The dialogue between visitors and the museum and the ethics of visitor generated content

surveillance bug

Spying on our visitors? This surveillance ‘bug’, discovered by builders in February 1975, was used by MI5 to spy on communist activity.

Throughout our Play Your Part project we’ve been experimenting with new and different ways to interact with our visitors, both online and onsite using methods such as this blog, post it notes, pop up exhibitions and events.  What we haven’t explored in great depth, however, is the existing ways we interact with our visitors – from the day to day conversations our gallery assistants have with our visitors, our use of social media and traditional methods such as our comments book.  I was keen to explore ways that we could capture this dialogue and develop methods for visitors to see their feedback and responses from the museum in relation to that feedback.  I therefore brought together colleagues from a number of departments to collate how, where and why we interact with our visitors, what they tell us and to brainstorm ideas of how we can capture these conversations and respond.

How and where do we interact with our visitors?

We discussed three main places we interact with our visitors – physically, both inside and outside the museum; remotely, for example on the telephone; and virtually.  There were a large number of ways in which we interact with our visitors.  These included:

  • Interactions with members of staff – both in person onsite (on the info desk, in the shop, on the galleries, in the archive, when we conduct visitor surveys), off site (conversations with people when we’re outside of work, outreach workshops, stalls and events, socially) and remotely (phone and email)
  • Written interactions on site – via our comments book, chalkboards, post it notes and video booth (not strictly written)
  • Digital interactions – facebook, twitter, blog, website and enewsletter
  • Through museum interpretation and programming – galley interpretation, objects, interactives, events, exhibitions, learning programme
  • Communication via our brand – visual identity, print
  • Our supporters scheme

Why do we interact with our visitors?

The reasons why we interact with our visitors are equally numerous and it became clear that interaction and communication with our visitors is at the heart of what we do:

  • Because it’s our mission – to raise our profile, our funders require it
  • To educate – to deliver a tour or learning session
  • To entertain
  • To inspire
  • To inform – to respond to an enquiry, give information, explain what they can do whilst they’re here
  • To provide a service – social, educational, wellbeing, information
  • To market the museum – to create a destination for visitors to come and to encourage them to come back
  • Practical reasons – to take a booking
  • Income generation – to sell products in the shop, to encourage donations
  • To gather information – to get feedback to make the museum better, to get information about objects, alternative histories and stories,
  • Because we enjoy it and we love our visitors! – because without them what are we?

What do our visitors tell us?

One of the reasons that we love our visitors is that they are not afraid to tell us their opinions.  Some of the things they tell us include:

  • Praise – they’ve enjoyed their visit, they’ll come back, they’ve learnt something new, they’ve been before
  • Criticism and complaints – we don’t have anything (or enough) on a particular movement or story, tell us when we’re wrong
  • Reminiscence – tell stories
  • Opinions – their interpretation of objects, disputed histories
  • Ask questions – family history questions, practical questions (eg, can we film here? Why are we so difficult to find?)
  • Offer donations – of money, material or time, tell us what collections they have and want to donate
  • That they’ve lived in Manchester all their lives and have never been; other places they’ve visited
  • The toilet paper’s run out!

How are visitor interactions recorded (or not)?

It is only really the written interactions with our visitors that are recorded and the vast majority of these interactions are only collected and analysed internally. For example, feedback forms for events, learning and venue hire are collected in order for us to improve our service, however we rarely disseminate any statistics publically and only usually share them with our funders.  We regularly review our comments book and occasionally we write responses directly in the book.  Verbal conversations with visitors are not recorded, however occasional comments that require a response or contain feedback to improve our service are passed on via email or notes from our gallery assistants. Social media such as twitter and facebook mirrors this verbal interaction in that we respond directly to our visitors.  However these interactions can be recorded and are collated and circulated internally as they are a useful source of feedback.   In addition, we also conduct visitor surveys, which again provide useful feedback.

How can we capture these conversations and respond?

