Thursday, June 24, 2010

Screened Out: Preferences for Technology in Museums

I asked Susie Wilkening from Reach Advisors to summarize some of the data from their latest research that could apply to exhibit developers and the use of technology in exhibitions. (A larger version of the graph shown above can be found by clicking here.)

She kindly agreed, and here is her guest post:

We live in a tech-heavy world.  Screens are everywhere, including airports, restaurants, gas pumps, backseats of SUVs, and perhaps furtively pulled out of pockets during children’s soccer games.  Earbuds are in place at work, on commutes, and even when walking dogs.  For many, it is difficult to imagine going a day without logging in and tuning it at some point.

And then there are museums.  

People come to museums for lots of reasons.  To learn something new. To relax.  To socialize.  To see something beautiful.  To unplug . . . literally.  To drag their kids away from screens.  To take the earbuds out.

The museum as antidote to our tech-heavy world?  Perhaps.

In Reach Advisors’ latest study, over 40,000 core visitors to museums were asked how they prefer to experience museums and historic sites.  Turns out, interpretation solutions involving screens, earbuds, or cell phones were not high on the list.  In fact, for some audience segments, they were decidedly unpopular.

Let’s see what the data says.  First, the counterintuitive part.  When it comes to audio tours, videos, and movies, older respondents were significantly more likely to say they prefer them than younger audiences.  That’s right.  Older audiences like them better than younger ones.  Respondents over 70 are well over two times more likely to prefer audio tours than respondents in their 20s or 30s.  And older respondents are much more likely to enjoy video clips and movies.
And then comes the other important part.  Computer interactions, whether more information, databases, even games, were even less popular, this time across-the-board.  Only 11% of respondents said they preferred experiencing museums and historic sites with computers.  It peaks, at nearly 14%, for respondents in their 40s (statistically hardly a peak, by the way.)

While we didn’t ask respondents why they did (or did not) choose certain interpretation methods, some respondents told us anyway.  Here are some sample comments:

        •  Quality family time that isn't centered around electronic
            equipment is something we could all use more of. 
            We are forever grateful for this activity.

        •  When there are screens around, exhibits tend to become
            things children observe, rather than participate in.

        •  Too many . . .  screens or videos distracts and detracts. 
           Adults and kids alike are just stunned into information
           overload.  Museums are not for information downloads. 
           They are places to encounter/experience something out
           of your ordinary . . .  in my view, different media have to
           be thoughtfully integrated into exhibits.

If the majority of core visitors generally do not prefer technology in museums, is there a place for it?  If it is well-integrated, then we still think so.  One of the most effective exhibits I have ever encountered is the virtual dining table in the European Fashionable Living Galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It truly deepened my appreciation for European porcelain, and it was thoughtfully integrated in the exhibit.
But the data also tells us that we don’t have to do technology because we feel we have to.  Or because our visitors expect it.  Turns out, many don’t.  Instead, it allows us to step back and decide if the technology we are considering genuinely adds to, and deepens, the experience for our visitors.  If it does, we still think there is a place for it.  If it doesn’t, well, it might be best deployed elsewhere (a website?  YouTube?) or scrapped entirely.

There is one final caveat.  Our survey respondents were core visitors to museums, solicited through museum e-mail lists.  They don’t represent more infrequent visitors.  Those individuals may, or may not, have wildly different perceptions of the value of screens and technology in museums.  We hope to find out some day.

But when it comes to our core visitors, overwhelmingly they do not prefer high-tech interpretive solutions.  Instead, they want what museums have been providing for generations:  real experiences through exhibits, hands-on activities, and the cool stuff we have kicking around.   I, for one, find that reassuring.

Susie Wilkening is Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  For more information about Reach Advisors’ latest study of museum-goers, please visit their blog.

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  1. I love these kind of broad surveys of museum goers. (Our very small institution could never accomplish or pay for such a study.) They tell us so much. Please try to pull in more of this type of research and feedback. It helps us to include these wider perspectives in our own much more local and specific exhibit development considerations and efforts.

    I'm pleased to learn that museums slightly lower on the tech scale are still much appreciated. I'm personally working on arts, culture, and history exhibits and hands-on, authentic, and interactive interpretation happen to coincide with their traditional strengths.

    I always look for ways to supplement exhibits to expand the reach, or expand on the original experiences (like pre- and post-visit) and I am happy read that the original experience seems to be highly valued by such a large sample of museum goers.

  2. Are these survey results the same as those discussed in Wilkening's Life Stages of the Museum Visitor? If so, I think it would be important to note the type of museum that these technologies are and are not a preference. While I do think that these results show useful information (and I agree that museums shouldn't use technology just to use technology), I think it would be important to note if the results were gathered from the outdoor history survey. From my experience, visitors to an outdoor venue are looking to be "taken back to a simpler time" and therefore do not like the presence of technology, whereas a video podcast in a modern art museum may be more sought after by visitors of all ages.
    Additionally, and this is purely from a marketing standpoint, we know that our core visitors are fine with technology, but don't need it - so what about those who are not typically inclined to visit a museum? Could the technology that they are familiar with (an iPod) help segue them into an unfamiliar space (art gallery)?

  3. Hi Mandy -

    Thanks for your comments. First, this is an entirely different, more recent, study than those outlined in our book. In this study, we surveyed over 40,000 museum goers from a wide variety of museums. We would never present the results from one genre of museums as representative of all museum goers.

    That being said, while we asked respondents for their preferences at museums in general, we did also examine results by the type of museum the respondent was responding to. We found a few differences, but not many.

    For instance, respondents from art museums were significantly more likely to prefer audio tours (38% vs. 28% overall response). Video clips and movies held remarkably steady with art, history-based, and science centers, but was significantly lower for children's museums.

    And computers? It peaks for science center respondents . . . at only 18%. It is 10% or less for the other main genres.

    You do reiterate one of my final points . . . that this is a survey of museum goers, not the general public. We don't know one way or the other if technology is perceived as a positive, negative, or neutral thing for people who would not normally visit museums. But we hope to find out!

  4. Really brilliant stuff. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for your response, Susie. I found the Museum Audience Insight post on the new survey and it sounds like you gathered some interesting information.

    I'm not sure whether or not I'm surprised by art museum visitor's preference for audio tours, but it would be interesting to see this data further segmented by age and audio device (free download using their own iPod, or a museum rental, etc.)

    I look forward to reading about further findings!

  6. Interesting Post. I totaly agree that visitors need a low tech exp. when visiting museums. Not saying that there should be no technical equipment present, just saying that the technology should be there only to deliver the content/story/information in a way that the audience will find "natural" for the type of museum/subject.

    If the "feeling" or "atmosphere" in the museum is relaxed then the information should be delivered in a way that will not deviate from this.

    Some types of museums like science centers, often have a more "active" way of doing things but care should be taken to allow for more than one type of audience.

    Some people just enjoys looking at stuff with their hands folded behind them. Others must touch and push every posible button or whatever looks like one. Both types must be given the choice to explore in their preferred way.