Why do you ask?

Why do we ask people for their advice? If you’re me, you already have your mind made up (even if you don’t realize it) before you ask. I know that nine times out of ten, when I ask my husband to weigh in on something, I usually go with whatever is precisely the opposite of what he says. Even though he almost always is wrong when I ask him something (bless his heart), he really is helpful, since his wrong answer only confirms that I am, indeed, right in my thinking.

I’m not talking about the kind of “Does this make me look fat?” kind of advice. I’m talking about issues that run deeper than “What should we have for dinner tonight?” or “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to get new kitchen cabinets?” I’m talking about things that really matter, whose outcomes have the potential to really impact your life and how you live it.

Museums have always been known as the guardians of information, experts telling you what it most important about all their stuff. Most museums are traditionally in the business of telling, and not asking. This (most fortunately) is changing, though. Evaluation, visitor studies, assessment…call it what you want, but the practice of asking questions about visitors and of visitors is becoming a far more common practice than it ever has been.

Some museums are great at evaluation. For some, it’s ingrained in the institutional culture to ask, to evaluate, to re-do (if necessary) or to be proactive. There are some museums that (swoon!) even have full-time staff members dedicated to evaluation. Alas, there are also places that still consider themselves to be The Holders Of All That Needs To Be Known, and don’t really care what visitors think.

I will never forget a conversation I had several years ago with my supervisor. We were discussing ideas for potential new exhibits, and when I suggested asking visitors about what they’d like to see (though Heaven forbid we “cater” to our public), his response was—and I quote: “The public doesn’t know what it wants.” Wait, what?

I can completely agree that it’s not productive to give someone a blank slate and say, “Have at it!” That’s how you end up sifting through requests that could never be met. But I’m pretty sure that if you asked someone what they’d like to see at a particular institution, they could take the context of their setting and be able to give you a fairly reasonable response. Visitors aren’t stupid…well, most visitors aren’t stupid. Some are.

To assume that your visitor doesn’t know enough to be able to make a suggestion is insulting. To assume that you, as a museum employee, are the only one capable of making an intelligent decision about what your public wants…that’s just ignorant and egotistical.

Now let me be clear: I give full credit to those in museums who are content area experts. To experts who write labels (notice I didn’t single out curators this time around), I have much respect for the depth of your knowledge. To the folks who design exhibits, I admire the passion for which you approach your work. To the educators who run classes and lectures and programs for the public, way to spread the word and engage the public. But museums aren’t here just for you. They’re here for the 850 million people who visit museums across the country each year. They might have something to say, too.

So here’s the real kicker. If you invest the resources and commit the time to do evaluation, you’re just wasting your time unless you actually do something with it. All those people you spent hours watching? All the times you lurked in the shadows with a clipboard and a thumb cramp from hitting the stopwatch so many times? All the interviews you conducted and free stickers you handed out (you know, as a reward for participation) and spreadsheets in which you compiled data? It’s not worth a thing unless you’re ready to accept the responses you get and results you find and put them into practice. Don’t ask the questions if you’re not ready to listen to the answers.

I’ve witnessed many cases where an institution will survey their visitors on some topic or another and end up with responses they don’t particularly like and weren’t necessarily expecting. Rather than taking this into consideration and heeding the suggestions of their test subjects, some museums ignore the results, assure themselves that it’s the visitors who are mistaken and uninformed and don’t understand, and carry on as before.

If you ask me (and I know you didn’t) evaluation ought to permeate every aspect of a museum’s operation. Before you stage an exhibit, test out the design and the label text to make sure readers can understand it and they know what they’re supposed to do with interactive elements. Once it’s open, see how visitors are actually using and responding to the exhibit. After it’s closed, tally your numbers, assess what worked and what tanked, and be willing to make changes next time around.

A good museums has goals and objectives for its exhibits; how else would you ever know if those goals are met if you don’t evaluate? How would you ever determine if visitors had a quality experience?  You can’t judge success solely by the number of people through the door, no matter how proud museums are of announcing their numbers.

And surely, with millions of people passing through museum doors every year, at least one of them ought to know what they want.

I see you. And I’m writing down your every move.

2 thoughts on “Why do you ask?

  1. okay, when i used to to programs and would ask kids a question and never get the answer i wanted, well after a while it make me realize i was asking the wrong question. and it is the same with evaluation. from a content expert point of view, visitors often don’t know what they want. they may not be aware of something new in the field etc. but they may know what questions whey would like addressed, what themes or topics are of interest to them. i have seen both in action in zoos. survey people and ask them what they think the next exhibit should be and internally, they review what exhibits are at the zoo, what exhibits they have seen in other zoos that are not at the current zoo and then pick the one they liked the best. for example, tigers. well i have seen amazing tiger exhibits and awful tiger exhibits. when you ask bad questions you get answers that reinforce the content area experts’ belief that visitors don’t know what they want. the key, is asking the right question.

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