Data informs the ask: #CBCanberra

blog post imageAt the 2018 Culture Business conference in Canberra this week learning, meeting new folks (up to 50 as instructed by the organisers!) and giving two presentations – one with Deanna Varga (Mayvin Global) around how to work with and better utilise members in philanthropy (take our survey here) and another with Bridget Jones (Wavelength).about how to measure and use impact as a way to boost funding potential.

Rupert Myer, Director of the Myer Foundation was one (of many!) speakers I found very inspiring – humble, knowledgeable and generous in sharing his considerable insights and experience. He made an interesting (and, I feel, quite profound) observation that ‘Australians are good at giving, not good at asking.

I’d like to take this a little further and suggest that Australians are also good at data collecting, but not good at using it, especially in discussions with funders, be they government, private donors, corporates, or even our members/subscribers and volunteers – Rupert saying we often hear ‘why didn’t they ask me?’ from these various groups.

Data at its best, is a key tool that we can (and should!) be using as a matter of course when seeking funding so why aren’t we doing better? Even some data at its worse is better than nothing!

So, back to the topic of this blog post – data informs the ask, and qualitative data, or impact measures, can be a powerful tool in bringing funders across the line. Personal stories of transformational change after an interaction with our organisations, coupled with hard facts and figures combine to provide a compelling narrative around our impact on people’s lives and help develop an informed ask.

Measuring impact is not new, but is now even more important as we are all completing for the same shrinking pool of funding.

In our session Bridget and I will be sharing some of these stories and tools, and I will be drawing on the following resources on measuring impact:

I’m also touching on transformative learning, which I have written about extensively:

And, you can follow on Twitter using the hashtag #CBCanberra or @agendaparis

Exhibitions about people: what appeals to visitors?

cowan_20080209Earlier this year I conducted a study for the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) about exhibitions that have a person as their central focus. Four focus groups were held to unpack a range of ideas and issues, and as part of their homework, participants selected one person from a list of six historical figures and asked to respond to three areas:

  • All the questions they had / information they wanted about this person (before looking online or consulting Wikipedia!)
  • Imagine they were designing an exhibition about their chosen person – what themes would be in it?
  • How to make the exhibition the standout so all their friends and family want to come along

They could choose on of the following: Captain Cook; Mary McKillop; Don Bradman; Edith Cowan; Ned Kelly and Truganini.

Throughout the discussion the following general findings emerged that can be broadly applied across topics of this type.

Exhibitions about people: interests

  • Focus on their life, achievements, different life stages and pathways:
    • What motivated them?
    • How did they die?
    • Fun, fast facts
  • What was happening in Australia / the world at the time:
    • Provides context
  • How they have influenced modern day society:
    • Their legacy
  • Flow on effect of their work and how they influenced others, who else they worked with
  • Why are they famous and why should we care?
  • What their contemporaries thought of them
  • As well as some of the ‘back story’:
    • Living / social conditions at the time

Exhibitions about people: prior knowledge

  • For some, not knowing very much about the person is a key attractor:
    • Truganini – who was she? Focus on a female Aboriginal figure is different and surprising
    • Edith Cowan, OBE – why is she on the $50 note? How did she make a difference?
  • For others, being familiar with the person grabs their attention:
    • Ned Kelly – ‘I’m immediately interested’
    • Cook – what was his legacy?
    • Bradman – the man behind the ‘icon’, suggests an interactive experience
  • But, still tell me the unknown story

Exhibitions about people: how to make interesting for an audience?

  • Interactivity and immersion are key with some of their suggestions:
    • Wear Ned Kelly’s armour / helmet
    • Bowl to Bradman
    • Large displays (e.g. $50 note)
    • Holograms – ‘virtually interact’ with the person, mock interviews
    • VR
    • Live performances
    • Music / song (Truganini)
    • Touch objects
  • Seeing things from their perspective:
    • Ned Kelly’s final battle from between the eye holes of his helmet
    • Cook and life on a ship – rolling movements, cramped spaces, sounds, sea smells, food

So, overall who was the person they most chose to talk about? To my surprise it was Edith Cowan OBE – mostly as she was a figure people ‘kind of knew’ and that she must have been important to be on the $50 note. Overall, participants were surprised that she had achieved so much, especially given the time period she lived through, and being female.

