Saturday, February 21, 2009

Free Advice For Science Museums: Don't Make Your Visitors Feel Stupid!

The question "How can Science Museums better serve their adult visitors?" came up at a recent Reach Advisors event that I was part of. My flip response was that "The best way for science museums to serve their audiences is to NOT make them feel stupid!"

I certainly don't believe that people who work at science museums (I'll include science centers and natural history museums in this category) purposely set out to make their visitors feel dumb, or frustrated, but that's often the end result --- and that's not a great recipe for building visitor loyalty or repeat visitation. Let alone helping visitors learn about science, and leaving the museum feeling positive about the impact of science on their lives.

I'm afraid some science museum folks really don't think visitors are up to the task of learning about "hard" science. After the New York Times reported that many visitors to the Rose Center for Earth and Space Science at the American Museum of Natural History left feeling confused by the exhibits, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, was quoted as saying "We knew in advance that everybody was not going to get everything. If everybody got everything, then the level of the exhibits would be so low that we would be a different kind of museum."

Ouch! And what kind of museum would that be? One that actually didn't blame visitors for not understanding the exhibits? Or one that didn't condescendingly suggest that the information they were presenting just couldn't be understood by some folks?

A common response I get from people when I tell them that I make exhibits for science centers (among other types of museums!) is a variation of a story about a disappointing visit they made to a science museum with their family. They wanted to have a good visit, but somehow they were thwarted.

And that's just sad.

Science, and science-focused museums, can offer so many opportunities for learning and enjoyment to their visitors.

So what are some reasons that anticipated visits to science museums often turn sour? Here are the two main things that I would try to change to improve visitors' experiences if I ran a science-focused museum:

1) Focus on Science, not just Fluff.

Honestly, what is an exhibition of Harry Potter movie props doing in a science museum?

Similarly, what does the latest 3D IMAX super hero film have to do with your museum's mission?

As a museum professional, and the father of four kids who like to visit museums, the only honest answer I can up with to the questions above is ... MONEY! Nobody likes to feel like a visit to a museum is a shakedown, so why are you shaking us down? That's another way for visitors to feel that the people who run museums think they're foolish (as in a fool and their money...)

I understand the need to generate revenue to keep the lights on and the doors open, but if you're spending more time thinking about the merchandising tie-ins for your thematic gift shop than the science activity and educational tie-ins to your latest exhibition, maybe you're in the wrong business.

Fortunately, using a pop-culture topic does not automatically mean a bogus museum exhibition will be the end result.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination was an example of an exhibition that successfully walked the tightrope between marketing hype and science learning. I was a little bit apprehensive when my middle son Peter wanted to visit the exhibition on a trip to Boston, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the science in the exhibit activities. Both my son and I enjoyed it!

For a current example that balances science and marketability, CSI: The Experience, looks like a worthy successor to the Whodunit? exhibition, also created by the fine folks at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

2) Let visitors "do" science, and interact with real people.

I love the "labs" at places like the New York Hall of Science, the Science Museum of Minnesota, or the Maryland Science Center. You get to mess around with science, and usually get to ask questions and interact with museum staff members who aren't just taking your money, or who are security guards.

I also like the open-ended nature of smaller science-focused museums like ¡explora! in Albuquerque, and the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, MA, outside Boston. Both of these museums don't shy away from loose exhibit components that can be combined in unexpected ways, or from making sure there are sufficient opportunities for visitors to ask questions of a nearby human (rather than a Web-enabled computer.)

All the places in museums that allow for truly open-ended experiences and meaningful human interactions are hands-down the highest rated in visitor surveys and evaluations, so why don't science museums capitalize on these types of experiences? The simple, if not simplistic, answer again seems to be MONEY.

Science museum administrators seem much more able and/or willing to make the case for flashy technologies, even if they're encased behind 1/2 inch thick acrylic casework, than they are for well-trained floor staff. Also, you can't use loose or consumable materials in exhibits if you aren't willing to provide the funding for staff to help facilitate these types of experiences. However given the popularity of ventures like MAKE Magazine and Etsy, I think museums are missing out on a vast untapped audience of DIY enthusiasts.

A science museum, indeed every type of museum, is all about stories (human interaction) and stuff (interesting objects and materials.) Working with cool items or seeing interesting objects or devices while having an opportunity to interact with other people is what makes museums special, and incidentally different and more marketable, than on-line experiences or other types of for-profit entertainment centers.

At the end of the day, providing interesting opportunities for visitors and museum staff to interact with "stuff" (and each other) is a sure way for visitors to leave your museum NOT feeling stupid.

And that's just a smart way to run a museum.

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  1. Hey Paul, another fun and meaty blog post. There was one point in particular that I thought was worth reiterating.

    You write: "However given the popularity of ventures like MAKE Magazine and Etsy, I think museums are missing out on a vast untapped audience of DIY enthusiasts."

    We can't emphasize enough how that is more than a 'trend,' but rather one of the ways that the generation under 30 is wired fundamentally differently than the rest of us. There's simply a much higher engagement in DIY activities than we saw when the rest of us were that age. And their wiring is bound to shift their expectations from museums today, and when they become the primary generation of parents bringing their kids to museums.

    But rather than viewing that as a challenge, isn't it a good thing that a new generation is coming through the pipeline with greater interest in creative pursuits? It could be a great thing . . . assuming that museums rethink how they can be a hub for this kind of activity and curiosity!

  2. A good example of this:

    James Jensen
    Boston Children's Museum

  3. May I add "Free Advice for Art Museums and Art Centers"? Don't make your visitors feel stupid either.

    The age of the "temple of art" is long gone. While art museum and art center professionals may be academically studious and well-read, mountains of information and authoritarian interpretations are not pertinent to most visitors. Rather, encourage personal engagement and personal relevancy in art of the past or present. It seems to be a savvy way to garner public support.

    Also, concentrate on generating as much support material for educators, kindergarten through college -- and don't forget about charter schools, home-schools, private schools, after school programs, camps, scouting organizations, etc. The easier you make it for school-aged children and young adults to tour your exhibitions and attend your programs, the more solidly you may be entreching the significance of your museum in their (sub)conscious.

    If you can, provide opportunities for the public to provide instant feedback, to participate in hands-on art-making activities, to flex their creative potential AND utilize their handy-dandy technological gadgets like iPods, cell phones, etc.

    Dust off the artworks and old ways of thinking ... start thinking for the 21st century and beyond.

  4. Hi James,

    Great point on DIY mindset in Gens X and Y.

    I'm working on some great exhibit ideas in this regard and would love to collaborate with interested institutions or independents!

  5. Hi Jay,

    Excellent comment. This posting really applies to ALL types of museums!

    You may be interested in my posting about interactivity in art museums

    as well as the great work being done by the Detroit Institute of Arts to become more accessible.