Analysing Visitor Conversations #TBT #musdigi

conversations imageFor today’s #throwbackthursday post I’m re-visiting Chapter 3 (Method) of my doctoral thesis, focussing on how to analyse conversational data (and from that, as essentially one way to analyse visitor’s talk and their stories). This methodology emerged from Stage Two of the doctoral study which looked at the question: How does a visit to an exhibition interact with an adult visitors’ learning identity?.

Silverman (2000) outlined three ways to analyse conversation data. The first was to identify sequences of related talk. Second, to examine how speakers took on different roles and identities. Finally, he suggested to look for specific outcomes and trace those back in the conversation to find out where and how they originated. Ash (2002) noted that ‘Maintaining the tension between looking closely at any particular segment(s) while maintaining the integrity of the whole is paramount in microanalysis’ (p.394). Yet Silverman reminded us that as long as the parameters of analysis are made clear ‘… the analysis of conversations does not require exceptional skills’ (2000, p.151) and should be reasonably straightforward.

In museum learning research techniques to analyse conversations developed to date have ranged from relatively simple to more complex systems that involved quantitatively counting chunks of conversation (Allen, 2002) or developing more qualitative/holistic categories that considered the broader context of the conversation and how they applied to learning (Ash, 2002; Paris and Mercer, 2002; Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick, 2002; Stainton, 2002). Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) used conversations to discuss museum learning in terms of “conversation elaboration”, that accounted for the conjunction of the museum context with the shared identity of the group.

Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick (2002) taped visitors’ conversations with interpreters at a living history museum. The categories of analysis they developed for those conversations were:

  • list when visitors listed what they saw
  • synthesise when they compared current experiences to prior experiences and knowledge
  • analyse when they discussed how something that they saw might have worked or been used in the past
  • explain when visitors brought together existing information and new insights to draw conclusions or clarify what was happening

Another way of coding conversations was employed in a study of interactions between visitors attending an exhibition about African art (Stainton, 2002). Learning was uncovered through the meaning making that could be inferred from transcripts of visitor conversations, as well as comparing their views about the content in pre- and post-interviews. The categories Stainton developed were drawn from the curatorial intent of the exhibition gathered through interviews with staff:

  • Aesthetic
  • Anthropological
  • Visitor/aesthetic
  • Visitor/anthropological
  • Visitor management
  • Visitor personal
  • Other

Allen (2002) used conversation analysis in studying visitor learning from an exhibition about frogs at the Exploratorium, US. Allen categorised conversations to look for evidence of “learning talk” which she defined deliberately ‘… quite narrowly to refer to discussion of the exhibits and the exhibition, and its topic area’ (p.262). Allen employed the following set of underpinning questions:

‘Is this evidence of learning? … Is it likely that one or both of these people have just acquired new knowledge or new ability from what was said? … Has this utterance advanced the dyad’s collaborative process of making meaning from the exhibition?’ (p.263).

The categories that resulted from Allen’s investigations were:

  • Perceptual talk where visitors drew attention to something through identifying, naming, paraphrasing text.
  • Conceptual talk being cognitive interpretations including inferences, predictions and reflection.
  • Connecting talk making explicit connections between something in the exhibition and visitors’ external experiences.
  • Strategic talk which was explicit discussion about how to actually use the exhibition.
  • Affective talk expressing feelings, emotions and pleasure (adapted from Allen, 2002, p.274-277).

Ash (2002) studied how families made sense of biological themes in an exhibition about life through time by looking at interactions and behaviour over a longer time period. Ash decided to identify significant conversation events for in-depth analysis, recognising that ‘… language is a negotiating medium for teaching and learning’ (p.361). Significant conversation events (SEs) were defined as having ‘… recognisable beginnings and endings … [and] were sustained conversational segments that differed from short interactions, which can precede and follow [other] SEs’ (Ash, 2002, p.366).

I found SEs a useful framework when looking for evidence for a change in ways visitors thought about themselves as a learner after an exhibition visit through identifying ‘… short, sustained segments of conversation with definite beginnings and endings that related to a particular exhibit, content area or theme’ (Kelly, 2007, p.107). An example of one of the conversations from this research can be found here.

I’m going to keep the idea of significant conversation events (Ash, 2002) plus Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick’s categories of talk (2002) in mind when thinking about how to first uncover, and then measure transformational learning in museums – my latest research interest.


  • Allen, S. (2002). Looking for Learning in Visitor Talk: A Methodological Exploration. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 259-303). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Ash, D. (2002). Negotiations of Thematic Conversations About Biology. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 357-400). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and Learners: Adult Museum Visitors’ Learning Identities. PhD diss., Sydney: University of Technology.
  • Leinhardt, G. and Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
  • Paris, S. and Mercer, M. (2002). Finding Self in Objects: Identity Exploration in Museums. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 401-423). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rosenthal, E. and Blankman-Hetrick, J. (2002). Conversations Across Time: Family Learning in a Living History Museum. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 305-332). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Silverman, D. (2000). Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. California: Sage.
  • Stainton, C. (2002). Voices and Images: Making Connections Between Identity and Art. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 213-257). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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