of Science with their color-coded entrance stickers.

Wearable identification is not just for visitors. It’s likely that staff and volunteers in your institution already wear some kind of “you are what you do” item that identifies them as an employee, whether a nametag or a uniform. When I worked on the front line at a small science center, I wore a blue polyester vest that I fondly remember as a “magic vest.” The vest identified me as a safe person with whom to talk and play.

Wearable identification can also reduce staff members to a generic role. At the New York Hall of Science, Preeti Gupta, Senior Vice President of Education & Family Programs, reflected on her anxiety at donning the front line’s red apron after years at the institution this way:

Usually I have my name tag and a set of keys which identify me as staff. I comfortably interact with visitors. Why then, with this apron on, was I feeling anxious? I realized it was because now I hadn’t just put on an apron, I actually put on a “role” or an “identity.” People would see me in the red apron and knew they could ask me anything and it was my job to help them, to be accountable to them. It is how I knew they would view me, as someone who is supposed to work with them, that made me anxious.

When working with wearable identification, it’s important that people feel confident and positive about their profile item rather than feeling wedged into a box or tricked in some way. This is true both for staff members and visitors alike. Wearing your personality on your sleeve should give you a feeling of pride and self-expression. Some people wear colored wristbands that indicate their support for various political and social movements. They wear them to feel the powerful emotional connection with the concept they represent. They wear them to demonstrate their affinity to the world. And they wear them to identify themselves as part of a tribe of like-minded supporters.

What are the tribes of people at your institution? More importantly, what are the tribes who might want to identify with like-minded visitors? The most fertile tribes are not readily obvious from personal appearance. It’s not useful to have a blue sticker for men and a red one for women, or to have a green band for people over 65 and a yellow band for children. But it might be useful to have a special sticker for staff members who speak another language, or for people at a military museum who have served their country, or for visitors to a science center who like explosions.

Avoiding Prescriptive Profiles

When designing user profiles, there are two pitfalls to avoid: putting people in overly prescriptive boxes, and not respecting their privacy.

Profiles should be flexible. Many people have experienced the frustration of overly prescriptive profiles on shopping websites. You buy one colander and suddenly the site recommends every kitchen implement under the sun. Buy a book of poetry on a whim and you’ll receive reminders every time that poet spits out another verse. When a profile system is too prescriptive, recommendations become laughably inappropriate, and the whole value of personalization turns into an annoyance.

We all exhibit a complex and shifting range of identity-related needs and aspirations when we visit museums. On one visit I may accompany my young nephews on a romp through the space, facilitating their learning experience and bopping from one novel activity to another. Another time I may visit on my own, looking for a more leisurely, intimate opportunity to explore my own content interests. If my profile is locked in from the first visit as a woman with small children, I won’t be necessarily be well-served on subsequent visits, even though the initial profile was constructed accurately.

Finally, profile-making activities should be designed with clear information about what the institution will do with the profile data. There are some institutions, like public libraries, that intentionally avoid collecting data about patrons to protect their privacy. If visitors generate data through their profiles—especially personal data like name, photo, or contact information—the institution should explain in clear language where and how that information will be stored and shared.

Confrontational Profiles

There is one special case in which profile systems that are highly prescriptive or reveal private information can be employed successfully: to provoke confrontational experiences. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Field to Factory exhibition (1987) typified this approach. To enter Field to Factory, visitors had to walk through one of two doors labeled WHITE and COLORED. You had to choose which prescriptive term defined you, and that uncomfortable selection framed the way you experienced the rest of the exhibition.

This “two doors” device has been reinterpreted to great effect at other institutions. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg frames the entire visit experience in this way by forcing visitors to enter the museum through two separate paths depending on whether they are white or non-white. Visitors are issued admission tickets that feature their presumed racial identity, and then are shepherded into separate entrances and introductory exhibits, separated by a fence that clearly suggests that the non-whites are on the inferior side. This profile activity intentionally alienates people, makes them frustrated, and can generate discussion out of that frustration. While this profiling technique is certainly powerful, it induces stress that may not be desirable in less provocative exhibitions.

A guard checks visitors’ racial identity outside the Apartheid Museum and directs them to the corresponding entrances. Photo courtesy Charles Apple.

In Switzerland in 2006, the Stapferhaus Lenzberg presented an exhibition called A Matter of Faith that used confrontational profiling as an unsettling first step to a more nuanced personalized experience. Visitors were required to enter the exhibition as “believers” or “non-believers.” They received USB-data sticks to wear that were marked with their choice, creating a wearable identity piece that some wore proudly and others hid in their jackets. Co-director Beat Hächler referred to this as “the principle of exposure,” in which visitors were “forced” to become “subjects of exhibition.” Again, this is not a desirable feeling for all visitors.

The uncomfortably limiting profiles assigned at entry became more complex as visitors navigated the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition, there were kiosks where visitors could construct more comprehensive personal profiles by responding to a questionnaire about religious faith. Visitors ultimately were segmented into five profiles based on their relationship to faith. They could choose whether to release their personal data to the larger audience of visitors or not, and 95% chose to share their responses to the questions. In a final room, visitors stood around a large round table segmented into five parts, each of which provided more information about a particular profile. As Hächler noted, most visitors went directly to the area of the table related to their own profiles to learn more about themselves and ended up sharing space with strangers who shared their profile. Hächler said, “On several occasions, this special situation was powerful enough to provoke spontaneous conversations among visitors in the same faith segment of the table.” What started with unsettling personal exposure ended in dialogue.

Putting Personalization to Work in Cultural Institutions

Personalization is powerful when it responds to visitors based on their unique identities. We’ve already seen some examples of how profiles allow visitors to feel valued, get access to deeper content, and connect with challenging ideas. Since profile making requires a time investment by visitors and a resource investment by institutions, it shouldn’t be limited to single visit experiences. Personalization can become a starting point for deeper personal relationships among visitors and institutions, not just one-off interactions.

Museums already establish deep relationships with very small subsets of visitors: donors, researchers, and community partners. The more money a donor gives, the more personal attention she receives from the development office. The more time a researcher spends examining artifacts, the deeper his relationship with collections staff. And when people are hand-selected for community advisory boards or collaborations, they are likely to work very closely with the institution and staff, expressing interests and needs in response to a sincere desire for their engagement.

These niche groups are necessarily small and it would not be manageable to scale up the personalized attention that a major donor, researcher, or community advisor receives to every member or visitor walking through the door. Institutional patterns for treating individuals personally are based on a scarcity model, since each requires direct human contact with a staff member. Community advisory boards in particular are often seen as requiring a monumental amount of added staff time. It is not practical to apply traditional models for these partnerships broadly.

But what about everyone else—the visitors without deep pockets, relevant PhDs, or programmatic connections? Deeper relationships with regular visitors are possible, but they require less resource-intensive models to support them. Fostering deeper relationships offers obvious benefits to devoted visitors, who become more engaged in ways that connect to their intellectual and creative interests. It also serves the bottom line. If visitors perceive that an institution is personally responsive to their changing needs and interests, they are more likely to visit again, become members, renew their memberships, and donate time and money to the institution.

In the next few sections, we’ll look at how institutions can develop scalable systems to provide visitors with the experiences they seek onsite, connect with them outside of visiting hours, motivate repeat visitation, and offer meaningful forms of institutional membership. I like to think of individual visits or transactions as “pearls” of experience. Building strong relationships with visitors means providing a string to tie those pearls together.

Empowering Front-Line Staff as Relationship Brokers

The most effective place to start supporting deeper relationships among visitors and staff is on the front line. Front-line staff and volunteers, whether cashiers or roving educators, security guards or greeters, are the face and voice of cultural institutions to the vast majority of visitors. They have the most immediate understanding of visitors’ needs, and they are the most publicly accessible. When front-line staff members are empowered to express their unique personalities and engage with visitors personally, it sets the stage for a personal experience throughout the institution.

When I was a teenager, I worked at a roadside flower shop with a relationship-first approach to doing business. On my first day, Chris, the owner, told me:

Everyone who comes in here has a story. People don’t buy flowers like you’d buy a book or piece of pizza. Every customer has a specific story to tell and a need to fulfill. It’s your job to figure out that need and sell them the flowers that will make them happy.

