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?


5 thoughts on “The dialogue between visitors and the museum and the ethics of visitor generated content

  1. You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be actually something which I believe
    I’d by no mrans understand. It seems too complex and extremely wide for me.
    I’m looking forward to your subsequent submit, I’ll attempt to get the grasp of it!

    • Thanks for your comment. The topic is quite complex and something that we’ve been trying to grapple with throughout the project! There’s by no means a definitive answer and we’ll keep you updated with our progress.

  2. Pingback: 5 Ways to Keep Visitors Coming Back - Top 10 Technology Solution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s