There is clearly a massive amount of ephemeral dialogue that is never recorded.  Is there a way that we can capture this and respond publically in order to bring more voices into the conversation?  Ideas to develop our visitor dialogue included:

  • When we pose a question on the chalkboards we add our own voice to the debate
  • Be specific with questions. Be provocative and current.
  • Use the blog
  • Respond on labels to questions that get asked
  • Answer questions publically that a lot of visitors have asked
  • Have a list of FAQs on the info desk – things like funding, directions, practical stuff
  • Have a space for monthly questions – our visitors have asked us this month
  • Ask visitors questions that spark debate and are related to collections.
  • Let visitors know that we’re here to answer questions


But do we want to capture these conversations? Is it ethical?  

The day after our brainstorming meeting I attended an incredibly thought provoking workshop at Leicester University.  It’s My Content 2.0 explored the ethics of using visitor generated content and explored issues of ownership, copyright and privacy.  It really made me reflect on Play Your Part and how important it is to be transparent about our interactions with visitors.  To be clear about why we’re collecting information and what we are using it for.  Throughout the project I have been very open and reflective about our ‘experiments’, about what has worked and what hasn’t.  All of our questions and visitor responses have been out in public spaces – for example on chalkboards in the museum or on this blog.  However, whilst I believe that recording and analysing these publically written responses and sharing them openly is essential and valuable to the project, what about the verbal ephemeral dialogue? Would recording these conversations be tantamount to spying on our visitors?  Or as a public space do we assume that information is passed freely within our walls?  Personally, I would not be comfortable knowing that a conversation I have with someone (either a member or staff or another visitor) in a museum was being recorded unless I had granted my express permission.  So don’t worry, we’re not going to be bugging our visitors!  I do think, however, that it is important for us to record the bigger picture.  To be aware of, generally, what our visitors are interested in, in order for us to respond.  You often get told that there is no such thing as a stupid question because someone else probably wants to ask the same thing. I think therefore, that it is important to explore ways of displaying answers to visitor questions and to display other visitors’ responses alongside those of the museum.  As discussed above, there are a number of ways we can do this, so we’ll carry on experimenting.

What do you think?  Are you interested in what other visitors think?  Would you be happy to share your own opinions?  What burning questions have you always wanted the answers to?


Lessons from Lisbon

Way back in September, when the sun was shining, and the days lasted slightly longer than the four hours we seem to be getting at the moment, I popped off on my jollies to Lisbon.  Whilst it was definitely a holiday, I can’t switch off when I’m in a museum and probably massively annoyed my boyfriend by taking photos of labels and interactives (and taking forever reading every label in the Beer Museum when he wanted to get to the end for the free drink).  I’ve been meaning to reflect on my experiences for a while, and the final few days of the year sat in a deserted office seems like as good a time as any!

A few general observations:

–          I noticed a general lack of asking visitors for their feedback – I don’t recall seeing a comments book once!

–          Health and Safety is a lot more relaxed than in the UK – we visited a couple of Moorish castles where you could easily be swept off the battlements, with no barriers or even warning signs

–          Art and archives in unexpected places is very cool!  We came across this interesting structure….

Film structureAnd inside you could watch archive films….Film structure 2

–          The Lisbon Story Centre is the funniest use of audio guides I’ve ever experienced! (I’m not 100% sure if this was intentional or not).  They also had some excellent interactive maps, which really helped us to get an overview of the city.

The Institute Effect (2) The Institute Effect (1)Special mention goes to the MUDE (Museu do design e da moda/Design Museum).  It was by far our favourite museum to visit in Lisbon and they had a fantastic exhibition The Institute Effect on their top floor for the Architecture Triennial that was happening city-wide.  The exhibition was a 12 week ‘work in progress’, which would be filled with events and ideas as the exhibition progress.  Each week a different institution would be invited to programme the space.  I loved this idea of transforming a gallery into a truly collaborative and experimental space, and it’s something that I’m itching to try for Play Your Part.   Watch this space for something very exciting happening in the summer…

Nelson Mandela Collection at the People’s History Museum

img021If you have been moved by the death of Nelson Mandela, you may wish to know more about the struggle against apartheid both within and outside of South Africa. The U.K. was a country that saw a decades-long Anti-Apartheid Movement, with many exiled South Africans making their home in Britain and leading the campaign.

We hold a wealth of Anti-Apartheid material in our museum and archive collection and some objects relating to Mandela himself including badges, posters and photographs.img022

We will be holding a Snapshot event about the Anti-Apartheid movement in our Archive during Spring 2014, bringing out our collection of photos, but if you would like to see any photos or read any material about it before then, why not contact the museum’s archive to make an appointment to learn more? Please let us know before you come so we can get the material out for you, on 0161 838 9190.