Who knew?

[Thanks to the ANMM for allowing me to share this research]

And, here’s more on exhibition topics generally. I’ll be doing more work in this area over the next month or two, so watch this space!

What’s happening with Members and Philanthropy across the arts sector?

ANMM members

ANMM Members

It has long been recognised that members are an important part of any cultural and not-for-profit organisation as they are loyal supporters of the institution, they support financially through member fees, donations and bequests. They are also key advocates, often having a long-term relationship with the institution and are passionate about it. Most institutions have long had some form of membership scheme, often spanning long time periods, for example, in the UK the first recorded friends group dates from 1909 at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Slater, 2004). Slater also noted the steady increase in membership organisations in the UK since the 1970s, with around 3.5 million memberships held in the UK in 2004.

Simon (2007) discussed the importance of graduating members to donor member, bequest, and influencer status, stating that “… museums can make the relationship between members and donors clearer by giving members an option to elect (partially) what their membership fee supports”, therefore not only transferring the ‘value’ of admission from one of experience cost into an exercise in donation, but also “… generating data about new members interests, which can then be cultivated with targeted marketing of programs and giving campaigns”.

During 2015 the Australian National Maritime Museum embarked on a large study of members, both current and lapsed, in order to identify any problems and issues and take remedial action were necessary. A subsequent paper (Kelly and Varga, 2016) published in the Museums Galleries Australia Magazine reported on findings from this study, as well as key points from the literature around membership programs in cultural institutions.

In order to get a snapshot of how cultural institutions and the performing arts work with members, “friends of” or subscribers to enhance and support foundation and/or philanthropic initiatives we have an online survey. Initial findings were presented at Culture Business, Canberra in 2018. As this session generated high interste we have continued to run the survey.

So, please go ahead and complete the survey here (by COB 22 February), or feel free to share this with your colleagues. All those that complete a valid survey and provide an email address will receive a copy of the Outcomes Report.

References / further readings

ANMM members 2

ANMM Members – spot Deanna!



Students using iPad in My Cultural Object program AM

For this #throwbackthursday post I’m doing some research and reporting about visitor and museums / heritage sites (what’s new I hear you ask?!) and came across this Australian Museum (AM) blog post from 2009 which still very relevant so have posted here for posterity.


Spent a few interesting days with the folks from the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. We spoke about the kinds of questions visitors have about objects.

Across a few studies now I have found rather consistent questions that keep arising for natural history and anthropological objects.

From natural history specimens people want to know:

  • What is it: scientific name and everyday name/description
  • Where did it come from; when was it found; distribution
  • ‘museum-y’ information: how is it preserved; why is it in a museum? what is it used for? is it real?
  • What is it related to that’s familiar to me?

From anthropology objects they want to know:

  • What is it made of?
  • How is it used?
  • What is it used for?
  • How often is it used?
  • What is the symbolism of it?
  • How old is it?
  • Is it still used today? If not, what is?
  • Who were/are the people and what are their stories?

The Harvard MUSE project

The MUSE project (Museums United with Schools in Education) suggested a framework for classifying (and therefore writing labels about) artworks which I think translate across a wide range of museums:

  • Logical – how was the object made?
  • Aesthetic – how does it work together with other objects?
  • Narrative – what are the stories surrounding the object: social, historical and personal (I would also add perhaps scientifically for natural history objects)?
  • Foundational – what are the big philosophical questions that place the object within a context?
  • Experiential – what can be created in response to looking at the object (I would also add what new information, connections and meanings can be made in response to the object)?

While all the above are useful as ways of thinking about placing objects in physical exhibitions, they also have relevance I believe to how a museum might “display” their object online via their websites or through Flickr – perhaps a set of guiding principles??


I also refer you to this post, Accessing Natural History Collections #TBT, which has further information and links about this topic.