I did my job, which meant doing things that would be frowned upon in other retail establishments. I spent time with customers talking about who their flowers were for and helped them find the right ones for a girlfriend or a boss or a funeral. If someone was a good customer or spent a lot of money, I gave her a free vase. Cute kids got a flower to take home. If someone was a jerk, I upped the price or refused to sell to him. It wasn’t a fancy place, but we built strong relationships with our customers.

I was able to do all these things because they were in line with the way Chris did business. Unfortunately, most front-line employees are trained to conduct transactions, not to foster relationships. They are evaluated on the ability to quickly rip tickets and provide accurate and consistent information. If you are marketing your institution as a transformational place, you need to include staff in that equation and find ways, as Chris did, to empower them as such.

The Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina is one institution that is trying to use the admissions desk as a point of engagement and not just a ticket counter. The sales team has started offering professional development to front-line staff about the art of engaging with visitors. Front-line staff members engage first-time visitors in conversation about what they might enjoy at the museum, and they go out of their way both to greet and say goodbye to members. The staff goes on field trips to other institutions to explore ways to make visitors feel welcome and well served. As Director of Membership Advancement Jeff Stern explained to me, “We want to show staff that we value the thought process that goes into customer service and we take it seriously.” Internal blogs or all-staff meetings that feature observations and feedback from front-line staff members and volunteers can also help low-level employees feel like valued members of the team—and help other staff members who don’t spend time on the floor connect with the visitor experience.

Staff members can also make personal connections with visitors by sharing their unique voices in exhibitions. For example, when the Monterey Bay Aquarium mounted a temporary exhibition called Fishing for Solutions in 1997, they integrated staff voices as well as visitors’ into a comment board. The board invited visitors to share their own solutions for helping fish populations thrive, and it showcased handwritten comments from employees about their own personal solutions and choices. Staff members didn’t write about how the work of the institution was helping solve the problem; instead, they wrote about their own transportation, food, and family planning strategies. Staff members signed their comments with their names and positions at the Aquarium, which further personalized the connection between visitors and the real people who worked at the museum. This technique was effective in modeling desired results because it demonstrated that the same staff members who wrote the labels were willing to put their money where their mouths were and talk about their own personal lives and choices.

Putting the Front Line Online

Where possible, front-line staff members are frequently the best people to engage with visitors online. If a visitor forms a relationship with a staff member online, she is most likely to be able continue that relationship in person if that employee works in the galleries. For example, a woman once connected with a staff member with an unusual name (Thor) on the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Science Buzz blog, and then later had an in-person follow-up discussion with him on the floor at the museum. That relationship was only possible because Thor was able to express his unique voice on the museum’s website—and because he had a nametag that identified him onsite.

A group of front-line staff at the Exploratorium, the Exploratorium Explainers, has been running a blog about their work since 2007. Their topics range from favorite exhibits to behind-the-scenes grunt work to funny interactions with visitors on the floor. Their tone is often irreverent, but they do a wonderful job communicating their energy and love of the institution through the posts. The Explainers’ blog showcases a group of people who are dedicated to their institution and grateful for the opportunity to be one of its mouthpieces. As one Explainer/blogger, Ryan Jenkins, put it when reflecting on the experience of writing for the blog: “Finally, I want to say how proud it made me feel that the Explainers, on our own, had continued the spirit of innovation that defines the special place we work at.”

Encouraging front-line staff members and volunteers to blog in a professional capacity is a win-win for the participants and the institution. It encourages the development and maintenance of institutional memory and helps new employees learn the ropes in the visitor services departments. It values their knowledge and funnels their enthusiasm into a public-facing product. If staff maintain personal blogs, who knows how kindly or unkindly they will reference their workplace. But if they are blogging under the masthead of the institution, they go from being freelancers to staff reporters. They want to further the institution, and to do so without fear of being shut down or fired.

Encouraging staff to engage in participatory activities that highlight their individuality helps connect them to participatory efforts overall. Personalization is the first step to visitors seeing themselves as potentially active, social members of the institutional community. Don’t you want staff members to see themselves that way, too?

Personalized Onsite Experiences

How can cultural institutions be responsive to visitors’ diverse and shifting needs and interests across a visit? Designers and educators do this in aggregate for all visitors by designing varied spaces, punctuating object experiences with interactives, and offering different kinds of programs. But people derive meaning from different aspects of the museum experience. While one visitor may be fascinated by a blacksmith’s tools, another may be more interested in the labor politics of his trade. How can institutions serve the “right” content to each visitor?

This is a question not only of satisfying different types of visitors but of serving visitors over time as their needs and interests evolve. The ability to “grow with visitors” is particularly important for institutions that are perceived as demographic-limited, such as children’s museums and science centers. My first museum job was in the Acton Science Discovery Museum, a small hands-on science center in Acton, Massachusetts. The museum was filled with fascinating interactive exhibits, including many whose explanations eluded me despite having a degree in engineering. I found the exhibits to be beautiful and mysterious. But label text was only offered at a child’s level, and the resulting experience attracted families with young children exclusively. Families “aged out” when the kids reached age eight or nine. If we could have offered a different track featuring scientists’ takes on the interactives, or more complex levels of interactive challenge and explanation, the same interactives might have been able to serve visitors over more life stages.

Serving people custom content requires two things: a rich content base of different types of interpretation for any given exhibit or artifact, and a mechanism by which visitors can retrieve content of interest.

What should go into this “rich content base?” There are many ways to expand the interpretation available around each exhibit, artifact, or program. You can offer designer’s insights, insider stories from collectors or performers, contextual information about the time, poetic interpretations of the content, visitors’ impressions—the list goes on. People are most likely to use extra interpretation if it is appealing or relevant to them, so it makes sense to take an audience-centric approach to deciding what content to add. For example, an art museum may decide that it is lacking in material specifically for children, or a history museum may decide to use first-person oral histories to enliven a third-person interpretative approach.

Multi-vocal interpretation can also be a way for staff members to express their own particular fetishes. At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a charismatic groundskeeper named Rhett Reed worked with the museum’s new media team to create videos featuring him interviewing staff in the security and collections management departments. Reed’s personable, non-expert manner made him the ideal person to introduce visitors to the arcane worlds of the security control room and art packing crew.

Producing additional interpretative content can be a challenge, but it’s a known challenge. The trickier part is finding a distribution mechanism that won’t introduce too much clutter or complexity to the visit experience. Imagine doing the Herculean effort of collecting a diverse multiplicity of interpretations—expert and novice, artist and scientist, visitor and guard—on institutional content. How would you display them? And how would visitors determine which ones they’d like to access?

A multi-channel audio tour or multi-panel label is manageable on the scale of a few perspectives, but is unsustainable for more than five or six alternatives. Visitors would have to remember the icons or codes and confront a boggling multitude of choices at each exhibit. They might just give up.

This problem of information overload leads to an argument for simplicity, for fewer channels, fewer stops, shorter labels, less interpretative material. But there are other ways to solve the problem, to have your thirty-seven “channels” of content and consume them happily too. What you need now is a recommendation engine.

Recommendation Engines

Recommendation engines are systems that recommend content to you based on your personal profile. This is the heart of what makes services like LibraryThing useful. Anyone can check out the staff picks in a bookstore. But which ones will be right for you? That’s what recommendation engines try to figure out.

Recommendation engines thrive on robust personal profiles that often incorporate both self-designated and “you are what you do” data. For example, consider Netflix, the dominant US online movie rental company. Netflix provides movie recommendations based on your ratings—both of broad genres and styles and the films you actually watch. Netflix makes a game out of rating movies, encouraging you to do so upon initial account registration and on subsequent logins as part of the profile-building experience so the system can supply you with lists of “Movies You’ll Love.” The underlying message is that the more complete your profile, the more easily Netflix can help you find a movie you’ll enjoy.

This implicit promise of responsiveness motivates people to rate hundreds of movies at will. The more you use it, the better it gets—a symbiotic relationship that serves customer and vendor alike.

For Netflix, improving the recommendation system and motivating people to rate videos is essential to financial success. Netflix is in the business of selling monthly subscriptions. They do not want users to cancel subscriptions because they’ve seen all the movies they want to see or can’t find an appealing flick. They don’t want to leave it to chance that friends and family will continually suggest movies users might like, or that people will studiously scan the film reviews for ones they haven’t seen. And so Netflix spends a lot of money and energy improving its recommendation system so it can keep suggesting movies that users might like to see. In October 2006, Netflix even offered a million dollar prize to the first team who could improve their recommendation system by ten percent.

