Earlier this year we trialled a project to track visitor movement in museums using beacon technology. We wanted to know where visitors go once they purchase their admission and we hadn’t used beacons before so it was a bit of an experiment for us.

Beacons are positioned at relevant static points within a space, and exchange data with your smartphone or tablet when in range. When a visitor walks within range of a beacon we can collect and analyse this data to anonymously track their movement within the galleries.

For this project we decided to switch this method around: we placed iPods in the museum pre loaded with an app and gave visitors beacons instead of cloak room tags. There were a few reasons for this. We didn’t have devices to hand out or a roll out strategy or signage. Based on our research we found that asking our visitors to download an app was likely to be a barrier to the project. Switching things around allowed us to take ownership of the issues that mobile devices encounter such as wifi connection, data allowances, and battery life and to have a bit more control.

We placed iPods in 4 locations:

  • Front of House which is where the visitor first arrives
  • Entry to Voyage to the Deep exhibition
  • Exhibition Exit (via the gift shop)
  • New Under 5’s kids space Mini Mariners Play

The project failed and is affectionately known as #beaconfail. This is why: 800px-Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895

  • Our museum supports a Windows environment. Our decision to use iPods placed us outside our IT department’s advice so we had to make our own way. We chose to use the public WiFi which kicks you off after about 15 minutes of inactivity. This meant that the devices couldn’t send the data they collected in real time. To overcome this I had to check in each day and manually connect them to our WiFi which was a big challenge
  • Our public WiFi restricted access to the Apple Store so when our tech project partners needed me to download some things I couldn’t do it. I had to create Apple ID’s and make up fake secret questions and answers before I could even download anything and I ended up having to take the iPods home to complete the downloads. It caused significant delays and I probably wore out my welcome with our tech partners
  • Because we owned the devices we had to manage their battery life. Three of the devices were near power points so we had them connected to chargers which worked well. One of them had a battery pack which I checked in daily to change out and recharge. We didn’t use Apple branded battery packs and they didn’t always connect or charge smoothly
  • We gave our FOH team the box of beacons as is and asked them to hand them out instead of cloakroom tags and it turned out this was not enough preparation or support
  • We had seen samples of much smaller beacons but when we got the delivery the beacons were really big. They didn’t look like cloak room tags and visitors questioned why they were being given them. They had no numbers on them, they didn’t fit in visitors’ pockets and our Front of House team ended up spending a lot of time trying to explain what they were and convince visitors to take them.
  • Trialled during school holidays which is a time when we have a high visitor volume. We thought this would be great as we would be able to capture a lot of data but in reality it put pressure on our Front of House team during their busiest time and they couldn’t devote resources to explaining why our visitors should take a weird looking cloak room tag
  • Didn’t hand out enough beacons or gather enough data to result in a successful trial

We learned that we need to make some changes to our project before we begin the next iteration:

  • Bring in our FOH team much more and give them more support
  • Smaller beacons properly prepared to operate as cloak room tags
  • Explore ways to overcome internal IT issues like WiFi

Most importantly we learned that it is ok to have a go at something new even if it doesn’t go as planned. Don’t be afraid of trying – and failing with new technology and ideas.


Categorising Visitors?? #TBT

classifying imageFor this #throwbackthursday post I’m re-visiting an article I published on the Australian Museum blog in August 2009 about classifying museum visitors. The reasons behind this will become clearer over the next few weeks and will be one of my 2015 obsessions methinks, particularly around “classifying” visitors via their use of digital technologies which I have started to research in more depth.


I have been asked how (and why) researchers categorise visitors. Well, here’s some of the ways they do that (and a little speculation as to why they do that)!

George Hein in his book, Learning in the Museum, reports on the different ways visitors have been categorised throughout the history of visitor studies.

