Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Following the Visitor Home

Justine Roberts, Principal

Many museums have a goal of serving as a meaningful resource for their communities.  For the past few years we have been using the phrase "to follow the visitor home" as a way of describing the opportunity for museums to use digital tools to create ongoing relationships with visitors in service of this objective.  And there have been a handful of interesting experiments with the idea of digital portfolio creation, visitor tracking, and customization strategies that we have been paying close attention to.  

The key in my mind is not just using the web as a community platform - although if that were my criteria the Brooklyn Museum takes the cake - but linking the on-site and off-site experience of stakeholders through a multi-touch relationship in which the museum is positioned as a hub in day-to-day life.  Its a pretty big idea and some people might argue that if the visitor center is no longer the main event why is it still a museum?  But I think we have been using the word "museum" for years to refer to organizations that are essentially community-based, social service, out of school time learning institutions and in which exhibits serve as one means - but not the only means - to deliver on the mission. And the projects I'm talking about do have a necessary physical dimension, but they move beyond that to encourage revisiting and reflection, and ultimately (hopefully) repeat visitation.

Although I haven't seen any single project that I think is THE model, there are some that I think are moving in a really exciting direction and which are testing this idea of how to support on-going dialogue with the audience extending beyond the museum's walls: 

1. The Darwin Center 

The Darwin Center has a barcode system that lets you "collect" topics that you want to follow up on later from home.  The concept is after you visit you can go on line and you have a ready-made field notebook that is continuous with the exhibit. 

This is the paper card with a barcode on the back that visitors pick up from displays throughout the exhibit.

Barcode scanning stations are integrated into tables and displays and are intuitive to use.

The media interactives use touchscreens and motion sensor technology, turning them into whole body interactives.

Many of the interactives have screens such as this where you can "collect" topics or items to save to your barcode.

Pros: The exhibit is very linear and almost all technology. On a busy day it is necessary to keep people moving down the ramp but each of the media interactives is both beautiful and content-rich meaning that people tend to get deeply involved. The barcode system at least suggests that you don't have to do everything in the exhibit since it is also on-line.  Also, because it is information rich I wanted another chance to come back fresh and ready to absorb more at a later date.  It was just too much detail for me to really get the first time around. This feels like an ideal scenario for on-line follow up, and the barcode system means each visitor can customize their web experience.

The website itself goes farther than the exhibit and allows visitors to connect with other affinity groups, join an extended conversation, and move from simple curiosity into sustained interest. In this way the website deepens the impact of the exhibit and improves the outcomes for changing attitudes and behaviors around sustainability, stewardship and personal responsibility.

Cons: The execution of the on-line site is much more complicated than the exhibit. It is organized completely differently.  When I logged on I had to set up my user profile before I could find my saved links. And even after almost an hour on line I still couldn't find my way to the items I had "collected" in the exhibit.  The design of the exhibit is not mirrored on the website which makes it hard - for me nearly impossible after a month - to reconstruct what I had been thinking about during my visit.

2. Chicago Children's Museum: Skyline 

Skyline at CCM (which we designed) has a set of Story Stations where a camera takes automatic snapshots of visitors as they construct a building. After finishing their structure visitors are invited to select images to create a digital book of their work and to narrate it.  They can take their Building Permit home and enter a unique code into the museum's website to download their story.  Rick Garmon, at CCM, says that almost 30% of visitors follow through and that the Museum is looking at additional opportunities to use this documentation and reflection strategy in the museum.  

This is the graphic explaining the story station process to visitors.

A dad and his son make their building.

This family is selecting images and recording their story after completing a building.

An example of the story station instruction screen.

The story stations prompt both children and adults to reflect on the activity and create a joint narrative.

Pros: This experience is self-contained.  That is, it uses digital media to capture a start-to-finish building project.  That makes it easy to use.  The follow up in the exhibit of sorting the photos, selecting the best ones, and narrating a short story about the project also reinforces the experience, personalizing the digital book.  I believe that these qualities of being concrete, immediate, and custom all contribute to making the media component meaningful and relevant.  These decisions were worked through in prototyping and front-end evaluation, and are rooted in a child development approach.  

One of the other really successful aspects of this component is its ability to engage adults with their children.  The media component calls attention to children's cognitive processes during play, and reminds adults of the thoughtfulness and work that drives children's play and from which they learn essential skills and knowledge.

Cons:  Making the digital book is a one-off opportunity - visitors cannot continue to play with or manipulate their book after it is completed.  The on-line experience is limited to printing or downloading the file.  It would be great if there were ways to continue to work on the story - adding music or sfx, recording new audio and editing it, adding drawings or even creating animations from the snapshots.  There is also no dialogue back to the Museum from home.  Where the Darwin Center has used the website to create an on-line community, this project is limited to pushing content from the Museum to the home and doesn't open up new networks for dialogue.  That may be an audience issue in part - CCM is for early childhood - but it is an interesting opportunity especially for kids on the upper edge of the target age group who do play on-line community games.

3. Project Access, Artquest Gallery, The Frist Museum

Artquest is a maker gallery at the Frist.  I haven't been but everyone I know who has loves it.  I spoke with Anne Henderson, Director of Education at the Frist about the gallery and their Project Access website.

In Artquest visitors can make their own art.  After they complete a project, visitors can use photo stations to take digital pictures of their work.  They can also have their photo taken and get their own personalized card which gives them access to their digital photos on-line.  Visitors can save as many images as they want and all they need to do is bring the card with them to add new work to their on-line portfolio. There is a simple on-line interface that allows visitors to continue to work on their projects (now digitally) or narrate them, share them, and update their community profile.  The website itself was created by Little Planet Learning and was funded as part of an IMLS grant for working with adult ELL.  

Chuck Howarth and family at the Frist Artquest gallery

Artquest art making space.

Project Access website landing page

Pros: The website serves as another "gallery" for the museum with a set of digital activities including managing your own portfolio, quizzes, lesson plans, and more. Once in your own portfolio users can create a narrative for their artwork. There are also areas where an entire class can share their work.  There is no fee because the Frist is free to 18 and younger, and because the site was originally conceived for ELL the vocabulary is accessible for all ages.  The project is easy to maintain because it was built for low end computers (using low resolution graphics etc).  And the number of users has shown that it is a successful example of how to use technology to sustain a relationship with museum.

Cons: There are some drawbacks to this project.  For one, it only handles flat art and can't do animation. That is really only a problem if the Frist wants to put animation stations in Artquest, but because of how easy it is to animate online it would be nice to have the option to create animated shorts and add them to the portfolio.  There is also limited opportunity to interact with other website users, or with the Museum itself - wouldn't it be great to be able to favorite other on-line works, and have the most favorited works displayed as digital art IN the Museum?  

Because new images have to be uploaded at the Museum (the database is hosted by the Museum and the card scanners live on the staff desk in Artquest) the website supports repeat visitation to the Museum.  But if someone made an artwork at home they could not add it to their portfolio unless they brought it in.  Anne told me the change she would make, if they were designing the project today, would be not to do physical cards for people to carry because they are too easy to leave behind or lose. Instead they would look at alternative technology solutions to creating log-ins.

Do you have others?

We'd love to hear if you have had personal experience with any of these or other examples of projects that link museum exhibits to the web in an iterative experience.  What works? What doesn't? And can the internet be ultimately another "exhibit platform" for museums?

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