Netflix’s recommendation engine is tuned to provide customers with more of the things they like most—to provide users with deepening, but not necessarily broadening, experiences. One of the concerns about deploying recommendation engines in museums is that visitors will only be exposed to the narrow window of things they like and will not have “off path” experiences that are surprising, uncomfortable, and potentially valuable. Fortunately, cultural institutions are not in the business of selling movie rental subscriptions. While online retail recommendation engines are typically optimized to present people with things they will like, there are other ways to filter customized information.

The Unsuggester makes unlikely matches.

For example, LibraryThing has a “books you’ll hate” feature called the Unsuggester. The Unsuggester does the opposite of what LibraryThing’s traditional recommendation engine does; it recommends books that are least likely to be found in your LibraryThing collection or the collections of other users who also have your books. The Unsuggester doesn’t so much give you books you’ll hate as books that you’d never otherwise encounter.

While the Unsuggester is silly, it’s also a valuable set of responsive content to your profile. It’s a window into a distant and somewhat unknowable world. And users have responded positively. When programmer Tim Spalding suggested that few people were likely to actually read books on the Unsuggester list, an anonymous user responded:

You underestimate Thingamabrarians. Some of us are just looking for new ways to branch out from our old ruts… and something flagged as “opposite” to our normal reading might just be what we’re all looking for.

After noting the patterns of opposition between philosophy and chick lit, programming manuals and literature, Spalding wrote:

These disconnects sadden me. Of course readers have tastes, and nearly everyone has books they’d never read. But, as serious readers, books make our world. A shared book is a sort of shared space between two people. As far as I’m concerned, the more of these the better. So, in the spirit of unity and understanding, why not enter your favorite book, then read its opposite?

Imagine applying this principle to museum visits. People might be intrigued to learn that “if you always visit the mummies, you may never have explored the fish tanks.” Recommendation systems must meaningfully respond to users’ profiles, but they don’t have to be optimized solely to provide people with more of what they already like.

How could visitors to your institution generate profiles robust enough to be used in recommendation engines like these? While visitors make many active choices across a single cultural experience—what to do, in which order, for how long, with whom—institutions track very few of these choices. Unless your institution is ready to invest in systems to allow visitors to rate exhibits, collect favorites, or register their paths through the institution, recommendation engines may seem out of reach.

But don’t give up yet. Many recommendation engines (including the Unsuggester) can generate a list of recommendations based on just a single user input. Type in one title, and you’ll get a list of “Movies You’ll Love” from Netflix, or books you’ve never heard of from LibraryThing. Responsiveness to user profiles is only one part of what makes recommendation engines successful. They also use institutionally defined connections among objects and content to provide high-quality recommendations.

CASE STUDY: Pandora—An Expert Recommendation Engine

The online music service Pandora relies on curatorial-style analysis to help users create personalized radio stations and explore new music based on their interests. Here’s how it works: you enter a seed artist or song (or several) and Pandora starts playing music that it interprets as related in some way to your selections. User profiles are a mixture of self-expression (seed songs) and “you are what you do” (songs you favorite or skip during playback). You can type in a single song and let it play, or you can keep tweaking a station by adding seed music, skipping over bad songs, and favoriting good ones.

The extraordinary thing about Pandora is the complexity of its filtering. It doesn’t just group artists together and play music by similar musicians. Instead, it uses hundreds of signifiers assigned to each song by a team of expert musicians to find correlations among songs. Pandora is a product of the Music Genome Project, in which musicians define the individual “genes” of a song via signifiers and use those to generate song “vectors” that can then be compared to create highly specific and complex musical narratives. Each song takes twenty to thirty minutes for experts to encode. This is a serious data project, not unlike the kinds of categorization and research projects curators perform on museum collections.

For example, I created a radio station based on just one song: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes by Paul Simon. That radio station then played:

  • She’s a Yellow Reflector by Justin Roberts
  • If Only the Moon Were Up by Field Music
  • She’s Going by The English Beat
  • You’re The One by Paul Simon
  • Withered Hope by They Might Be Giants
  • Big Dipper by Elton John
  • Wait Until Tomorrow by New York Rock and Roll Ensemble
  • The Tide is High by Blondie

All but one of these songs and half the artists were new to me. I enjoyed seven out of nine. For each song, I could click a “Why?” button to see Pandora’s explanation for why it was played. For example, The Tide is High was included because it “features acoustic rock instrumentation, reggae influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing and excessive vamping.”

There are over four hundred different musical signifiers in the Music Genome Project, ranging from “brisk swing feel” to “lyrics that tell a story” to “sparse tenor sax solo.” Pandora and the Music Genome Project are managed by experts who, like curators, are uniquely skilled at describing the indicators of different types of musical expression. Their expertise makes for a better experience for me as a user. As an amateur listener, I could not identify the particular elements of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes that appeal to me. Listening and reacting to the Pandora-generated songs allowed me to understand the nuances of what I like and don’t like. It turns out I enjoy songs with “excessive vamping.” Could I have articulated that at the start? No. Not only did Pandora introduce me to new music, it expanded my vocabulary for discussing music.

Users of Pandora are protective of the Music Genome Project experts. There have been discussions on the Pandora blog about the slow inclusion of user-based filtering, and listeners have shared fears that it will taint the waters of the high-quality expert process. The Music Genome Project involves visitors’ ratings in a limited way. The core value is in the professional categorization of the songs.

Imagine a comparable recommendation engine within a cultural institution. Using curatorial records and or staff designations, the institution could generate a list of “genes” present across different objects or content experiences. Imagine a visitor typing the name of a single exhibit or object into her phone and getting a list of related objects, as well as explanations about how the objects are related. The system could provide experiences that are both highly responsive to individual visitors’ preferences and which deepen visitors’ ability to articulate why they like what they like. In some cases, people might be surprised to learn that they prefer artists whose subject matter comes from childhood memories, or historical stories related to economic crises. While cultural institutions can’t be physically rearranged for each visitor or family, the content could be remixed conceptually to present a progressively engrossing, educational experience.

Personalization doesn’t just give you what you want. It exposes you to new things, and it gives you a vocabulary for articulating and refining why you like what you like. The world opens a little wider and hopefully, you keep exploring.

Mechanisms for Retrieving Personalized Content

The final piece of the personalization puzzle is the mechanism that visitors use to access recommendations or personalized interpretative content. The ideal mechanism would accommodate both individual and social use. It would respond to visitors’ profiles and offer suggestions, but it wouldn’t force anyone down a single reductive path.

Some institutions have attempted to solve this problem by creating a physical device—typically associated with a barcode or RFID tag—that visitors carry with them and use to access each exhibit and associate it with their unique identities. This is particularly popular in science centers, and systems of this type have been employed in institutions around the world since the early 2000s.

There are two fundamental difficulties with these systems: they disrupt the social experience of exhibits by forcing groups to use an exhibit one by one (or to watch as a single member of the group uses the exhibit and records her experience), and they force a strict narrative on what is often a highly chaotic exhibit usage pattern. You can’t use an exhibit “in the middle” if you must initialize the experience with a swipe of your tag. Particularly for families, the requirement to wait in line until other visitors are done, keep track of the tagged object, associate an exhibit experience with just one member of the family, and swipe it before each exhibit experience can be onerous.

The best mechanisms fit into the ways that people already use cultural institutions rather than forcing new behaviors onto visitors. That’s what’s so lovely about the flashlight-based interpretative strategy at the blast furnace in Avesta (see page 44)—the flashlight is a familiar tool that fits into the experience of exploring a spooky historic site.

To find a good tool for your institution, think about the ways people currently explore and discover content while visiting. If your visitors frequently use mobile phones onsite, that may be a good solution. For example, in 2009, the Brooklyn Museum launched a pilot version of a text message-based recommendation system. Each artifact was labeled with a text message short code. When a visitor sends a message to that code, it lets the system know that he enjoys that particular artifact and offers him other suggestions for artifacts nearby based on his input. While this system can give more nuanced recommendations as users build their profiles of preferred objects, visitors can use it for single queries and still receive value.

There are also low-tech options for helping visitors connect with deep content throughout cultural institutions. An art museum might offer a “browsing sketchbook” featuring small images of objects (with gallery locations) at the top of each page and notes like, “For more sculpted nudes, go to page 84. For more tortured artists, see page 211.” At a transportation museum, visitors might use a ship’s logbook or passport to chart where they’ve been and get suggestions for other places to explore. A science museum might print tiny labels with different perspectives and give visitors magnifying glasses to hunt down preferred interpretation. Even simple labels that read, “if you love this exhibit, you might also enjoy that one down the hall” or “for a contrasting perspective on this story, check out the display on the opposite wall” can help people find custom paths through cultural institutions.