Couch potatoes, television consumption and museum visitation

couch-potato-saying-cartoon-vector-1830668Just when I was thinking about a workshop I’m running next week, up pops another gem from Colleen Dilenschneider’s blog, A Growing Competitor for Attendance: The Couch, that is very relevant to what I was preparing to present.

The argument here and, as per usual, backed up by data is:

The top reason why likely visitors do not attend cultural organisations [in the last two years] is because they prefer an alternative activity. Simply, there are several, other things competing for their precious time, and time is more valuable to people than money. While going to a historic site may be something that interests someone, they may be more interested in having a picnic in the park, going to a sporting event, or meeting friends for a long lunch.

If I received one dollar for every time I was asked what is the main competitor for museums I’d be rich by now! Put simply, as Colleen states above, we are competing for people’s time and attention in what she calls a “super-connected world”, and the couch potato syndrome is a manifestation of this.

Watching the Emmys this week (and yes, my secret addiction is Awards shows!) brought to mind how much the small screen world has changed, even in the past twelve months. New and expanded players in the market (Amazon, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Stan) and the tendency to repeat free-to-air shows in a binge format on the weekend (certainly in Australia) coupled with (free) on-demand services such as ABC iview and SBS On Demand means that television is truly now consumer-led, watched in their own time and space, not beholden to network schedules. UK research found that watching live TV declined by 3% to 67% in the last 12 months, yet at the same time we are watching more:

The total media consumption across TV, radio, social networking, cinema, online and more was totalled at eight hours and 11 minutes per day, growing by 3% year-on-year, with 94% said to be consuming two or more forms of media in the same half an hour at some stage of the week.

Interestingly, this article says that the biggest competitor to television viewing is sleep…

But what does this mean for museum visitation?

Back to Colleen’s article and some relevant (US) statistics:

  • The preference to “stay home” during a week has increased 19.7% for the US composite market, and 20.3% for likely visitors to cultural organizations.
  • The preference to “stay home” over the weekend has increased 24.4% for the US composite market, and 24.5% for likely visitors to cultural organizations. This growth represents a big shift in how Americans prefer to spend their time.

Much of this is put down to not needing to leave the house – we can shop online for almost everything, we have non-stop entertainment at our fingertips, Google to help us find information we need, Twitter for breaking news, and a range of social platforms to connect with our family and friends, as Colleen states: “Though more people are spending time at home, they are still interacting with the world.”

Now to museums and, more specifically, local museums

I’m continually drawn back to an article written by Rob Hall many years ago that still holds up now – The “Museum Constant”: One-third plus or minus a bit, which explored the question What proportion of the local population can museums expect to attract? The abstract and downloadable paper is here.

Rob and I have updated this data via work we undertook recently for Transport Heritage NSW. This again found that “… on average, a little more than one third of the population is disposed to choose a museum for a casual inspection” (even relatively specialised museums such as transport museums – the focus of this particular study) and that visiting a venue involves trade-off between appeal of the venue and associated costs – including not just dollars but a mix of time, energy and money.

Is this news all bad?

Colleen suggests that we need to be cleverer in our marketing spend and advertising to couch potatoes (you’ll have to read the article for more about that), and I would argue also in how we engage with visitors and provide content digitally, given that we know the huge amounts of time people spend online.

I also think we need, to some extent, to downgrade our expectations around visitor numbers and attracting new audiences (and indeed about how many museums we actually have, or need, in the marketplace), and think about specific audiences we’d like to ‘serve’ and telling stories of most interest and relevance to them. Getting to the heart of our communities is something many are currently thinking about in museums (for example, this series of blog posts being written by Mike Murawski, Towards a More Community-Centred Museum), and I think this will be a salient point for next week’s workshop.

More on that to come.

Writing a conference abstract #TBT

TL group 1

ASTEN 2017, Canberra

Just when you thought you couldn’t find anything older, up pops this gem from the past – tips about how to write a conference abstract. This was published as a resource when we used to run UNCOVER – the conference for graduate and post-graduate students to give them a platform to present their work in a supportive space. Many fond memories there.

So for today’s #throwbackthursday post thought I’d publish this warts and all as, although rather quaint, is still pretty relevant.


