Visitor Response Cards: What To Do When the Exhibition Is Over

Written by Jessica Fuentes, Dallas Museum of Art

Over the past few decades, museums have positioned themselves in this post-modern society as institutions representative of multiple perspectives. One way this is happening is by inviting visitors to be active participants in the museum experience. More and more we are listening to our visitors by asking them to respond to prompts and questions. If your institution has started down this path then you may be facing a conundrum much like mine: What do we do with the thousands of visitor responses we’ve collected?

Statistics and Evaluation

As a baseline, collecting can be a way to understand trends in visitor experiences. Comparing the number of responses to total attendance can reveal the percentage of participating visitors. Depending on the data prompted by the response card, you may be able to learn more about participates. For example, the Art Spot creation labels used in the Center for Creative Connections (C3), prompt visitors to note their age. With over a year’s worth of data collected we know that 6-12 year olds make of the majority of Art Spot participants. We also know that 30% of participants are adults. It is interesting to note the months when adult participation spikes to nearly 40%, and consider what might be effecting those fluctuations. Furthermore, the actual responses can be a source for qualitative data collection, illustrating the depth of visitor experience.

Also, by collecting and reviewing responses, we can evaluate our own prompts.  When C3 first installed Starry Crown by John Biggers, we offered two prompt cards related to the work of art.

Starry Crown and responses

A high percentage of the responses we received to the prompt pictured at the top did not address the prompt. This revealed that the question was difficult for visitors compared to the other prompt (on the lower right) which consistently received more thoughtful responses. Because of this, we eventually phased out the first prompt.

In a similar way, visitor responses as feedback can offer insight into visitor’s motivations, expectations, and experiences of a program or space.  In preparing for a redesign of the Young Learners Gallery within C3, we solicited visitor feedback to find out why caregivers bring their children to the DMA. Visitors left their responses on Post-it notes and using the Post-it Plus app, we easily digitized, sorted, and analyzed the responses.  We used the three categories with the largest number of responses as a guiding force in the redesign of the space.

YLG Post its

After analyzing and sometimes digitizing, are these visitor responses then doomed to storage?  Working in an educational space that serves, on average, 18,000 visitors a month, I question our habit of simply counting, sorting, and boxing up visitor responses to store away in file cabinets or closets. When we use Post-its, we digitize the responses because the Post-it Plus app makes it an easy process and contains helpful sorting and exporting systems, but in regards to broad digitization, I have to stop and ask, “Why?”  What would we do with responses in a digital form? Would it be any better to store these responses in digital file cabinets?  Would we one day go into the vault to re-read the responses?  Have we done that in the past with the responses currently being stored?

Re-Cycling

When I’m reflecting on past visitor response prompts, I go back to the spreadsheets and summaries that help extract meaning from the raw data. But what to do with the more esoteric prompts and responses? For instance, in spring 2014, C3 hosted a community exchange project inspired by A panel depicting the Tuba Tree, with the 99 names of God on its leaves. Museum visitors helped us explore the potential meanings behind “Nur” the Arabic word that translates to “Light” in English. The work of art was on view with an accompanying interactive that prompted visitors to share one word they associate with the word “light” on a golden leaf and hang it on the fabricated tree in the space.  When it came time to extract meaning from the responses we enlisted the help of a writer.  In 2015 C3 Visiting Artist, A. Kendra Greene, started by alphabetizing the responses.  The process of doing this created some interesting word combinations, one of my favorites being “Jesus, Joy, Justin Bieber.”  From these alphabetized lists sprang arranged poems.  The creation of the poems led to a spoken word performance where Greene took the words of our visitors, re-interpreted them, and produced an engaging performance. Creating a visitor response cycle—the museum prompted visitors, visitors left responses, their responses were made into a performance, the performance was shared with visitors—and in effect an artistic evaluation and summary of the responses.