Taking Personalized Content Home with You

The ideal personalized cultural experience doesn’t end when visitors leave the institution. Imagine a non-member: a person who visits once, has a great (hopefully personalized) experience, and leaves. What can the institution do to continue engaging with this visitor?

Most cultural institutions treat visitors like one-night stands; they don’t call, they don’t write, and they don’t pine. If visitors sign up for mailing lists or e-newsletters, they will receive announcements of upcoming events, but they won’t receive personal communication. While it is unrealistic for staff members to follow up personally with each person who visits once, there are opportunities for personalized connections to follow visitors beyond the exit doors.

Many museums have experimented with exhibits that allow visitors to send home e-cards or bookmarks to content they found compelling or made themselves. Several art, science, and history museums have offered systems since the mid-1990s for visitors to save experiences at the museum for later perusal on the Web. These “do it now, see it on the Web later” activities tend to have a low follow-through rate of less than ten percent.

The numbers are particularly low in institutions in which every visitor receives a personal Web address with her ticket, because these systems “push” personalized take-homes on everybody. A subset of visitors wants to do creative or collecting activities onsite, and a subset of those wants to follow-up later online. There are large numbers of inactive people who are unaware of, uninterested in, or intimidated by these activities. There are also visitors who lose the ticket between the museum and the home computer, or do not realize that they can find the content later online.

In contrast to ticket-based systems, exhibits or systems that invite people to intentionally opt into personalization have higher follow-through rates. When individuals actively choose to participate (or “pull” the experience), they are more likely to follow up than when the experience is pushed out to everyone.

Beyond inviting visitors to actively elect to participate, there are three factors that positively impact the number of visitors who access content at home that they generated at the institution:

  1. The extent to which the content is personalized
  2. The amount of investment in the onsite activity
  3. The ease with which the content can be accessed at home

The first two of these are often blended. Taking a photo of yourself or writing a personal pledge is an identity-building experience. People are fundamentally self-interested and are more likely to revisit a personal item that commemorates a fun or educational experience than a piece of institutionally-created content. Personalized experiences often promote more emotional connections than traditional content experiences, which also means people are more likely to remember and be interested in re-engaging with their creations.

When it comes to ease of access, sending visitors personal emails instead of directing them to Web addresses makes it easier for visitors to reconnect. For example, visitors who use the Tropenmuseum’s “take a photo of yourself with an African hairstyle” interactive exhibit have the option to send the image home to a visitor-supplied email address. Back at home, they are likely to open the email for two reasons. First, the visitors actively opted in to the post-visit experience by supplying an email address onsite rather than passively receiving a ticket with a custom URL on it. And second, accessing the photo at home requires little effort —no codes to type in, just an email waiting in the inbox. Asking for an email address at the exhibit is a kind of test of visitors’ investment in the activity. It makes it easier to follow up online, instead of the other way around.

CASE STUDY: Using Take-Homes for Deep Engagement at the Chicago Children’s Museum

Some “send it home” activities are trivial—take a photo, complete a game—and others are more involved, inviting visitors to collect content throughout the exhibit experience or via a multi-step process. While more time-intensive onsite experiences may not appeal to everyone, visitors who complete complex activities tend to be dedicated to their products. Consider the Skyscraper Challenge exhibit at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Skyscraper Challenge invited visitors to work in groups to construct a mini-skyscraper over several minutes and then create a photo narrative based on their experience. As each team worked, a kiosk snapped timed photographs of them. After the skyscraper was built, the family or group sat down to make a multi-media story about their experiences. The kiosk prompted them to select pictures from the bank of photos taken that represented “a time when we worked well together,” or “a time when we solved a tough problem.”

This clever setup allowed the personalization (the photo-taking) to be automated, and then encouraged visitors to layer on meaning by reflecting on what they were doing and feeling at the different moments caught on camera. This highly personalized photo narrative took a long time to create (median group time on task was fifteen minutes) and about 85% of visitors opted to take their “building permit” home with them to retrieve the digital story via a custom website. Thirty-one percent elected to revisit digital stories on the Web from home—a higher number than is typical, especially considering the very young age of these visitors and the fact that people had to type in a custom URL from the building permit to access them.

A family builds a skyscraper in the Skyscraper Challenge exhibit. Photo courtesy Chicago Children's Museum.

After building their skyscraper, family members create their multi-media story to send home. Photo courtesy Chicago Children's Museum.

Using Take-Homes to Inspire Repeat Visitation

Cultural institutions often have an overly structured concept of the online pre- and post-visit experience that limits the opportunities for repeat engagement. Take-home activities give visitors mementos of fun and educational visits for further reflection, but few explicitly motivate another visit or continued interaction with the museum beyond a few clicks of the mouse. For example, the US Holocaust Museum’s From Memory to Action exhibition about worldwide genocide allows onsite visitors to swipe a card across a smart table to store videos and multimedia stories for exploration at home via the exhibition website. The idea is for visitors to continue their experience exploring the exhibit’s content when at home, where their attention may be more focused on a difficult and highly emotional topic. This is reasonable from a content distribution perspective, but it does little to support relationship building. The planned experience extends engagement with the institution for a short time. The setup is simple: see the exhibit, save the things you like, check them out at home. The end.

These take-home experiences are treated as an epilogue to a visit rather than the hook for a sequel. Rather than focusing on extending single visits with a pre- and post-visit, it can be more valuable to link multiple visits with offsite experiences.

For example, the Chicago Children’s Museum occasionally invites visitors to hand-write postcards to themselves about their museum visit. The museum holds the postcards back and mails them a few days later. This activity was originally introduced to encourage visitors to reflect on their experience at the museum and memorialize their learning for later review at home. Cognitive psychologists have shown that reconnecting with educational content at strategic points in time (“spaced repetition”) can lead to longer-term retention of the material. In the museum context, that means a postcard can help visitors retain what they learned while onsite—and have stronger recall of their visit experiences.

The postcards don’t just serve learning goals; they also create delightful connection points between institutions and visitors. Receiving a postcard in the mail is a special treat, especially for children. A physical, personal, time-delayed artifact like a postcard has much higher potential impact on visitors’ relationships with institutions than an email waiting in the inbox when visitors return home from an outing. There’s no “delete” button for the postal service: visitors are more likely to read and keep physical items they receive. As Tsivia Cohen, Associate Vice President of Family Learning Initiatives, put it:

One reason we like to mail the documentation—rather than just handing it to visitors to take home—is to create a delay. We’re assuming it will arrive at their house in a few days (let’s hope). At the museum, families can also choose to mail the record of their visit to a relative who’s not with them, which we hope will result in additional correspondence or a thank you phone call—one more opportunity for conversation.

This activity transforms a take-home item into a surprising, personal gift. From the museum’s perspective, the postcard activity prompts the recall of museum experiences that contribute to cementing the learning that started onsite. But it also injects the museum into real life and reminds visitors, via the most personal voice possible, that they liked being there and might like to visit again.

CASE STUDY: The 39 Clues and Cross-Platform Engagement

When institutions treat visits as “pearls on a string” of an ongoing shared narrative, there is potential to build substantive cross-platform relationships between institutions and individuals. In 2008, Scholastic Books released a new series, The 39 Clues, which tied a ten-book mystery to an online gaming environment. The 39 Clues experience was devised to foster long-term, progressive relationships with readers. The company paid for ten books written by ten different authors, and the books were released every few months over two years. How could Scholastic keep readers interested enough between releases to bring them back for each subsequent episode?

This problem is analogous to the repeat visit problem for museums and performing arts venues. Museum visits, like book reading, can be intense and wonderful experiences. But they are also punctuated moments in time. Most people don’t obsessively reread the same book or visit a particular exhibit or show multiple times. They wait for the next one to come along before they return.

Scholastic didn’t want to lose readers from one book to the next. They wanted to build an allegiance to The 39 Clues brand that would make more people likely to stick with the series. Rather than trying to increase engagement by releasing longer books or more books, Scholastic shifted to a new medium: online gaming. The online game was the thread that kept readers engaged from one book release to the next.

Here’s how The 39 Clues cross-platform experience works. There are thirty-nine clues to find across the entire series. Each book unlocks a clue. Each book also comes with 6 game cards to help readers find other clues. These two elements encourage people not only to read but also to purchase books so they can get the cards.