When answering a call for papers a number of factors need to be kept in mind to ensure that your abstract has a good chance of being accepted.

Ensure that your ideas are well thought out and follow a logical, coherent flow:

  • state the issue to be discussed
  • give a brief background to the issue
  • brief description of what you are doing about it
  • implications/outcomes: why is what you’ve done important?

Ensure that the abstract relates to the conference theme:

  • in a ‘real’ and not contrived way: if it doesn’t fit then don’t submit
  • an interesting and catchy title helps:
    • but make sure it’s not too ‘clever’ or obscure.

Ensure that practical aspects of the abstract comply with requirements:

  • it meets or is under the specified word length
  • is typed in the specified font type, size
  • spacing and setting out are correct
  • if no guidelines are given then a standard format is usually:
    • 200-250 words
    • Times 12pt font
    • 5 line spacing and centred on the page.

Limit amount of references cited in abstract:

  • use only if essential to support your argument
  • detailed references can be covered in the resulting presentation/paper.

Look at past abstracts/conference papers to pick up the tone and style of that particular organisation’s conferences.

Run your abstract past someone familiar with both the topic you wish to present and the conference style: such as a university lecturer, work colleague, member of professional society, someone who has presented before at the conference.

Submit on or before the due date and in the required way:

  • electronically, via e-mail, is usually preferred
  • ensure computer compatibility of documents (especially in converting Macintosh to IBM formats
  • saving in ‘Rich Text Format’ in Word is better (*.rtf)
  • not all are able to access documents in html formats easily – stick to established word processing programs such as Word.

Ensure you include your name, title, organisation and contact details, including phone, fax, street address and e-mail.

Finally, remember that your abstract serves two purposes:

  • to interest and intrigue the committee so they will select it
  • to introduce/outline your topic for the conference handbook – so it needs to standalone as a record of your presentation.

Lynda Kelly, Head, Australian Museum Audience Research Centre, 1 February, 2002


There you have it – except, no fax number required! But, for more up-to-date tips and ideas check these out:

And, keep an eye out for the MGA2019 Conference call for papers, coming soon!

Are we asking the right question(s)? #COMPASSconference Day One reflections

COMPASS_WebBanner_960x380_v1Attending the NSF-funded Conference on Mobile Position Awareness Systems and Solutions (COMPASS) at the Exploratorium. Yesterday was jam-packed with presentations from a range of digital folks, researchers, industry-types and various others.

There were a few take-away highlights for me:

  • Research is showing the visitors don’t necessarily want a mobile app, yet almost 100% of them will bring their mobile device with them (refer research by Frankly Green and Webb, via @davepatten), and my own synthesis of data prepared last year for Explo: Kelly apps presso for Explo
  • We have been doing this for a long time (via the terrific timeline prepared by Claire and added to by delegates), but have we really learned and moved on from these past experiences? [And here’s my rather poor attempt at capturing the timeline, ignore the last bit where I couldn’t figure out how to stop filming!]
  • “Takeaway from day 1 of #COMPASSconference: Museums need a mind shift from location-aware tech (dynamic wayfinding, etc) to *context-aware* solutions. Context is more than physical position; involves affective, sensory, cognitive factors. ✅human-centered, not tech-centered, design” @meowius (Annelisa Stephan)
  • ‘I want a mobile app that does everything’, but have you asked your visitors what they want from their museum experience? Or read any research?
  • “Mass personalisation can also mean mass isolation” @hburgund, and mass overload
  • Why not think about developing museum mobile apps more along the lines of conference apps, which are particularly great at scheduling, tagging content / areas of interest, program updates, floor plans, social / networking?
  • Geometric fingerprinting application to tracking and timing studies has real potential, but as Theano Moussouri alluded to there are many subtleties of the visit that the human eye will pick up that technology won’t, such as social behaviour, non-verbal communication. Lesson here? Triangulation.

