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Falling in Love with Your Visitors

Written by Marianna AdamsAudience Focus, 2014 Educator-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Cross-posted from mariannaadams.blogspot.com

I know this sounds a bit too new-agey but it’s what keeps coming up for me after my first full week in my residency at the Gardner Museum. Three families came to the museum this past week and the best way I can describe the experience is that I just fell in love with all of them. They arrived so excited and in good spirits, even if some of the children were a bit wary at first.  Their openness to new experiences reminded me to be more open in turn  to their unique ways of visiting and looking at art. A few reflections are shared below (while the experience are real, the names of the family visitors have been changed).

It’s About Choice & Control

One of the first things I learned from my mentors, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, was that visitors like and need choice and control in their museum experience. When I checked back with the families a day or so after their visit, the one consistent remark was how much they liked doing their own thing. Cole (age 10) told his mom, who had not been able to come to the museum, that he liked the visit because “they let us do whatever we wanted.”

tapestry-smallOne thing visitors like to choose is the pace. Eva, who visited with her two sisters, and her grandniece, Suzie, (age 7) and grandnephew, Chuck, (age 12) said she liked the “very relaxed pace” of the visit and added “this is a great way to come to the museum together.” A rather quick and focused pace was set by 8-year-old Zuri because she wanted to use the family guide, while her father and brother, Cole, (age 10) were happy to keep up. In another family, Baylor (age 10) had recently discovered audio guides and he immediately plugged into one during the visit. This slowed the pace down considerably. As his mother wrote to me the next day, “Using the audio guide really clicked in for Baylor last summer, and has totally changed our museum experience, allowing us both to have more private and quiet looking times as well as more social looking.”

Kids See the Darndest Things

I am continually fascinated by what draws children’s attention and this week’s visits were no exception. Typically it is not what educators tend to include on tours. For example, Suzie was first taken with the missing head on a statue in the courtyard. Throughout the visit she commented on how many statues were missing heads and arms. This caused us all to heighten our attention to what was missing. When we passed along a hallway to go upstairs she paused at a niche housing several stone and marble heads a long with a sculpture missing all limbs and the head. She said, “Oh, so this must be where they keep the heads” and calmly walked on.

combined headless & heads

Because the Gardner is one of the few museums lit primarily by natural light, and there are many cases with small, fascinating objects and notes, sometimes things can be difficult to see. Even though, there were opportunities in all the groups where they were straining to see something they did not ask to use the flashlights. or magnifying glasses. Sometimes I would shine the light where they were looking and everyone in the group would gather round and spend more time looking and talking. Reports from families a few days after the visit suggested that the flashlights were a big hit, even though they never directly asked for them.

combined magnify flashlight

They “Stumped the Chumps

Children frequently stumped us all with their insightful questions that we couldn’t answer. When that happened, all of us, adults and children, got involved in the conversation, equally contributing bits and pieces of what we knew and speculating on all the possible answers. Yes, I could analyze these interchanges and point to how they are modeling critical thinking, good inquiry, and how children need to see that no one has all the answers, but I’m not. They were just beautiful moments of people coming together and puzzling out something. I want to leave it at that.

What About Content?

It’s challenging for educators to intentionally lighten up on content in any museum experience, even though research continually finds that family motivations for museum visits is NOT to learn new knowledge. Families seek an enjoyable time together that serves as a sort of family glue, creating memories that they continue to share. Certainly parents and children like to learn things but it’s not the focus or reason for their visit.

At the beginning of the visits this week, I let families know that I did not have any plans for them, I just wanted to wander around with them, that I didn’t know the collection but there was a Gardner Museum educator with us in case there was anything they wanted to know.  Having a knowledgeable person with us proved to be a popular feature for families, for when questions came up Julia Brucker and Michelle Grohe were there. I’m grateful for their skilled ability to know just when and how much to engage so that the experience stayed in the family and was not diverted to the educator. That said, the families did not automatically think to ask the educators when a question arose. In most cases, after listening to families wonder out loud about something, I suggested asking the museum educator, which they eagerly did and it enlivened the conversation. I’m not sure why this is the case and together with families enjoying but not asking for the magnifying glass and flashlight, it feels like a pattern might be emerging. I will see if it continues in this week’s visits.

talking with volunter and elbow of hanger-onAt one point a group intercepted a gallery volunteer roaming the gallery for just this purpose. The volunteer noticed that Suzie and Chuck were interested in a silver encased ostrich egg and talked to them about it. This brief interchange warmed my heart as the volunteer was focused totally on the group’s interest and experience. She had no agenda except to facilitate visitors’ interest.

Implications for Practice

Realistically we can’t accompany every family group in this way, but it feels increasingly important that we, as educators, connect with audiences on more than an intellectual level. Finding practical ways to fall in love with the visitors seems key to me. When we connect with visitors on a deeply human level then the way we design experiences will change. When we start to see visitors as thoughtful, insightful friends who are eager to explore what the museum has to offer, we stop seeing them as security risks or potential dollar signs. I invite you to find your own ways to authentically connect with your visitors and share what happened.

Note: All the photos were taken with Blynk a tiny time-lapse camera during the family visits. This little gadget is now my new best data-collecting friend. And the “Stumped the Chumps” reference is a nod to Car Talk.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Towards a More Mindful Practice

Barriers to Family Engagement in Museums

Evaluation Can Be Fun

ABOUT AUTHOR

AdamsMARIANNA ADAMS is President of Audience Focus Inc. Her professional roots began in K-12 public and private school teaching (fine art, English literature, social studies, and special education) and segued into museum education where she headed several education departments in Florida museums. She founded Audience Focus Inc., in 2007 after 12 years of conducting evaluation, research, professional development, grant proposal writing, and concept development for the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her degrees are from George Washington University (Ed.D.), University of South Florida (M.A.) and Mercer University (B.A.). In her spare time she is an avid yoga practitioner and teacher.

5 thoughts on “Falling in Love with Your Visitors”

  1. Marianna, it’s so great to read about your journey–and such a powerful reminder of the importance of actually getting out there and observing. Thanks for sharing and can’t wait for next week!

  2. Thank you for sharing your observations! I am the Education Director at a small children’s museum, and I think a lot of what you shared applies to our visitors, as well. I plan to share this with my colleagues and maybe some of our volunteers.

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