So after our intense work with the students this summer, what were our big takeaways for museums, especially historic house museums?
Overall, five main themes emerged through our observations, the direct comments of the students, and in what they produced as part of their summer program. These themes were both methodological, focusing on how museums, including historic house museums, present themselves, and content-based, focusing on what a museum shares.
Control. The students, time and time again, made it abundantly clear that they wanted to retain control over the experiences they had in museums. We particularly noted this during our museum field trips, as they were much more engaged in the content when they controlled whether they participated or not, how they participated, and when they exited the experience. So long as the students were in control of the environment they were much more likely to look around, engage, and even participate . . . or seek opportunities to do so.
During the times when museum staff addressed them they very clearly shut down, brains turned off, and they became downright fidgety. They wanted OUT. They told us rather explicitly how much they disliked certain interpretation methods, such as guided tours (which they tended to call “lectures”), as you will hear for yourself in this video from eleven-year-old India:
Immersive and Multi-Sensory Environments. In our museum visits, and in the Open House the students hosted, they sought out or created environments that were highly immersive and multi-sensory. This includes immersive environments, such as dioramas, the recreated Pequot Village at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, theatre-style movies, and hands-on experiences. But hands-on experiences themselves are actually rather tricky. In our CT Cultural Panel (qualitative research with 59 adult museum-goers, which I will be posting about later this fall), it was a pretty universal perspective that hands-on activities are just for kids. One student, sixteen-year-old Kimmy agreed, underscoring a need for more substantive hands-on experiences that engage more than just “little kids,” as seen in this video:
It was fascinating to hear from Kimmy throughout the summer, as this was a common refrain of hers. But in addition to commenting on it, she did something about it at the Open House, by making cornbread for visitors to taste (adding to the multi-sensory experience) as well as engaging visitors in buttermaking so that visitors could butter their cornbread . . . and learn something about food and buttermaking. Given that the buttermaking made a direct link to the content Kimmy wanted to share at the Open House, it qualified for her, and for visitors, as a substantive hands-on experience.
But making methodological changes isn’t enough. Far from it. Indeed, based on this research, as well as broader research of Reach Advisors, I would go further to say that original objects and an immersive, multi-sensory experience doesn’t get you very far at all without a good story. The gut-wrenching, emotional, relevant, meaningful story that provide fodder for that post-visit car ride conversation and that sticks with you for days, weeks, months, sometimes years afterwards. And that brings us to the next set of themes: content. We’ll pick up on the content themes in our next post.
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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.