The break-out question we looked at was How does mobile enhance the visitor experience? Despite some great discussions I came away feeling that we couldn’t really give any new or exciting applications of the technology, apart from the obvious (wayfinding, enhanced content, making connections, recommendations, deeper engagement, etc etc). Except for accessibility. Loved the work presented by @desigonz around turn-by-turn navigation for the blind at the Cognitive Assistance Lab (NavCog), and the Warhol Museum’s Out Loud project, specifically:

We are committed to building an audio guide experience not just for community members with visual impairments, but with them as well. In our design process, we’ve worked closely with consultants with varying degrees of blindness. We talked to our partners even before we drew a single wireframe, exploring what makes a great museum experience and how they use technology.

I’m always drawn to the tweet that has the most traction (i.e. likes and comments). This one, I wrote right at the end of the day seemed to have resonance:

Tweet 1

I especially liked this reply from @RichardHGerrad, Toronto:

Tweet 2

So, I’m now beginning to think that we are asking the wrong question. Rather than how could mobile enhance the visitor experience, try asking ourselves:

What are the elements of a great visitor experience across all aspects of the visit (including pre- and post-), and then where is mobile (or more broadly, digital) best placed to enhance experiences / meet visitors needs in conjunction with other modes of interpretation (including the human element)?

And instead of trying to ‘curate’ an experience via a mobile app, encourage more activity on social and leave it up to visitors as to how they want to use their devices onsite, especially as the research Dave reported found that visitors mostly used their phones to “… record and share via photos and social media and to keep up with unrelated information such as emails”?

Here’s the Day One tweets on Wakelet (mostly me I’m afraid!), and feel free to follow along today #COMPASSconference.

Digital labels reboot #TBT (and the #COMPASSConference too!)

sarah angus

Framework for Digital Label Evaluation c. Sarah Angus

Yes, it’s been a long time between #throwbackthursday posts, but was inspired this week by some twitter flurry about some fascinating work undertaken at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS): Data-led design: using visitor behaviour to inform touchscreen content (and, anything with data-led in the title is bound to grab my attention!).

Their findings are complementary to some work at Te Papa (New Zealand) who published a nice and useful set of findings from their study How your behaviour has changed the way we make digital exhibition labels:

  • Larger objects on the screen more likely to be read
  • Not all visitors will use a touchscreen
  • Visitors use the touchscreen for up to two minutes
  • Use the technology for what’s it’s good for – for example zooming in
  • Visitors will choose their own pathways, so don’t try and be too prescriptive or linear, although the NMS data did show that visitors follow a linear path to some degree

These findings complement years of research around how important choice is in learning, for example:

Key factors that support an individual’s learning are being able to choose both what they want to do and how they access information, especially in informal settings such as museums. Dewey (1916) recognised that education was not about ‘being told’ or ‘telling others’, but an active construction by the learner. Park (1994) found that 89% of those surveyed in the United Kingdom agreed with the statement People get more out of learning that they have chosen to do than they get from learning they are made to do. Griffin (1998) demonstrated that school children visiting a museum were well-able to be self-directed learners, and consistently declared their satisfaction with museum visits that provided them with choices (Kelly, 2006).

On a slightly different note is a paper given at the Human Computer Interaction conference, asked the question Digital Exhibit Labels: Enhancement or Distraction for Museum Visitors?, where a “team of learning scientists and computer scientists collaborated with museum curators to analyse the role of digital display technology in visitor learning in a collections-based exhibit”. The resulting paper can be downloaded here: Digital Exhibit Labels in Museums: Promoting Visitor Engagement with Cultural Artifacts.

There’s also some interesting work and literature reviews from work undertaken by Sarah Angus for the Australian National Maritime Museum: Digital labels: case studies, research, implementation.

Finally, the idea around checking in with floor staff about findings (NMS) is a great one – but comes with some caution, as this earlier #TBT demonstrates: Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing? The lesson here being that a wide range of data sets need to be used in order to draw conclusions  but I guess we all know that…

This topic is particularly relevant as we prepare to launch into the COMPASS conference at the Exploratorium – two days of insights and learning about mobile, location-based technology, looking at the current state of play and where are we headed. Follow along on Twitter #COMPASSconference.

Oh, and while it’s Wednesday here in San Fran, it’s technically Thursday in Australia so I think I can get away with it!


