Speaking Out: Visitors Respond to Current Events

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts based on presentations from our 2019 AAMI convening in Detroit.

By Liz Gardner and Jeanne Goswami

Visitors have a lot to say. How do we make room for them to share their ideas and points of view in our institutions?

This presentation at the recent AAMI annual convening looked at two visitor response areas at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, and how we were able to apply learnings from one to the next in order to provide a more meaningful visitor experience. Both comment areas focused on current events and gave our audiences space to share their thoughts in response to issues from immigration to gender equality.

Anila Quayyum Agha. All the Flowers Are for Me. Installation Image © 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.

In the winter of 2016, Interpretation Editor & Planner Jeanne Goswami was part of a team working on the installation of Anila Quayyum Agha’s All the Flowers Are for Me. Agha is a Pakistani-born contemporary artist whose work engages questions of identity, gender, and belonging—many of the same issues that animated the U.S. election. The team wondered: How could we draw attention to these topics in ways that increased visitor engagement with the work and current events?

Visitor Response Station for All the Flowers Are for Me, Peabody Essex Museum. Image courtesy of the authors.

We created a simple visitor response area integrated into the introduction to Agha’s work. This had two key benefits:

  • it placed the station close to the information that explained why we were asking these questions; and
  • it placed the visitor’s voice on equal footing with the museum’s text panel.

All the Flowers Are for Me was on view for 14 months. Over that time, we rotated nine pairs of questions every six to eight weeks. Visitors were invited to write their responses to these questions on Post-It notes. All in all, we received 4,636 individual responses, which we organized and recorded in a spreadsheet. This provided a huge pool of quantitative and qualitative data that we then shared with other teams.

What we found:

  • Keep your wording focused on the visitor, not the issue. One of our first questions, “Why is the empowerment of women still such a contentious issue?” received only 87 responses, while its companion question, “Which women, other than your mother, do you admire and why?” received 782 over the same period. When we put the questions up again a few months later, we rephrased the first to read, “Why do you think the empowerment of women is still such a contentious issue?” and responses increased by over 250 percent!
  • Encourage dialogue. The Post-Its allowed visitors to place their comments in proximity to others in order to affirm, refute, or respond to what they had said.
  • Don’t worry about the folks who don’t follow the rules. We found that the more carefully worded our questions were, the fewer wacky responses we received, placing the onus on us, not the visitor, to craft our messages with care.
Entrance to Empresses of China’s Forbidden City. Installation image © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

While Agha’s installation was on view, Liz Gardner was working as Interpretation Planner on Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, which opened to the public in August 2018 and explored the role of empresses in shaping China’s Qing Dynasty, from 1644–1912. Our challenge: how to make these women’s stories relevant to our contemporary audiences. Obviously, issues of gender and power continue to resonate with us today. Rather than make any direct references to these issues, however, we decided to create a response station at the end of the exhibition for visitors to reflect on how the exhibition’s themes connected to their own lives.

We created two question pairs that rotated halfway through the six-month exhibition run. Drawing on Jeanne’s analysis of the Agha data, we tweaked the wording of our questions to focus on the visitor rather than the issue:

  • What do you feel are the challenges that women in power face today? How do you deal with those challenges?
  • What do you feel are the expectations for women in power today? How do you think women in power are portrayed today?
Empresses scroll interactive. Installation image © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

Our team then developed a “hand scroll” interactive that created a large blank space for visitors to write or draw their responses. This format also allowed visitors to respond to other visitors’ comments, as we had observed in the Agha installation.

The results were astounding.

By the numbers:

  • 6 months of collection
  • 6 scrolls
  • 700+ feet of paper (2 football fields in length!)
  • 3,500+ responses

After the exhibition closed, our Interpretation + Evaluation team worked with the Empresses team to review a segment of the scroll and identify four major themes of responses. We coded these responses with colored dot stickers.   

Empresses scroll code book developed by the team in collaboration with Bridget Devlin, Evaluation and Interpretation Planner, and Cristy Hebert, Evaluation Associate. Image courtesy of the authors.

We then invited PEM staff to help us code all of the scrolls using this “code book” and corresponding colored stickers during a half-day event.

PEM staff at the “Scroll Unroll” coding event, April 2019. Image © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Tang.

What did we learn?

  • We don’t need to make direct references to current events for visitors to find relevance. They are already making personal connections and just need an outlet.
  • Keep it simple.  Sometimes the best invitation is blank paper and a pencil.
  • Response stations are designed for visitors, but they benefit staff, too. We learn what matters to our audiences and how to better develop experiences for them.

We continue to refine visitor response stations in our special exhibitions and permanent installations, experimenting with materials from index cards to sketchbooks, to recording booths to paint chips. As long as visitors have a lot to say, we’ll make space for them to say it in our galleries.

To learn more about the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City scroll response evaluation, please download our full evaluation report of the project here.

About the Authors

Jeanne Goswami is Interpretation Editor & Planner at the Peabody Essex Museum. She loves cats, pie, and traveling. 

Liz Gardner is an Interpretation Planner at the Peabody Essex Museum. She also loves cats, as well as baking and collecting vintage clothing.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com