Higgins (1884):

  • Students
  • Observers
  • Loungers
  • Emigrants

Wolf and Tymitz (1978):

  • The commuter – use the hall to get from one entry point to the exit
  • The nomad – casual visitor
  • The cafeteria type – interested visitor who treats museum like a cafeteria as they search for objects or exhibitions of interest
  • The VIP – very interested person

Falk (1982):

  • Serious shoppers – come with a clear predetermined notion of what want to see
  • Window shoppers – come ‘to do’ the museum
  • Impulse shoppers – discover one or more exhibits that are interesting and become more engaged than first planned

Bicknell and Mann (1993):

  • ‘buffs’ – experts who know intimate details of objects and exhibits
  • ‘it’s for the children’ – families that are explicitly or implicitly a ‘learning unit’
  • ‘I’m museuming’ – usually couples, often tourist, often older. Culture vultures who know the international museum ‘code’
  • School visits

Veron and Lavasseur (1989):

  • Ants – move methodically from object to object
  • Butterflies – move back & forth, alight on some displays
  • Grasshoppers – chose specific objects and hop from one to the other
  • Fish – glide in and out of exhibitions with few stops

I always remember George MacDonald (formerly of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation and Museum Victoria) who called visitors streakers, strollers and students which I quite like as it explains different visiting patterns really well I think.

John Falk, in his 2006 Curator article An Identity-Centred Approach to Understanding Museum Learning classified visitors as follows.


  • Visit because of curiosity and/or general interest in discovering more about content area of institution
  • Described themselves as curious people


  • Satisfying needs and desires of someone they cared about (other than themselves)


  • Strong knowledge and interest in content areas
  • Specific agendas for visit

Experience seeker:

  • Collect an experience to say they’ve ‘been there done that’

Spiritual pilgrim:

  • Visit to reflect, rejuvenate, just ‘bask in the wonder of the place’

In my own doctoral work (Kelly, 2007) I found that there were three roles played by visitors during a visit:

  • visit manager by directing and organising
  • “museum expert” in explaining, clarifying and correcting;
  • learning-facilitator through questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering.

I also found that these roles were interchangeable, occurred simultaneously and were dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.

So, my view is that we like categorising visitors because it makes our lives easier and also that is the nature of museum work – to classify and explain. However, we need to remember that these are only an indication of the nature of visitors and that human nature is ever-changing and ever-fluid (and often inexplicable).


Watch this space for further reflections on this theme…


Repurposing content #TBT

How to repurpose content

How to repurpose content (Jensen and Kelly, 2009)

“Repurposing content”: write once, publish many time across a range of mediums – this has long been my mantra, and for this #throwbackthursday post I decided to revisit some of the discussions around this theme given a week of exciting meetings and developments (more of that to come…!). This post on the Museum3.0 site, “Repurposing content”: Making Web 2.0 easy, looks at why repurposing makes a lot of sense, through enabling great content to be re-formed and re-shared across a variety of platforms. One model we developed (as part of a paper reporting on using Web 2.0 for exhibition content development – Jensen and Kelly, 2009) suggests where to place content using a repurposing mindset.

There is also a really useful presentation by Chris Alexander (@cmalexander) on Slideshare: Create. Consume. Repurpose. In this, Chris reminds us that “Museums HAVE a lot of content whether they realise it or not” and provides useful tips on what kinds of content could be repurposed for mobile product development (as an example).

So, go forth and repurpose!


  • Jensen, B. and Kelly, L. (2009). Exploring Social Media for Front-End Evaluation. Exhibitionist. Fall, p.19-25. (available online – scroll down the page for the pdf version).
  • Kelly, L. (2013). The Connected Museum in the World of Social Media. In K. Drotner and K. Schroder (Eds). Museum Communication and Social Media: The connected museum (p.54-71). Routledge: London.

Still learning to listen: Still listening to learn

CI post it

Why partner schools and cultural institutions?