  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.
  • Griffin, J. (1998). School-Museum Integrated Learning Experiences in Science: A Learning Journey. Unpublished PhD, University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Kelly, L. 2006. Understanding Museum Learning from the Visitor’s Perspective. Unpublished PhD, University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Park, A. (1994). Individual commitment to lifelong learning: individuals’ attitudes: report on the quantitative phase. Research series No. 32. Sheffield: Employment Department.
  • Roberts, J., Banerjee, A., Hong, A., McGee, S., Horn, M. and Matcuk, M. (2018). Digital Exhibit Labels in Museums: Promoting Visitor Engagement with Cultural Artifacts. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Paper No. 623.

Fun, learning and “The Playful Museum”

Skeletons Visit the museum

Skeletons can have fun in museums too!

Who doesn’t like fun, play and laughter? Aussies certainly do, after all it was a drunken Aussie invented the word selfie and our current Bachelor is a rugby player / sometime comedian called the “Honey Badger” (and we don’t even have badgers in Australia!).

We do know that fun is inextricably linked to learning. Investigating the concepts of learning, education and entertainment in my doctoral study (Kelly, 2007) I found that:

Museums have a strong learning focus, with the educational role being one way to deliver museum learning, and entertainment representing the enjoyment, fun, leisure, emotional and sensory aspects of a museum visit.

As one of my study subjects said when talking about learning in museums: … now I’m older I can choose [what I learn] and there’s no really pressure and that’s why it’s fun.” Coupled with this, Janette Griffin’s research found that “Visitors interviewed in the museum were more likely to consider photos of people having fun as learning [and] Children declared that learning and enjoyment went together when it was fun, they had choice and they were with friends or family” (2004, p.S64).

With that in mind it is very exciting the the theme of MuseumNext Sydney is The Playful Museum, looking at the following questions:

  • How are museums creating playful visitor experiences?
  • How can our collections be used in playful new ways?
  • How can we use play as a tool for engagement?
  • How can we use play in our exhibition development processes?
  • How can we encourage adults to visit using playful experiences?
  • How do we measure the success of play in museums?
  • How do we offer playful experiences for children?
  • How can computer games, apps and digital play enhance museums?

But, you’d better hurry as the Call For Papers closes in a few days, so dust off those funny anecdotes, get your act together and submit.

We’d love to see you in Sydney!


Reflections on the #MGAConf2018 for Audience Research and Evaluation


2018 conf image

@feraldata #meetday2108

By Abbie McPhie, Audience Research Manager, National Museum of Australia

As the new Audience Research Manager at the National Museum of Australia and being (relatively) new to working in the museums sector, the MGA 2018 conference and the MEET day held prior to the conference represented a significant opportunity for me to reflect on the issues impacting the sector and what these mean for audience research and evaluation.

A few common themes stand out, and pose some questions for the industry:

  • We need to understand who is not currently attending our institutions, and why. Are they being excluded from our institutions in some way? In what ways? And why does our content appeal to our current audience – might this partially explain why it doesn’t appeal to, or even actively excludes, other audiences.
  • For smaller museums and galleries, audience research is front and centre as they receive feedback directly and often, and can see the immediate impact of changes made on the basis of this feedback. For larger institutions, budgets will usually allow for some form of audience research and evaluation (even if this isn’t always done!). But for mid-sized organisations (under 100,000 visitors / under 50 staff), audience research and evaluation is often unable to be budgeted and not front and centre in day to day work. How do we support mid-sized museums and galleries in understanding their audiences and measuring success.
  • And finally, there are still a number of institutions and museum professionals for whom measuring success is in itself still a new concept – how do we support the introduction of a culture of evaluation throughout the industry?

I have a few immediate thoughts: getting institutions in the habit of understanding what their objectives are in any given piece of work (the ‘why’ factor) will help with understanding how to measure their success, and example template visitor surveys could be developed that would help those who are unsure where to start. But I’d also welcome your thoughts on this – please leave your comments below or contact me on

[Note: Abbie was the recipient of the Evaluation and Visitor Research National Network 2018 conference bursary – thanks for the post!]