The books follow a team of orphaned siblings who hunt for clues. The online game reveals that you the player are related to them (surprise!) and can hunt alongside the orphans. Online, there are puzzles to solve and exclusive book-related content to absorb and respond to. As readers, users consume the fictitious experiences of the books’ characters. But as game players, readers are able to become active agents in the stories. When combined, both types of experiences enhanced each other.

While Scholastic is focused on selling books, this multi-platform approach need not be limited to commercial enterprise. Scholastic took the audacious position that people would want to read all ten books, and The 39 Clues online experience was unapologetically geared toward that long-term investment. Imagine a museum game that required visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget “build the exhibit and they will come.” This is “build the narrative and they will return.”

Give Visitors a Personal Reason to Return

The simplest way to start thinking like Scholastic is to presume that your institution has more to offer the first-time visitor striding out the exit doors. I’m not talking about the next performance or traveling exhibition the institution will host, but another experience visitors could have in the near term. There’s a restaurant in Santa Cruz with an eccentric owner who says to every exiting patron, “See you tomorrow!” He knows people aren’t actually likely to come back the next day, but he sets an expectation (and expresses a personal desire) that they might in the near future.

The next step is to act on this expectation by providing visitors opportunities to provide feedback or profile information on the way out. Imagine an e-newsletter sign-up station at which visitors pick one word that best describes their visit (“inspiring,” “boring,” “fun,” “educational,” etc.) and another word to describe a new interest motivated by the visit. Visitors could respond digitally, verbally, or by filling out a form. Then, when a visitor goes home, he receives an email from the museum—not a completely impersonal one announcing the next coming attraction, but one that says, “George, we’re so glad you were inspired by the museum. Here are a few of the exhibits that other visitors (or staff) have described as ‘inspiring’ that you might want to check out on your next visit. And since you’re interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes of the museum, here’s a blog written by our conservation team, and a couple of dates of upcoming behind-the-scenes tours.” These emails could be automated, but writing them could also be a worthwhile activity for volunteers or front-line staff.

Not every visitor will opt in to a feedback experience like this, but for those who do, it’s worth making a personal connection. Visitors who willingly give museums their email addresses want a second date. They want to receive follow-up content, and despite all their other e-newsletter experiences to date, they secretly hope that this institution can provide something compelling.

Imagine leaving a museum energized. A volunteer at the front door asks you how your experience was and invites you to sign up for the e-newsletter. You do, and then a couple days later, you receive an email from that very person thanking you for coming and making suggestions for your next visit. That’s the kind of memorable experience that encourages visitors to return.

Personalization over Multiple Visits

Once an institution can effectively motivate first-time visitors to return, staff members need ways to acknowledge visitors’ evolving relationship with the institution. There are some very simple things cultural institutions can do to promote ongoing relationships with visitors who come repeatedly. First, admissions desk computer systems should provide data on the last time a person (or a credit card) has visited the institution. At the least, cashiers should be able to see that the person has visited previously and should be able to smile and say, “Welcome back.” You don’t need a computer system for this—even a punch card, like those offered at coffee shops—can indicate repeat use and help staff members respond accordingly.

We’re all familiar with the basic version of the punch card, ubiquitous in coffee shops, on which you accumulate stamps or hole-punches and receive a free drink after a set number of purchases. There are virtual versions, such as the outdoor store REI’s co-op system, in which members of the co-op receive 10% back on all REI purchases available in store credit or cash at the end of the year. There’s even a Los Angeles theater that offers a play with forking paths (such that you can’t see the whole show on one occasion) and a diminishing ticket price for each subsequent visit.

Punch cards are low-cost relationship-builders that do two important things:

  1. They establish an expectation that you might visit multiple times
  2. They allow staff to see, with no complex technology, that you have visited previously

Presumably, a membership does these things as well. But many institutions, even those with complex membership database systems, don’t prioritize tracking repeat attendance in a way that is usable by front-line staff. Where computers may fall short, punch cards thrive. Seeing that a person’s card has been punched several times allows front-line staff to engage in conversation about what visitors liked on previous visits, what’s new, and what they might particularly enjoy.

How can coffee shop-style punch cards be redesigned for cultural institutions? People visit museums and performing arts venues infrequently enough that visit-based punch cards may not motivate repeat use. If you buy coffee every day, and your favorite café offers you a free cup for every ten you buy, you can get free coffee every couple of weeks. Cultural institutions don’t work that way. Most people (with the exception of enthusiastic young families at children’s and science museums) would likely misplace museum punch cards before making it to visit number ten.

There are some clever innovations on the punch card system that may work better in venues that experience infrequent use. Menchies, a frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles, offers a standard punch card that promises a free yogurt after you’ve purchased seven. When you enter as a first-time customer and buy a yogurt, instead of receiving an “empty” punch card, you receive one with six punches already completed—functionally, a two-for-one coupon for your next visit. This makes the punch card higher-value for newcomers, and it probably is more effective than a coupon in priming people to return and presumably continue frequenting the shop. Some museums have experimented with sending students home from school trips with a free ticket for a follow-up visit with the family; maybe starting them with a punch card would be a more effective way to connect them to the institution.

Photo by Jessie Cutts

Tina, We Salute You, a hip coffee shop in London, turned their punch cards into a social experience. Rather than carrying a card, patrons write their names on the wall and draw a star for every drink consumed. Purchase ten and you receive a free coffee—and a new color to continue advancing your stars. Instead of the loyalty reward being a private transaction, people get to celebrate with staff members and other patrons. This creates a feeling of community and entices new visitors to the shop to add their own name and get involved. There’s also a friendly competitive aspect that motivates some people to get more stars or have a more adorned name because their participation is publicly showcased. And it’s successful—Tina, We Salute You’s initial loyalty wall quickly proved too small for its community of enthusiasts. This could be an easy way, particularly for small institutions, to encourage visitors to think of themselves as part of the cultural community of the place and to desire a “level up” in their nameplate on the wall. It’s like a low-budget, dynamic donor wall.

As a final example, The Winking Lizard Tavern is an Ohio-based chain of thirteen restaurants that puts on a yearly “world beer tour,” featuring over 150 international beers. For ten dollars, people can join the tour and receive a color guidebook of all the beers, a punch card for the beers they’ve tried, and access to an online beer-tasting tracking system. When a person tries fifty beers, she gets a gift, and at one hundred, she receives the “world tour jacket” featuring the names of the year’s beers. This is functionally a membership, including email newsletters and special events, but it is driven by the idea that members will keep purchasing new (and different) beers. It’s a brilliant way for each transaction to enhance the value of the punch card rather than making people wait until the end. You could easily imagine a similar system to encourage people to visit different institutions, exhibits, or try new experiences across an institution (educational programs, lectures, performances, social events).

Making Membership Matter

The ultimate version of the highly engaged visitor is the member. Members are people who pay upfront for the privilege of being part of the museum community. Unfortunately, most memberships to cultural institutions have shifted from promoting deep relationships to promoting financial value. People don’t join to express their connection to the institution and its content. They join for free admission.

Why do so many institutions treat membership as an impersonal season pass? As the museum industry has moved towards greater reliance on gate sales, membership has evolved into a commoditized (and successful) product. Membership effectively packages the museum experience—in some cities, a group of local museum experiences—into something repeatable at low cost. The majority of museum members are “value members” who join museums for the cost savings on visits. They do a calculation, realize that a membership is “worth it” if they visit two or three times in a year, and spring for the membership.

What’s wrong with value members? From a business perspective, they are a risky long-term investment. Value members are very different from members who join because of strong institutional affinity. Value members are easy to attract but challenging to retain when it comes time for renewal, whereas affinity members exhibit the opposite behavior. If your membership materials are geared towards high-churn value members, you are unlikely to meaningfully serve those members who might be interested in building long-term relationships as donors or highly engaged visitors.

Members are theoretically an institution’s best customers—the people who are most motivated to get involved. Treating members as people after a discount effectively denigrates the value of the institution, rather than increasing the value commensurate with those super-visitors’ demonstrated interest.

Personalization techniques can improve the effectiveness of both value and affinity memberships. The first step is to separate these. Offer an annual pass to those who want free admission, and offer a different kind of membership to those who want a deeper relationship. This allows institutions to focus specific resources—discounts, personal attention, and opportunities for deeper experiences—towards the people who want them. This reduces institutional waste and is more likely to deliver satisfying experiences to different types of members.