Today a bunch of educators, museum folks, teachers and assorted others that form our much-loved Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools met to both look back and look forward in celebration of transformative practices in the classroom and beyond. A range of speakers presented their work with the Coalition and how it has impacted on all those who have been involved over the years:

  • Professor Judyth Sachs, formerly Pro Vice Chancellor at Macquarie University opened the day with a provocative talk discussing (among many things) education as activism
  • Kris Needham and Kathy Marriot outlined the work they have done with girls and bullying at a high school in outer Sydney
  • Linda O’Brien, Principal of a boys’ high school in Sydney’s west, reported on her work around negotiating the curriculum with students through the performing arts
  • Myself, Pauline Fitzgerald, Nicky Bodell, Fabienne Virago reflected on the impact of student voice on cultural institutions and how working with students is fundamentally changing the ways our institutions are developing and presenting exhibitions and programs
  • Grant Odei reported on how a boys’ high school worked with a University faculty, where his school students were clients to university architecture students – an interesting pairing
  • Deb Talbot outlined work on teacher professional learning and research for transforming classrooms, reminding us of the need to document our work (hence this initial blog post – thanks for the inspiration Deb!)
  • Sharon Ford (in absentia) presented about cooperative learning in Years 7 and 8, finishing with the much tweeted quote: It’s not enough to listen, create expectation that student voice will bring about change … and it will


We finished the day asking for participants’ reflections as a hashtag, tweet or anything else – a fun way to end and I was mightily impressed that most could come up with a one hashtag thought, for example:

  • # make the outcomes visible
  • # let us all be activists
  • # listen and do
  • # remember the wisdom of youth
  • # future thinking
  • # act on student voice
  • # trust young people and learn

I’ll post more outcomes once we’ve had time to write up our notes. You can also look at the #ckbs2014 tweets.

Thanks all for a great and inspiring day. I just wanted to finish with my own hashtag reflection: #longlivetheCoalition!

The three musketeers!

The three musketeers!

Advocating for our youngest visitors #TBT

Aboatsintheharbour_1020x573s we inch closer to opening our new under 5 space, Mini Mariners Play, for this #throwbackthursday post I am reminded of my favourite quote about young children as museum visitors. In 1901 the then Director of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, appointed himself Honorary Curator of the newly established Children’s Room and wrote himself a letter accepting the position. He had this to say to himself:

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has been pleased to confer upon me the honorable but arduous duties of the care of the Children’s Room. He has at his service so many men learned in natural history that I do not know why he has chosen me, who knows so little about it, unless perhaps it’s because these gentlemen may possibly not also be learned in the ways of children, for whom this little room is meant.

It has been my purpose to deserve his confidence, and to carry out what I believe to be his intention, by identifying myself with the interests of my young clients. Speaking, therefore, on their behalf, and as one of them, I should say that we never have a fair chance in museums. We cannot see the things on the top shelves, which only grown-up people are tall enough to look into, and most of the things we can see and would like to know about have Latin words on them, which we cannot understand: some things we do not care for at all, and other things which look entertaining have nothing on them to tell us what they are about…

We think there is nothing in the world more entertaining than birds, animals, and live things; and next to these is our interest in the same things, even though they are not alive; and next to this is to read about them. All of us care about them and some of us hope to care for them all our lives long. We are not very much interested in the Latin names, and however much they may mean to grown-up people, we do not want to have our entertainment spoiled by being it made a lesson.

Quoted in Skramstad, H. (1999). An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century. Daedalus, 128(3), p.113-114. This is a great article with many pertinent points made by Skramstad, particularly his comment on the above quote: “In this letter Langley largely reveals an instinctive understanding of the educational power of museums and the degree to which that that power is dependant upon museum leaders’ understanding of both their subject and their audience” (p.114, emphasis added).


How do people get new ideas? Isaac Asimov on creativity #TBT

Photo from hilobrow.com

Photo from hilobrow.com

In this never-before published essay, Isaac Asimov addresses the question How do people get new ideas?. While the 1959 language seems quaint (and rather male!) the thoughts he puts forward are still relevant today and the subject of this week’s #throwbackthursday post.

So, what is needed to generate new ideas according to Asimov?

  • The ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas together and then the answer seems obvious!
  • An idea that, at first, seems unreasonable
  • A good background in the field coupled with a slight eccentricity, a sense of self-assuredness and confidence
  • Isolation – creativity can be an “embarrassing process”
  • Small group brainstorm – no more than five people as group dynamics can kill creativity
  • A good facilitator who acts more like a therapist than a leader
  • Great ideas usually don’t come from those paid to think them up – ‘… great ideas [come] as side issues’

While I have had good success with larger groups (especially the recent #warshipbootcamp held at the ANMM) it was the bringing together of like-minded, curious people, presenting them with a challenge and giving them the freedom to run amok (!) that worked really well in that process.