This new take on how to re-cycle visitor responses planted a seed in my thinking about how to use other responses. In early 2015 we worked with Kendra Greene to package visitor responses to Starry Crown. This painting references the importance of women as keepers of knowledge and the significance of familial traditions, stories, and wisdom passed down through generations.  Visitors responded to the prompt, “What wisdom has an important woman in your life shared with you?” The responses we received were funny, heartfelt, nostalgic, sad, universal, and at times deeply personal. In early 2015, Greene organized the responses into bite sized booklets that could be given back to museum visitors. First, she created categories and sub-categories like:

Kendra categories

From these categories emerged tailored booklets called, Common Thread: Selections of women’s wisdom, guidance, counsel, advice, experience, notions, revelations, hard truths, and plain facts. Throughout the year we have found various opportunities to share these booklets with our visitors.  First at Mother’s Day, then Thanksgiving, and now as we prepare to say farewell to Starry Crown, we are assembling more booklets to give out through the month of April.

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Share your thoughts

What creative solutions have you found for documenting, storing, or sharing visitor responses?

6 thoughts on “Visitor Response Cards: What To Do When the Exhibition Is Over”

  1. I’m curious whether anyone has tried to collect visitor responses both digitally and manually (that is, hand-written/drawn, etc), and found that visitors consistently prefer one over the other?

    1. Great questions Lauren! I’d love to hear others input about this as well. From some of the other activities I’ve implemented at the Dallas Museum of Art I have found that visitors tend to gravitate towards the had written/drawn activities, but I have not done a formal study.

    2. I agree, that is a great question! I haven’t found any formal studies comparing digital vs hand-written, but colleagues at one museum have told me they get their best visitor responses when they put out typewriters – it’s novel, kinesthetic and makes fun noises! Nina Simon has explored different variables in design in her blog and in a Ted Talk, too, but not related to digital responses.

  2. A large majority of them were dumped on me by an intern because nobody else wanted them. They were not bound to last and most of the comments were predictable one liners because that’s all people had time for. I donated them to the African American Museum where they would be relevant and I am working with them to make the most of the donation. When I worked at the DMA I specifically said that every interactive activity in C3 need not be a ‘draw this, write that’ kind of activity. These superficial activities generate subpar creations in too short a time period that waste materials as most of these activities are free to the public but cost the museum money to make. Parents don’t actually want to keep them and the museum doesn’t actually need them…case in point starry crown booklets. I gave a presentation about using recycled materials as much as possible for learning activities because sadly many of them will eventually be trashed. Thankfully, this was implemented at the 2016 annual Book Fair. The DMA doesn’t offer proper art classes and people do not have time to sketch their own face or draw a sculpture in the five minutes they are browsing a gallery with children. So what you are essentially left with is a scrap piece of paper with a penciled scribble which the DMA has hundreds of from C3. I have conducted informal interviews with people in C3 and many said they sat down just because their legs were tired. The majority of C3 is not used to its fullest extent and much of the space could be repurposed for other uses and I suggested specific uses during my time there. Every installation down there has a stack of computer paper and a pencil in front of it. I have more specific ideas and case studies about how to implement such things which I hope to employ at a later time. My apologies if the wording was harsh it was not my intent.

  3. Thanks for your detailed comments and sharing your experiences. Of the hundreds of booklets we curated and bound by hand, a small number were taken to an event at your institution and my understanding is that a sample was left per request. Regarding your concern for material usage and waste, I agree that as individuals and institutions we should reduce waste when possible. However, the manipulation of materials is vital to many of the concepts we explore, and C3 makes a point to use donated, recycled, and recyclable materials when possible. The focus of this post was how we and other institutions can upcycle visitor responses to further glean value and meaning; regarding the bulk of your comment, C3 values visitor responses from visitors of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. We value experience and process as creative and rewarding acts and design our activities to reflect this. In my evaluations of visitor experiences I have found that while some visitors spend only a few minutes on these activities others spend half a day actively engaged. These are my experiences, and I thank you for sharing yours. I am always learning and willing to think more about these issues.

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