For annual pass holders, personalization techniques should be geared towards motivating repeat visits. These people have purchased based on a calculated expectation that they will return to the institution enough times in the year to “get the value” of their pass. But many annual pass-holders buy the pass on their first visit and may not really understand what the institution can offer them. These people are like those who sign up for a diet because it seems like a good idea. They need feedback and relevant content to stick with it. By explicitly demonstrating that the institution can satisfy these people’s individual interests and needs, staff can motivate pass holders to return. When annual pass holders don’t renew, it means the institution has not succeeded in demonstrating compelling relevance or value to their lives.

Affinity members are people who express an intention to be more deeply involved with cultural institutions. This desire should be paid in personal attention, not direct mail. Different affinity members have different needs. Some want to contribute to institutions by participating in prototyping or volunteering for special projects. Some want exclusive opportunities, like behind-the-scenes tours, special fast-track lines at events, or early ticket purchasing.

CASE STUDY: Niche Memberships at the Brooklyn Museum and the Center of Science and Industry

In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum launched 1stfans, a membership targeted at two distinct audiences: people who attend free Target First Saturdays at the museum and those who connect with the institution online. The people who engage in these programs already have pre-existing positive relationships with the institution, but they don’t buy memberships because free museum admission is not relevant to their needs. The staff developed a slate of special benefits for this group, including exclusive online content and preferred access to films on free Saturdays. The museum promoted 1stfans as a “socially networked membership,” and staff members host in-person meetups and online discussion groups to encourage 1stfans to meet each other and connect as a community of members rather than each having a discrete member experience.

At a January 2009 event, street artist Swoon and artists from her studio made screen-prints for 1stfans. The prints (and the event) were an exclusive 1stfans benefit. Photo by Melissa Soltis.

In the first year of its existence, 1stfans drew over five hundred members. Though about eighty percent live in New York City, there are 1stfans in twenty-three states and ten countries who support the institution and receive virtual, if not onsite, benefits. While 1stfans is its first experiment with niche membership, the Brooklyn Museum hopes to offer more customized member packages in the future. When I talked with membership manager Will Cary about 1stfans, he commented that, “We’re hopeful that 1stfans is just the first step in this direction. We’ve talked in marketing meetings about creating a package appealing to senior citizens just as we have for the 1stfans.”

The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio launched a similar experiment to target families with young children, whose needs and interests are slightly different than families with older kids. In the spring of 2009, COSI launched a “premium membership” at $125 (as opposed to $88 for a standard family membership). Premium membership benefits included exclusive early access to COSI’s little kidspace® gallery on weekday mornings, special programs, preferred camp signups, and reciprocity with other children’s museums nationwide. In its first eight months, the premium membership attracted 329 families. This is a small percentage of the institution’s overall member base of 18,000, but it is a first step towards providing custom services for specific member segments.

These kinds of specialized memberships are personalized to niche audiences, but not to individuals. The top-down structure of member packages means specialized memberships must appeal to whole groups of people who want similar benefits. But the ultimate version of this is the personalized membership—an a la carte suite of benefits that evolves dynamically as the visitor’s needs and relationship to the institution change. For an example of an institution pursuing this approach to powerful ends, let’s turn to a recreational facility with very different values than museums: the casino.

CASE STUDY: Personalized Relationships with Harrah’s Casinos

Imagine running a gambling company. How would you encourage people to feel positive about spending their money in your casino instead of the one next door?

Harrah’s is the world’s largest and most geographically diversified provider of casino entertainment, and they attribute a great deal of their success to “building loyalty and value” for customers through personalization. Harrah’s uses Total Rewards loyalty cards to deeply engage gamers as part of the casino “community,” and by doing so, to induce people to play longer and spend more money.

Total Rewards cards function like bankcards. Users swipe them at slot machines to play, and the cards register wins and losses. Players accrue points that can be redeemed for meals and hotel discounts, but the real power of the Total Rewards system is in the comprehensive “you are what you do” profiles generated for each guest. Harrah’s knows what games you play at which times of the day and for how long. The system keeps track of when you like to take a break and what you like to eat. The cards are integrated across the entire set of Harrah’s casinos, hotels, restaurants, and resorts, and the company adjusts its customer service to your preferences. If you tend to book vacations in April, you’ll receive an email with hotel discounts in February or March.

Since the loyalty system was launched in the mid-1990s, Harrah’s has doubled its share of guests’ gaming budgets. It’s no coincidence that their system is considered a standout “customer relationship” system as opposed to a rewards card. “The prevailing wisdom in this business is that the attractiveness of a property drives customers,” says Gary Loveman, Harrah’s CEO. “Our approach is different. We stimulate demand by knowing our customers.”

Harrah’s knows its customers so well that it can even respond to the emotional roller coaster of gambling. The company maintains real-time data on the actions of every card-holder as they play—dollars in, dollars out, time spent at specific machine—and uses the data to determine individuals’ financial “pain points”—i.e. how much money they are willing to spend before leaving the casino. The casino uses those pain points to stage strategic interventions during real-time play. When a player comes close to her quitting point, a staff member on the casino floor receives an alert from a dispatcher, greets the player, and offers her a free meal, a drink, or a few more dollars on the loyalty card. By mitigating the bad experience of losing with a surprise gift, Harrah’s extends people beyond their pain points and they stay and play longer. And by combining the action players already do (inserting money) with the desired new action (identifying themselves), the loyalty cards create a deeper relationship without requiring users to substantively change their behavior. In fact, most players prefer to play with loyalty cards because they receive perks for doing so. Players get an easier way to play and receive rewards, and the casino gets unique, trackable data on every player in the room.

While Harrah’s goal of promoting gambling and casino loyalty may be unsettling, its loyalty program is an elegant example of a responsive, highly scalable member relationship system. Systems like this need not be focused on emptying visitors’ wallets or tracking their every move. Personalization isn’t just about inspiring multiple visits or purchases; it can also be designed to promote deep engagement with visitors in ways that support their intellectual and creative development.

What might a system like Harrah’s look like at a cultural institution? Imagine swiping a member card on entry and gaining access to a tailored set of recommendations based on past onsite and online activities, immediate interests, and institutional offerings. For individual visitors, the system could function like Nike Plus (see page 31), connecting the physical experience to online, tracked progress toward personal experience and learning goals. For educational groups, a personalization system could track students’ development and mastery of progressive skills. For families, it could provide a growing body of personal content, an album of shared experiences.

Developing a system as complex as Harrah’s may sound like an expensive and daunting task. It is. But you can start small. Identify a single “pain point”—an experience that frequently causes visitors to stop visiting—and try to find ways to build relationships to mitigate that single issue. If your challenge is that families stop coming after their kids turn ten, develop and market programs that explicitly engage ten- and eleven-year-olds. If your challenge is visitors who come for a single event and then never again, try offering explicit information at the event about how that specific program relates to other institutional offerings. Once you do this for one pain point, you’ll start noticing others—and eventually, you’ll have a system that supports comprehensive relationship building without having to make a major top-down investment. When institutions pursue strategies that support visitors’ growth and changing needs, they can grow with visitors instead of visitors outgrowing them.

***

If your participatory goals include social engagement, personalization is only a start. Highly personalized and responsive tools can lead to isolation—me with my customized experience, you with yours. In the beginning of this chapter, I noted that successful social experiences rely on three things: an audience-centric approach, individuals with unique personal profiles, and tools to connect those individuals to each other. This chapter primarily focused on the first two of these. In Chapter 3, we’ll look more closely at the tools that connect individuals to each other in a participatory platform and how those tools promote interpersonal dialogue and community engagement.

Chapter 2 Notes

[] Explore the I Like Museums trails.

[] Explore the Tate Modern’s pamphlets and visitor-created tours of the Tate’s collection online.

[] Explore LibraryThing. I hope you love it as much as I do!

[] Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, (2009).

[] See Putnam’s discussion on bridging social capital on pages 22-23 of Bowling Alone, (2000).

[] Build your own house in Our Green Trail.

[] See Cousins’ December 2009 blog post, Talk to Me Bubbles update.

[] Read Gupta’s complete comment on my February 2009 blog post, The Magic Vest Phenomenon and Other Wearable Tools for Talking to Strangers.

[] Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience (2009).

[] These quotes come from Hächler’s article, “Capturing the Present in Exhibition Design,” in Exhibitionist 27, no. 2 (2008): 45-50.