Finally he concluded that:

‘As for “gadgets” designed to elicit creativity, I think these should arise out of the bull sessions themselves. If thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional, the participants themselves will create devices to stimulate discussion.’

Interestingly museum staff have many of the characteristics cited above, yet how successful are we at generating new ideas, and then taking them forward??

Multi-touch tables – overall what did the research say?

Reactable_MultitouchThis (now) final post brings together what I have gleaned from reading about multi-touch tables in museum exhibitions.


  • still seen as novel by visitors
  • visitors often don’t notice or know that you can touch and interact with the table – need to alert visitors that it is an interactive, not static display
  • stay time on tables is longer than at other exhibits
  • they are social experiences, especially for families, children usually take control
  • don’t use tables as a “dumping ground” for content that can’t fit on a wall – the table needs to be about interactions with fresh and current content
  • encourage self-directed interaction with many levels of exploration
  • children expect touch screens to react like their familiar technology – things they all use frequently like smart phones and iPads.
  • shared control may lead to frustration – adults and children use tables differently and may interfere with each other’s use
  • used by a wide range of visitors – singes, couples, groups, strangers, varying ages
  • children “dive in” and use straightaway, adults tend to hang back

Practical considerations:

  • tables will be used as an actual table for bags, drinks, books etc, so they must be robust, waterproof and able to withstand rough usage
  • carefully consider the physical environment and atmosphere
  • cleaning must be factored in daily as they make use of hands to manipulate content
  • need adequate circulation space
  • place near a power outlet
  • good Internet connectivity is essential
  • consider lighting
  • staff training is needed in turning on and off and resetting
  • where possible use software that can be updated in-house

Tables provide opportunities for visitor learning through:

  • visitors observing others
  • layered information encouraging deep exploration
  • shared learning strategies – sharing points of view, reading aloud, resizing material
  • enabling more interactive comments leading to higher levels of reasoning
  • creating a shared understanding of the tasks more quickly
  • enlarging, moving and re-sizing images which assists in shared attention and shared understanding


Minecraft and museums: a useful tool for visitor engagement?

minecraft-museum-britishI’m gathering resources for Minecraft and its use in museums. Here’s what I’ve found so far.


And of course, there is an online Minecraft museum exhibiting Minecraft images from around the globe.


Happy to get more resources – will share!

Multi-touch tables – what is the research telling us? Part 3

WePlaySmart_byHatchThis, the final post (for now) in this series on multi-touch tables, reports on a 2012 research study undertaken by Higgins, Mercier, Burd and Joyce-Gibbons – Multi-touch tables and collaborative learning.

The authors suggested that “Research on collaborative learning tells us that groups who build on each other’s ideas, engaging in mutually responsive conversation about their task, are more likely to solve problems successfully and learn from the experience” (p. 1052). Multi-touch tables, therefore, appear to be a good tool for encouraging this kind of social learning.

The study explored “… how the multi-touch compared with similar paper-based activities as a starting point to develop more pedagogically effective activates with more complex resources and interactions” (p. 1041)., with the premise that collaboration leads to enhanced group cognition “… [the] process of articulating, negotiating and coordinating the different views of members of a group” (p. 1042).

The researchers used a triangulated approach in their study design with 32 year 6 students aged 10-11 in a school in the UK contrasting “… how small groups collaborated during a consensus-building activity on either a paper-based or multi-touch (MTT) version of the same task” (p. 1043).