Ask our visitors: Raising the state pension age

Responding to the recent news that the state pension age is set to increase to 70 for today’s young workers, we decided to ask our visitors whether they agreed with this- given that it could save the UK £500 billion over 50 years.20131212_143825

As the photo shows (and as you might have guessed…) our visitors were none too pleased with this news, and raised some really interesting points when responding to our question.

The first comment suggested that only bankers retire at 70 which was quickly crossed out by another visitor and changed to 90! Another example of visitors responding to each other using the blackboard was when the comment “As society grows richer, why can’t we work less?” was challenged by a visitor asking “Which society?”

One visitor used this as a chance to promote their campaign- the People’s Assembly against Austerity and commented “Join the resistance!”

One of the most thought-provoking responses was raised by a 33-year-old occupational therapist who wrote; “I help the elderly to move- won’t be fit enough when I’m 70”. This comment raises questions about sustainability in physical and vocational jobs- is it fair to expect 70 year olds to carry on working in such roles for longer periods of time? Or, as we are getting fitter and living longer, is this not such a big ask?

What do you think? As always, you can comment with your responses, or leave your vote on our online poll!


Rubbish Remixers

30 November 2013, Rubbish Remixers @ People's History Museum, copyright Manchester Youth Council (2)This guest blog is by Team v Manchester who hosted the event Rubbish Remixers at the museum on Saturday 30 November.

We held an up cycling day to teach people about the impact of clothing waste upon the environment. We decided it would be better to teach people by teaching them how they can practically up cycle their old clothes.

We had four stalls at the event:

  1. Fabrics and buttons
  2. Stencils and fabric pens
  3. Spray dyes
  4. Natural dyes – using food and products you would find at home

We displayed the t-shirts the volunteers had up cycled at the training session they had done previously

We had 25 people attend our event and had some really positive feedback. Lots of the people got involved in the stalls but a few just had a chat with us about what we were doing.

The volunteers handled the event really well and said they enjoyed it very much.

The space we used was fantastic for the event and the messy room was especially useful.

PHM…Coming to a town near you

Play Your Part - resized for webCalling everyone in the Greater Manchester area, the People’s History Museum is going on tour!

In the New Year, the Play Your Part project is heading out of the museum and coming to a town near you (well, within the ten metropolitan boroughs of Greater Manchester). We want to know what has been happening in your local area, events, campaigns, protests or petitions. Can you help? These can be from within living memory or something that took place today!

We believe there are always ideas worth fighting for and want to hear your stories of events you’ve been involved with from campaigns for change, rallies to raise awareness of injustices or petitions to save your local services.

Being on tour gives us the opportunity to get out into local communities and towns where these events and campaigns are taking place. Bring along an object that represents what you have fought for and are passionate about in your area and share your memories and experiences with others. And if you let us know what you love, we can see if there’s something we love in our collections that we can bring to you!

Get in touch and watch this space for dates!

People’s History Museum taking part in Worklab International Conference in Austria in 2014

Worklab pic

In 2014 Worklab will be holding an international conference in Steyr, Austria.
Worklab is a European network of Labour History Museums and the People’s History Museum is a founding member and currently the only member museum in the UK. The network provides a peer support network amongst member museums and has also been very successful in securing European funding for collaborative projects.

The conference will ask how Labour History Museums respond to the changing world we now live in – how does the social, political and economic context affect our communications, our programmes and our work?

This conference is being led by the Museum Arbeitswelt on behalf of Worklab and will take place between 3-7 September 2014. All conference details can be found at:

There is a call out for papers now and papers should fit within the general theme of the conference, respectively following subthemes:

  • New ways of communications with visitors
  • Educational Programs for schools and other target groups
  • Cooperations between labour museums and other institutions
  • Women history in labour museums
  • Work and identity
  • Dying industries and society

If you want to participate with your own paper, please send an abstract (Curriculum vitae included) to or send it by fax (0043 7252 77 351 11) or via regular mail, postmarked to following address: Museum Arbeitswelt Steyr // Wehrgrabengasse 7 // 4400 Steyr, Austria. The deadline for submissions is 31 March 2014.