#epicfail: Has audience research become irrelevant in museums?

Here’s my notes from my Keynote Presentation (warning – is long!)

Audience research

Benjamin Gilman, 1918: “To fulfil its complete purpose as a show, a museum must do the needful in both ways. It must arrange it contents so that they can be looked at; but also help its average visitors to know what they mean. It must at once install its contents and see to their interpretation.” Gilman made it his life’s work to advocate for better visitor experiences, as well as photographing visitors in uncomfortable positrons trying to read text/look at objects! Some of his images are still relevant today – in 2014 why are we still providing less than satisfactory museum experiences for visitors?

Audience research has a long history in museum practice (Kelly, 2005):

  • Visitor comfort: Gilman,1916
  • Behavioural science: Robinson & Melton,1930-1940s; Alt, Shaw, Griggs,1970-1980s
  • Exhibit evaluation: Screven,1980-1990s
  • Visitor motivation: Hood; McManus, 1980-1990s
  • Visitor learning: Falk & Dierking,1990-2004; Hein,1998; Hooper-Greenhill
    Visitor conversations: Museum Learning Collaborative, 2000
  • Web 2.0/Social Media: Kelly & Russo, 2007-2010
  • Mobile museum: Proctor; Burnette, et al 2011; Tallon & Froes, 2011; #mtogo on Twitter
  • Organisational change: Kelly, 2013; Museums and the Web papers, 2013

Given this, what is the status of audience research today?

The context of museums

Museums operate across three spheres: their physical site; online (via websites and social media) and in the mobile space. Coupled with this is the reality that audiences are constantly shifting and changing. This presents unique challenges for audience research in terms of sampling and methodology.

The challenges of a connected audience

Our visitors, staff and stakeholders are part of ‘Generation C’ – citizens who are in control of their own experiences; choose what they will pay attention to, as well as when and how; seek challenges; work and learn collaboratively; and are widely connected, operating under the ethos of ‘I share, therefore I am’. The next generation has been called the ‘post-Google generation’ – children who will never have known a world without being connected to an electronic device and, most commonly, one that is mobile. Across all generations, participation is not only embraced, it is expected – 24/7 (Kelly, 2013a). According to Johnson, et al, 2011, museum visitors and staff increasingly expect a seamless experience across devices, with the reality that digitisation and cataloguing projects continue to require a significant share of museum resources.

Some quotes

“Visitors will come to the Museum with more technology in their pockets than is available in the entire museum” Appelbaum, 2008

”… young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps: they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps” Gardner and Davis, 2013, p.7

“Mobile devices have become indispensable to peoples’ lives and are driving massive changes in consumer behaviour” Google May 2012

Some data

An online study of Sydney population in 2007 found that: ‘… museum/gallery visitors participated at higher levels across all online activities. Apart from using social networking sites, statistical tests revealed that these differences were highly significant across all categories. … [and] … that, not only do those who visit museums participate in more on-line activities, they are engaging in activities that are participatory and two-way’. Studies conducted at the Australian Museum from 2008-2012 consistently found usage of social media and mobile devices was high, and that museum audiences tended to be early adopters (Kelly, 2013a).

Some trends


  • High level of skills development
  • Go through processes of hanging out/messing around/geeking out (Gardner and Davis, 2013)


  • Smartphone; Television; PC; Tablets / phablets


  • Democratisation of education


(See Kelly, 2013b for more)

Image Sharing:

Fried (2013) quoted Mary Meeker who notes that “… people are now sharing 500 million photos each day and that number is poised to double year on year.” Snow (2011), in Mashable, noted six reasons why this trend is increasing: improved phone cameras; apps easy to use and gratifying; apps promote simplicity; apps built to suit mobile; photos as updates; anyone can be an artist.

Do we need new methods?

Twitter as a research tool? A study at a TATE program found that analysing Twitter enabled them to measure effectiveness of marketing; analysis as a channel for debate and conversations (something Nina Simon and Rob Stein talk lots about in their participatory frameworks); and as a way to analysis visitors’ understanding and experiences. (Villaespesa, 2013)

Do we need new models?

Four models/approaches I’ve been thinking about over the past few years are:

  1. Social science: museum –> audience
  2. Consultation: audience –> museum
  3. User-generated: museum –> audience –> museum –> audience
  4. Building Community: ongoing conversation

What should be our focus be in the future? Where should we expend our efforts???