[] For more on the business case for developing meaningful personal relationships with visitors, consult John Falk and Beverly Sheppard, Thriving in the Knowledge Age: New Business Models for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions, 2006.

[] While every other person in this book is referred to by last name, I know Chris only as Chris. You can buy flowers from him at Hollyworld Flowers in Los Angeles.

[] Learn more about Fishing for Solutions in Jenny Sayre Ramberg’s article, “From Comment to Commitment at the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, ed. Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock (2007): 37-44.

[] Watch IMA groundskeeper Rhett Reed in action in The Need for Reed video series.

[] See Spalding’s November 2006 blog post, Booksuggester and Unsuggester.

[] Try Pandora. Note that Pandora is only available in the United States.

[] See the section titled “Do Bookmarking Applications Meet Museums’ Expectations?” in Silvia Filippini-Fantoni and Jonathan Bowen’s paper, Bookmarking in Museums: Extending the Museum Experience Beyond the Visit?

[] For more on spaced repetition, read Gary Wolf’s fascinating April 2008 article in Wired, Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm.

[] As of this printing, The 39 Clues is still in progress and can be accessed here.

[] Learn more about this unusual play, Tamara.

[] Read the complete February 2009 interview with Cary, Shelley Bernstein, and 1stfans collaborator An Xiao on the Museum 2.0 blog here.

[] See the Harrah’s website.

[] For a fascinating radio story on Harrah’s Total Rewards system, check out this episode of RadioLab.

[] Ibid.

[] For an extended and imaginative answer to this question, consult Chapter 1 of Falk and Sheppard, Thriving in the Knowledge Age (2006).

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  1. By crowdsourcen in de arena « Erfgoed 2.0 on January 26, 2011 at 8:12 am

    [...] van de status quo op gebied van de ‘gebruikelijke’ eigentijdse erfgoedthema’s als participerende bezoekers, oral history, kennisdeling, the inclusive museum, democratisering van het curatorschap, collective [...]

  2. By Hakkame pihta! | Museoloogia lugemisrühm on February 8, 2011 at 8:15 am

    [...] korral arutame raamatu The Participatory Museum eessõna ning 1. ja 2. peatüki üle. Hakkame koos käima paari-kolme nädala tagant külakorda eri muuseumides Tallinnas. [...]

  3. By Esimene lugemine | Museoloogia lugemisrühm on February 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    [...] * Personaliseerida osalus Tuleks aktiviseerida külastajad seeläbi, et muuta muuseumikogemus isiklikumaks. Puudutan seda teemat vaid põgusalt, soovitan väga täpsemaid näpunäiteid veelkord uurida 2. peatükist). [...]

  4. By House economy click here on November 29, 2011 at 6:02 am

    House economy click here…

    [...]Chapter 2: Participation Begins with Me – The Participatory Museum[...]…

17 Comments

  1. With the opening of the exhibition “Color Balance: Paitnings by Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas” we tried the “write yourself a postcard” activity described in this section. It’s been a great hit! We encourage people to create an abstract compotition (since the exhibition is all abstract art) or write about their visit to the museum. Whenever I pass through the gallery there are people engaged in drawing. All ages. I’ve seen several groups of adults (no kids in sight) busily drawing. Yay! We’re also scanning all the cards and posting them on our Flickr site (see link,) I still have to craft the text for what will go in the message section of the postcard when we mail them back, but that will come soon. I highly recommend this activity. I’ll try to report back on how it goes throughout the exhibition.
    Juline Chevalier
    Curator of Education
    Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
    http://www.nasher.duke.edu

    Posted June 25, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  2. I’m really excited about the potential behind a system that allows visitors to tag and group exhibits they feel “go together” –As I was reading chapter 2, I wrote in the margin “exhibit playlists generated by visitors!?!?” I think it would be cool to see the tag clouds generated by each exhibit, and map routes that might take you through one tag (or a group of related tags). I’ll continue to supply you with my margin notes as I read… (Happy Birthday, Nina!!!)

    Posted July 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Some of us here at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University are very inspired by your Participatory Museum, Nina. It’s not easy coming up with good ideas for engaging visitors, however! This summer, for the first time, the Nasher Museum has invited visitors to make their own (temporary) abstract art right in the gallery. Our education department installed three magnetic boards on the wall. Visitors can make designs with colorful magnetic pieces. They are having so much fun! See a few pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nashermuseum/4700483374/in/set-72157624151202255/
    We’ll keep trying. Thanks for being such a great resource.
    Wendy Livingston, manager of marketing and communications

    Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  4. Sometime in the 1990s I visited the Denver Art Museum and had this experience: In a small gallery where 10 or 12 paintings of women were displayed, a table and two chairs in the center of the gallery invited visitors to play a game. The instructions were first, to find someone to play with you; I asked another woman and she said yes. The paintings had been miniaturized to domino-size laminated cards. There were two identical sets, one for each of us. The next instruction was for each person to put the card in order of most realistic to least realistic images of women. Then to talk about it. Of course our orders were different, and we had a fascinating, cordial conversation about how we each came up with our own ranking.

    Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  5. Haven’t even finished the chapter (hard copy) but I just had to post this: Hooray! You mentioned Vishnu Ramcharan at the Ontario Science Centre. We met him as our host on the first stop of the Ontario Museum Association’s Study Tour “What can Community Museums & Historic Houses Learn from Children’s Museums”. He was fabulous with our group of adult museum geeks and we also observed how equally fabulous he was with children and their parents at the OSC “Kidspark”. He is (aptly named) a god in my eyes as the best example of a museum interpreter I have ever encountered. Thank you for sharing this in your book!

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Beth

    I am amused and amazed to see you mention the Winking Lizard beer tour! It is a fantastic restaurant chain and the beer tour, although I haven’t personally done it, is a lot of fun from what I’ve heard. Even if you don’t do it yourself it’s good fun to cheer others on.

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Jennifer Eastman-Vandreburg

    Unfortunately my pre-K students are unable to vocalize their likes and dislikes. We use an information survey from the parents during enrollment, but I find that parents often over exaggerate their children’s ability for fear that their child will fall below par. Children are also different in school then they are at home since they are not surrounded by other children that are competing for adult attention. To really get to know my “audience” I rely on observation, giving the children a “you are what you do” profile. Using this with the “Project Approach” (investigations conducted based on children’s interests), provides the children with “custom content”. Adding materials in different centers (i.e. blocks, dramatic play, art, writing, sensory) based on the projects allows children to construct their own knowledge while the adults scaffold their learning through open-ended questions. Again, it amazes me how closely related a good exhibit is to best practice in education. The reading is making me more conscious and critical of my teaching practice and philosophies.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  8. Rory Schmitt

    Hello. I’m really enjoying reading this book for free online. I think that is a fabulous way that the author extends participation with audiences. Reading this book is allowing me to re-think museums- membership, events, volunteers, public programs, and art exhibitions. I think by comparing cultural institutions to successful business strategies, effective positive change is possible.

    Posted July 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  9. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some
    research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found
    it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for
    lunch!

    Posted July 16, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  10. Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It is the little changes that make the biggest changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

    Posted April 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  11. Ruth Chapple

    What struck me first within this chapter was the focus on audience centered experience. For content to be relevant to the viewer the viewer must first be able to identify exhibits within the museum of interest. The pull content technique is a very ingenious way of doing this. We all know that when we go to the museum there are only certain exhibits that we want to see. If we know ahead of time what each exhibit is about we can zone on those exhibits and from there the connection is made to the content. The example she referenced from the blast furnace museum and special flashlights was amazing! Visitors had complete control over the information that they received and it was based on a point of interest they had on the furnace.

    Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  12. AGarceau

    For those who don’t want to get too involved, how might designs that aim to reach the five levels incorporate these individuals in their goals to educate? How can a program provide them with an experience similar to those who are more comfortable / willing to participate more openly with others in large groups? Does the author consider this as possible or are these people inevitably going to have a limited experience, even with the mechanisms like barcode or RFID tags used by some museums for retrieving personalized content? Or in reverse, with those who want to be more social feel isolated or confined in individual-oriented only programs?

    How might an institution manage to send out those emails to visitors after their visit in the hopes of encouraging future visits in a more personal manner but avoiding the impression that if you visit once, the museum will be asking you for donations for the next year ? – an opinion like that would be a deterrent to future visits or by word of mouth, dissuade others from making their first visit.

    Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  13. Ellie Burhans

    I think that while it’s great to say that front-line staff are critical components of encouraging participation, many museums are staffed, at least in part, by volunteers. Many may be passionate about the topics their museum covers; they may even very nearly be experts who for whatever reason choose to give their time in exchange for benefits other than pay, such as being able to examine artifacts not currently on display or gain access to guarded information. The fact of the matter is that these individuals are not being paid but given a lot of responsibility. I’m not sure the analogy of the flower shop worked.

    Before I decided to go back for a graduate degree in public history, I worked in retail. More specifically, I was the manager so not only was it my job to have our customers participate in conversations with staff, and even other customers (GREAT Selling Tactic there!) when possible, but also to train my staff to foster those interactions. It’s nice to say that you could refuse to serve a jerk, but the reality is that is almost nearly never happens. In my ten years of retail management, I can count the number of times I’ve refused to assist someone on one hand. Not only is it bad for business, but it only makes matters worse. The customers who are the rudest are also the most likely to complain, and sometimes even lie about what actually occurred in order to get someone in trouble for asking them to behave like normal humans do. At my last retailer, all associates received at least 14 hours of training, much of it on how to interact with customers in order for them to react positively to the product. Managers received a week of 8 hour shifts in how to train the staff to perform their selling tasks.

    I volunteer at a local museum. I received maybe two or three hours on how to perform my duties as docent. Most of that time was spent going over the items of note in various exhibits. About five minutes of time was spent discussing interactions with visitors. We were told to stand up, greet people warmly, ask them to sign the guest book and by no means say anything controversial about any of the conflicts or wars discussed at the museum. Most of all, be respectful of veterans’ opinions and try not to argue with them, even if they are completely misinformed. While we can debate the merits of this philosophy, docents must be given much more training in how to handle potentially volatile situations. A discussion regarding the Vietnam War could, even today, get out of control in such a way other visitors may be disturbed. While I think controversial topics should be discussed, I believe that docents must be more completely trained in Customer Service in order to peacefully facilitate discussions.

    Posted April 16, 2014 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  14. Every time we talk about visiting a museum I feel I’m in a defending position. I defend museums!
    This concern for museums come from a long history of people saying to me that museums are boring or saying, “I don’t like history,” “I finished studying when I finished school, I’m not going to do that in my free time!” After hearing so much of this talk, the subject became a personal matter for me, especially because I hear the same people say that they’re bored, and “there is nothing to do in the city.” Well, as an artist, this is frustrating for me.
    I remember when we had our graduation exhibition in my Australian-run visual art school in Saudi Arabia, since most of our work was interactive and conceptual, at the exhibition someone needed to be there to explain the work for the non-artists in the audience. The visitors’ reaction was unbelievable! The show was supposed to run for three days but due to number of visitors, the director of the show extended the show for three weeks! In my opinion, the interaction between the artists and the visitors, the ability to explain, chat together, watch video projects and be able to comment on it with strangers was a whole new world for visitors in Riyadh.
    I remember talking about my work to one man in particular. The next day the same man came with his sister and he was so excited, asking me to “please tell her exactly what you told me yesterday about the work.” I was amazed. The third day same man came with his aunt, asking me the same question and commenting that he was so in love with the show and the way it was presented and the interactivity of it. I had never seen something like that before in Saudi Arabia!
    What we did was exactly what you mentioned in this chapter. People came with the idea that art galleries in Saudi Arabia are boring. After the show this idea has definitely been changed, and people found much more than art pieces hanging on a boring, fancy wall. People were able to talk and laugh, and most of them came again with their families or friends to show them “an amazing experience,” as one visitor described it.
    I wonder if museums in Saudi Arabia adopted your ideas how people would respond? Could it be like my graduating show? Or maybe even better! Could the people who say, “museums are boring” change their minds? If Saudi Museums were interactive places, would I have to defend museums over and over like I do? Could we even find something delightful to do in our free time?
    Thank you for your ideas. The book is worth spreading around the world, and it will defiantly help to improve our art appreciation and cultural institutions.

    Posted September 27, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  15. Merfat Bassi, Brittany Garison, & Danielle Naylor

    Awesome! I like the “Wearable identification” idea; it makes a great connection between visitors, staff, and volunteers. As you mentioned before they will feel more comfortable and confident about their profile item. Through this idea they will understand how social connection is important in human relationships. Some people find it difficult to connect with others. Non-native speakers, for example, might prefer to read more than to listen because reading is easier than listening, while children prefer to hear because some of them are not able to read yet. However, visual learners prefer to read because information will be saved in the mind as an image. So, there are different Personality types and learning styles, such as audio learners, visual learners, and kinesthetic learners.
    http://applecsmith.hubpages.com/hub/Being-Successful-With-Every-Personality-Type-Audio-Visual-Kinesthetic
    Also, the recommendation engine is another awesome idea too; it is similar to the recommendation box which makes a good connection between two sides. This one lets the institution know the audience’s perspectives, evaluates their performance, and whether they satisfy their visitors. Creating ideas and finding the solutions are not enough, but the most important side is how to apply these solutions and achieve the required goals of the social institution.
    Nina, I agree with you. To make a good connection with visitors, institutions could submit the post card by email in order to recall the information of museums, and let visitors keep this information as long as possible. Therefore, institutions could keep a relationship with the audience beyond the museum’s environment. I like how you deal with this case to convince the audience to come to a museum again in different ways, such as punch cards and post cards.

    Posted September 28, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  16. Alli Rogers

    I am also interested in drawing connections between audience-centered participatory museum experiences and what can be considered audience-centered learning experiences in early learning environments (preschools, day cares, children’s museums, and early learning programs within museums). As Jennifer Eastman-Vandreburg mentioned above, constructing learning environments for early learners can be difficult in cases where the child’s language skills have not necessarily developed enough for them to say what they do and do not like outright. So much of learning at a preschool age is being bombarded with information and sensory input and seeing what sticks. In the case of creating classrooms for young children, a variety of materials and sensory input is key. While stability in terms of genres is encouraged (building area, life play area, rug area generally stay relatively calm), the materials within those spaces might change regularly so that the children are exposed to many opportunities for learning.

    Within a museum environment, the architecture of the building remains the same. There will always be a bathroom here, a gallery there, a hallway over there. The inherent order in a finished building can be comforting. Within that, particularly in larger museums, the collections may rotate out enough to where there is something new to explore on each visit.

    Often, when I encounter young children within a museum environment, they are being led around by a parent or caretaker, not necessarily in any power to make judgement calls for where they might like to go, or what they might like to do. After all, how do you figure out what your 3-year-old might like to see or accomplish at the museum if they have never been to a museum before? Never seen a painting in real life before? A museum can be a big new world.

    I think the key here, as was said above, is for the adult/museum staff to take a step back and allow for exploration. Maybe the best way to figure out a 3-year-old’s profile could be something as simple as having them choose between a few symbolic images (boats, fruit, animals, etc.) that correspond with different galleries/content within the museum. The child picks which symbol it wants to explore, and thus leads his or her family through that gallery, taking it all in, and possibly opening the doors up for further exploration. That really isn’t all that different a tactic than we might use to make adults feel important and welcome.

    Nina, I’ve been a clandestine fan for years! I always love coming back to read your wonderful book. I think I get something new from it every time. This work has inspired me in so many ways!

    Posted September 30, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  17. Longhui Zhang

    The “audience-centre” and “audience first” remind me a lot about those museums or galleries that I have been. In some museums’ events and programs, they would prefer selecting some very attractive events rather than thinking more about engaging. In this process, they missed the key and original goal of doing those events and forgot to focus on interaction with audiences.

    Also, I really appreciate that this article pointed out the importance of membership. Most of museums have been focus on marketing their program in financial purpose so much. This really shorten their view in long term progression. As I know, some museums have their staffs promote the program in their own communities and that become one of the standards to evaluate their outstanding achievement. I do not very agree on this. However, I am thinking other than just giving membership the advance opportunity on certain openings of shows, why not giving out more exclusive chance for family members to access especially kids’ activities? This might attract a lot of attention from parents. The reason I have this idea is that a lot of kids waiting in long line for certain very interesting programs during the weekend event I am attending on.

    I really appreciate your books point out so many new fresh ideas, some of them might be easily ignored by those program creators in museum. This book would be always helpful for us to remind self what is most important in museum participatory experience.

    Posted October 1, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

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