Why the key to successful interpretation is knowing your visitors

By Hannah Smith

Museums rely on their visitors to survive. To deliver an enjoyable and engaging visitor experience, museums must be able to understand their visitors’ motivations, behaviours, needs and wants. Visitor research highlights potential barriers to engagement and enjoyment to inform future interpretative decisions.

Successful interpretation is needed to make museums and their collections accessible to their visitors as well as encouraging visitors to look beyond what is in front of them.  Interpretation is equally as important whether for a permanent collection or temporary exhibition.

Central to successful interpretation is knowing your visitor. Visitor research allows you to understand your audience and cater to their wants and needs. It also identifies barriers (to learning, usability, motivation) and helps to develop relationships to widen your audience. Visitor research can uncover ways to improve visitor awareness as well as representation in displays; both of which can be used as evidence for funding bids, internal/external reporting and serve as institutional memory.

Four things to consider when producing interpretation:

  1. Always ensure you are writing for your audience rather than for yourself and like-minded people
  2. Acknowledge that your audience are not homogenous; each visitor will have different wants and needs
  3. Interpretation should be primarily audience driven but it should never be audience led
  4. Interpretative outcomes should meet the needs of your visitors and the project outcomes

Evaluation can provide insights into visitor behaviours, dwell times, motivations and demographics that help to inform future interpretive decisions. Generally speaking, evaluations come in a three stage cycle: front-end, formative and summative. Front- end evaluation establishes visitors’ prior knowledge and awareness, along with their expectations for their visit. Formative evaluation aids the design process by identifying possible barriers for visitors and further opportunities for engagement. The final stage, summative evaluation, measures the overall success of an exhibition to inform the development of future displays.

A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods can be used throughout the evaluation cycle, including visitor surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups. Quantitative provides a larger sample size of statistical data displaying a majority viewpoint.  Qualitative tells us why and provides a range of viewpoints.

Front-end evaluation can include literature reviews, visitor profile data and summative evaluations from similar projects. Formative evaluation can also include working panels and play testing to identify barriers to usability and learning directly into the development process.  Lastly, summative evaluation can include visitor tracking, accompanied visits, exit interviews and focused interviews. These research methods establish if the project has met its objectives, what can be changed and what can be learnt for the future.

Visitor research can be collected by:

  • In-house audience development teams whose specific job centres around audience needs
  • Museum staff who conduct visitor research as part of their role
  • Partnerships with academic institutions
  • Low-tech methods (self-completion forms, comment cards, volunteers)
  • Consultants

When considering interpretation, it is imperative to fit your target audience(s) whilst being careful not to alienate potential audiences. When producing interpretive text, it should be clear, concise and to the point.

Here are six general rules to follow when producing interpretation panels/labels:

  1. Establish a text hierarchy and stick to it
  2. For general audiences keep to a reading age of 12
  3. Keep object labels to a word count of between 50-80
  4. Interpretation panels will vary in length. A maximum word count of 200 for an A1 sized panel is ideal.
  5. Be careful not to include assumed knowledge or jargon
  6. Be cautious not to write from a perspective that may alienate audiences

Successful interpretation enables your collections to be engaging, enjoyable and appealing to visitors.

Feel free to get in touch if you want to learn more about how visitor research and evaluation can help inform future interpretative practice in your organization.

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