Saturday, July 27, 2013

Teen Visitors, Objects, and Stories

It is about stories. 

Having now spent time with the students (ages 11 to 16) this summer, and taken them on three museum field trips, that is my big conclusion.

Not too surprising, is it?

Except that it really isn’t that straightforward, and stories that are compelling to the students seem to be in short supply.

Over the past two weeks we have taken the students on two additional museum field trips:  the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (both New Bedford, MA); and Mystic Seaport (Mystic, CT).  (Our first trip was to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, which Robert blogged about.) 

Here are some of my initial observations:

  •  Original objects are a fundamental base for museum experiences (except when they are not).  That is, the students do look at the objects on display as they walk through exhibition galleries.  The problem is that they walk through those galleries really quickly, and they largely rely on the objects themselves to tell the story.  An object has to be extremely eye-catching to warrant a second look and perhaps a reading of the label or accompanying text panel.  Since the story the objects are there to tell isn’t always self-evident, this means that most, if not all, of the intended content is lost on the students.  But there are also two twists I have noticed:

o   We provided digital cameras to the students, and encouraged them to take pictures of their visits so that they could include printouts in the journals they are keeping.  The majority of the photos taken are of each other or of the objects on display; many include both.  

Mystic Seaport; photo taken by participating student

o   Objects that provide what I am calling the “Ew Factor” do grab their attention and provoke strong reactions.  This includes things like a diorama of a deer being butchered in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and preserved whale eyes and brains at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 

  • The right staff can engage tweens and teens, and pull them into stories and provoke emotional reactions (and help them look at objects with new eyes).  We saw this in two different ways:

o   In New Bedford, the students interacted with a couple of first-person interpreters.  These interpreters did a good job handling a crowd of tweens and teens, and engaging them in the stories they had to share.  The students remembered these interactions, and some are planning to provide similar experiences to their guests at our upcoming open house.

"Strawberry Lady" at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park; photo taken by participating student

o   At Mystic Seaport, a staff member, not in costume or in character, took a moment to tell the students about a small boat on display that, otherwise, they would have walked right by.  Turns out, this rather beaten-up boat was used by a number of Cubans to escape Cuba, and their tale was rather harrowing.  He pulled them into this story, engaged their emotions, evoked a sense of drama, and they looked at him, and the boat, enrapt and with widened, new eyes.  As Naomi wrote in her journal afterwards, “This story was so interesting I couldn’t stop listening.  I usually do when people give us lectures, but shh it’s a secret.”  For Naomi, and the others, this story was no lecture.

Cuban fishing boat at Mystic Seaport; photo taken by participating student

  • Use of technology was hit or miss . . . and largely miss.  A movie in a theatre can hold their interest, engage them in a story, and engender their empathy, as we saw at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.  But while computer monitors and other video screens may catch their attention, they rarely hold their interest for more than a few seconds.

o   Unless you are talking about the technology they brought with them.  Many of the students used their phones extensively to do more than text, but to take pictures of their visits.  LOTS of pictures, which indicates an interest in the museum on a personal level (otherwise, why bother taking pictures and posting them?). 

  • The students did engage with interactive activities, but I did hear comments that some were too simple for them or clearly intended for younger children.  They wanted hands-on activities that were more age appropriate and substantive. 

  •  Finally, if creature comforts are not addressed, engagement and learning plummet.  I most clearly saw this in two ways:

o   Seating.  Whenever I saw a bench, there was a student sitting on it.  They take every opportunity to sit down, reminding us that being young doesn’t mean one is indefatigable.  Museum fatigue happens to all of us.  What kinds of content can we, therefore, provide at these benches?  And are there ever enough benches?

Very hot and tired students at Mystic Seaport; photo taken by author

o   Ambient temperature.  It was well into the 90s for our visit to Mystic Seaport, and many of the exhibits and activities take place outdoors there.  Despite that those exhibits and activities would likely have engaged them (costumed interpretation, hands-on activities, performances, and programs on music), most of them were ignored by the students, who actively sought out air conditioned spaces, regardless of content. 

Fundamentally, museums, especially history museums, are in the storytelling business.  Yet based on what we have observed the students doing, and not doing, on all three museum field trips thus far, the stories are getting lost because the mechanisms of telling the stories are not engaging them.  In terms of engaging these students, we have to rethink what we rely on, and what we need to pay attention to. 

We rely too much on:

  • objects to tell a story without really realizing that the story they tell may not be evident to visitors
  • text panels that are often ignored
  • what the students would deem “lectures” from adults that go on and on and on and on (e.g., guided tours)

From what I have seen thus far, perhaps we need to pay more attention to:

  •  how objects can more explicitly tell a story and spark deeper interest . . . without text
  •  skillful use of trained storytellers
  •  substantive hands-on activities that help make visitors (including our students) feel they are experiencing something much like what people of the past experienced
  • ensuring that the physical environment is so comfortable that it becomes an aid to engagement, not a barrier

This doesn’t mean that we are suggesting museum exhibitions should no longer have text panels, or that historic house museums should never have guided tours.  Instead, it is a deeper understanding that while those methods of interpretation work for some, they don’t work for many, and we have to be more flexible and nimble if we want to broaden our audiences and create more sustainable futures for our museums.

Next stop:  RISD Museum of Art!

We’d love to know what you think.  Share a comment with us!

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She is leading several phases of audience research for this project.

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