Some more quotes – organisational change

“The use of the internet will inevitably change museums. … The change when it comes, will not be merely technological but at its core philosophical.” (Huemann Gurian, 2010, p.95)

“If you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum.” (Spock, 2009, p.7)

[digital] “…puts users and not the organisation at the centre of the equation. This is threatening, but also exciting in that it has the potential to lead to richer content, a more personal experience.” (Ellis and Kelly, 2007)

The Davies and Heath report (2013)

Evaluating evaluation: Increasing the Impact of Summative Evaluation in Museums and Galleries (Davies and Heath, 2013) questioned the role of museum evaluation as a tool to enact change. The report was in response to the “… impression that despite the substantial resources that are spent on the summative evaluation of museums and galleries the research has little impact and largely remains ineffectual.” (p.3).

To address this problem, in conjunction with practitioners, they suggested the following ideas.

Museums need to:

  • state clear purpose for evaluation
  • embed evaluation through organisation via clear framework
  • disseminate findings (how?)
  • collaborate with other organisations
  • look at bigger questions across studies

Evaluators need to:

  • raise awareness of benefits of evaluation
  • share findings widely (and in ways that people respond to, e.g. blogs)
  • devise overarching questions and standardising
  • innovate in data collection

Funders need to:

  • set clear expectations and high standards
  • share findings and best practice
  • act as quality control

While admirable, I find these a bit samey and I’m sure we’ve been there before… I have some different ideas.

What can we learn from the approach to tech?

Working in digital/tech for the past five years or so I feel there’s much from that industry that both museums and audience researchers could learn from and adapt to our own practices.


  • Conservative
  • Authority-led role
  • Top-down communication
  • Traditional approaches to working
  • Work to long time frames


  • Disruptive
  • Consumer as authority
  • Community driven / sharing
  • Agile approaches to working
  • Rapid response

What skills do we need?

Museum staff now and in future will be required to be (Kelly, 2013a):

  • content producers across a range of platforms, not just technological ones
  • experts in their field, but not the sole experts
  • facilitators, not teachers
  • storytellers, using the tools of narrative to weave a range of stories around content from a range of perspectives
  • sharing policies and practices online
  • writing for Twitter, wikis, blogs and Facebook
  • navigating content differently
  • continually researching and collaborating with audience using a range of tools to understand and connect with our many and varies audiences through:
  • nimble and flexible, while being rigorous

Finally, keep in mind who we’re doing it for…


Davies and Heath, 2013. Evaluating evaluation: Increasing the Impact of Summative Evaluation in Museums and Galleries (go way down the page to download!!

Ellis, M. and Kelly, B. (2007). Web 2.0: How to stop thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barriers. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (Eds). Museums and the Web 2007 Proceedings. Toronto: Archive and Museum Informatics.

Villaespesa, E. (2013). Diving into the Museum’s Social Media Stream. Analysis of the Visitor Experience in 140 Characters. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web.

Fried, I. (2013). Meeker: 500 Million Photos Shared Per Day and That’s on Track to Double in 12 Months

Gardner, H. and Davis, K. (2013). The App Generation: How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy and imagination in a digital world. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

Heumann Gurian, E. (2010). Curator: From Soloist to Impresario. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds) Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums (95-111). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: London.

Kelly, L. (2005). Evaluation, Research and Communities of Practice: Program Evaluation in Museums. Archival Science. 4(1-2): 45-69.

Kelly, L. (2013a) The Connected Museum in the World of Social Media. In K.Drotner and K. Schroder Museum Communication and Social Media: The connected museum. London: Routledge, pp54-71.

Kelly, L. (2013b). Learning in 140 characters. Paper presented at Museums and Web Asia, 2013

Kelly L. and Russo, A. (2010). From Communities of Practice to Value Networks: Engaging Museums in Web 2.0. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds) Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums. (pp. 281-298). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: London.

Snow (2011). 6 factors behind the mobile photo sharing boom

Spock, D. (2009). Museum Authority Up For Grabs: The Latest Thing or Following a Long Trend Line? Exhibitionist 28(2), 6–10.


2 thoughts on “#epicfail: Has audience research become irrelevant in museums?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s