Some of the key findings were:

  • All MTT groups exhibited shared learning strategies – sharing points of view, reading aloud, resizing material
  • Appears that the enlarging function for images positively aided in successfully completing the task
  • Paper encouraged more independent and quasi-independent talk with more teacher involvement, MTT allowed for increased elaborative and negotiating talk with less teacher involvement
  • MTT enabled more interactive comments leading to higher levels of reasoning
  • MTT learners created “ … a shared understanding of the task more quickly” (p. 1051) than paper-based groups
  • MTT engaged in more shared viewing of images and more inclined to assist each other and discuss images they were viewing
  • Enlarging, moving and re-sizing images helped in shared attention and shared understanding

Overall, the multi-touch tables increased joint attention through the ability to re-position and re-size images, encouraging social learning and, ultimately, joint understanding.

There are two YouTube videos of the authors’ work here:

Article reference

Blog posts

Other papers

  • Mercier, E.M. & Higgins, S.E. (2014). Creating Joint Representations of Collaborative Problem Solving with Multi-touch Technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning Early view.
  • Mercier, E., Higgins, S. & Da Costa, L. (2014). Different leaders: Emergent organizational and intellectual leadership in children’s collaborative learning groups. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning.
  • Mercier, Emma M. Higgins, Steven E. & Joyce-Gibbons, A. (2014). The effects of room design on computer-supported collaborative learning in a multi-touch classroom. Interactive Learning Environments 1-19.
  • Mercier, E.M. & Higgins, S. (2013). Collaborative learning with multi-touch technology: Developing adaptive expertise. Learning and Instruction 25: 13-23.
  • Higgins, S., Mercier, E., Burd, E. & Hatch, A. (2011). Multi-touch tables and the relationship with collaborative classroom pedagogies: A synthetic review. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning 6(4): 515-538.


Big thanks to Professor Steve Higgins, Durham University, who generously provided this paper and the additional references.

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age

book_kindlePaper v screens? Is one better than the other or do they both have a role to play? This 2013 Scientific American article, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens, asks does the reading process of a digital or mobile text cause our brains to respond differently? Early studies pointed to reading text on paper as a better way to digest information, whereas current studies are not so conclusive.

What they found is that the act of reading may be better for comprehension, especially when navigating long texts, as the book provides a tactile experience. Screens may “drain” more of our brains causing people to approach a digital text with a mind that is not open to learning.

The article reminds us that humans are not ‘born with brain circuits dedicated to reading’ – it is a skill that we learn and hone throughout our lives. If this is the case then why should the actual form the text takes be an issue?

What, then, is it about a book that works? Paper has a ‘more obvious topography’, with an open book having a set way of presenting information (having eight corners), with the act of turning a page a natural rhythm to let you know how far you have come, and how far you still have to go. In contrast it is stated that e-readers ‘interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds’.

When comparing reading paper documents and on-screen documents, a comparison of pdf reading showed that the paper pdf seemed to be better suited to absorption. Books also give a sense of serendipity and control, with readers preferring paper for depth reading. It has been suggested that screens are mentally tiring, with scrolling in particular being mentally draining.

More recently it has been proposed that it is the attitude of the reader that may differ in how they navigate texts – they may not bring as much mental effort to a screen, seeing it as not “serious reading”. People that read on screen also tend to take more short cuts, spending more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords.

Importantly, the author surmises that this may not be true for a new generation of readers who will grow up without the sentimental attachment to paper, and understand the convenience of the digital product. A comparison is made to the music sector where people, despite initial resistance, now love ‘curating, organising and sharing digital music today’. Maybe the future of digital reading lies in social sharing?

The final question asked is why try and make the digital reading experience mirror the paper one? After all for many the ‘… convenience of a slim portable e-reader outweighs any attachment they might have to the feel of paper books’. As with digital exhibits (which I’ve been immersed in lately!) the technology should be used for what it does best – provide rich media that extend the reader’s experience to enhance and deepen learning in a convenient, portable format available anywhere, anytime. Perhaps, instead of lamenting the end of the paper text as we know it, let’s ‘… turn scrolling into a strength rather than a weakness’ and use each form for what they’re best suited to.


Since writing this piece I came across an article (via @chess65) Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing, which notes, similar to the above, that our brains process reading very differently: ‘… many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain’. The article concludes that in future we’ll need a ‘discerning “bi-literate” brain’ that responds to the variety of texts available to us – both on screen and on paper.