Reporting visitor data: are dashboards (one) answer?

IMA dashboard

The classic IMA dashboard

Doing some research at the moment on better ways to gather and report on audience data. One area I’m looking at are dashboards – how useful are they? Who’s doing good things with dashboards? Are they the (one?) answer for busy and overstretched staff that don’t have the time (or the inclination) to trawl through large reports?

Kati Price (V&A) and Chris Unitt (One Further) gave a presentation about dashboards at MuseumNext 2014, with the following useful set of tips (with my commentary):

  1. First ask – do you really need a dashboard? (and maybe before that ask “What data do we need to be collecting?”)
  2. “Pragmatism beats idealism” – you could waste huge amounts of time developing a tool that may be unusable, just do something and see how it goes
  3. “Narrative is the spoonful of sugar” – informed, short commentary of key points will ensure the report is read
  4. “The first bite is with the eye” – visual representations win out every time
  5. “Behaviour beats demographics” – not sure I totally agree, demogs have many uses
  6. “Context is key” – say no more
  7. “Strategy for some, tactics for others” – reminder that the same data may be used in different ways by different people with different needs
  8. “Dashboards can’t do everything” – an important reminder that there (probably) isn’t a one size fits all solution (go to point 1!)
  9. The dashboard made a difference at the V&A in several ways – two that stood out for me were “happy trustee” and “More conversations about this”

Following from this, in The laws of shitty dashboards blogpost, Paul Cothenet notes:

I don’t have the data to prove it, but I bet a lot of shitty dashboard started with the sentence “we need to add a dashboard”. They are built without the users in mind because the product team has a bunch of numbers that they think could be useful. Or because the exec team somehow thinks “we need a dashboard”.

I’m keen to hear your dashboard story – feel free to add in comments or tweet me @lyndakelly61.

Have gathered a set of resources to share (below) and will keep adding as I find out more.

Museum dashboards

Non-profits and dashboards:


dilbert dashboards

What’s a data blogpost without Dilbert?!

Strategic Planning in small museums … the usual stuff plus some new thinking

WW EntryNext week I’ll be running a strategic planning workshop for a small, totally volunteer-run museum in the Lake Macquarie region of NSW.

An exciting time for this organisation as we plan for the collection move to a new facility, with associated spaces for exhibitions, programs, interpretation and (potentially) an open storage area.

In preparation I have gathered a range of resources I’ve found useful in planning this project (detailed in the Readings list below).

In addition to the ‘usual’ planning processes, two areas I’m thinking of introducing are:

Inclusive practices – how to adapt some of the strategies from the just-released AMaGA Indigenous Roadmap and reflections from my (intermittent) participation in the #MassActionReadingGroup.

Self-care – this idea has been gaining lots of coverage lately, and, in my opinion, is particularly relevant for a volunteer-run museum to maintain motivation, avoid burn-out and (potential) exploitation.

It will be interesting to see if we can develop a plan that is achievable, flexible, useful and incorporates some of this thinking – wish us luck!


Huge thanks to MGNSW for providing the grant for this project and to the dedicated volunteers for their time and enthusiasm.

Readings and references

Strategic Planning for small organisations

Collection management / policies

Volunteer Management / Issues

Inclusive practices


We have never been asked before: Giving voice to the voiceless #VRF19

SLNSW 1Presentation to the 2019 Visitor Research Forum by Prof. Susan Groundwater-Smith, Honorary Professor, SSESW, University of Sydney and Dr Lynda Kelly, LyndaKellyNetworks, with Pauline Fitzgerald, State Library of NSW.


This presentation will draw upon recent literature that encourages the voices of children and young people in both providing testimony and engaging in research in relation to audience experiences in learning sites outside the classroom (Groundwater-Smith, Dockett and Bottrell, 2015; Mockler and Groundwater-Smith, 2015). It recognises the special nature of learning in cultural sites and the opportunities for those students who are rarely consulted to have a voice (Blunden and Fitzgerald, 2019).

We make the case that the improvement of learning organisations can be enhanced by listening to and respecting the voices of young people, including those who are marginalised (Hill, 2019) by providing examples including the State Library of NSW, Sydney Living Museums and the work of Kids’ College at the Australian Museum.

Our paper concludes with reference to the range of ethical concerns that require attention when working in this space (Alderson and Morrow, 2019). It will argue that attention to ethics is, effectively, an attention to quality in this area of research.


  • Alderson, P. and Morrow, V. (2019) The ethics of research with children and young people. (3rd edition). London: Sage.
  • Blunden, J. and Fitzgerald, P. (2019) Beyond the classroom: Museum visits and resources. In H. de Silva Joyce & S. Feez (Eds.) Multi modality across classrooms. London: Routledge, pp. 194 – 206.
  • Groundwater-Smith, S., Dockett, S. and Bottrell, D. (2015) Participatory research with children and young people. London: Sage.
  • Mockler, N. and Groundwater-Smith, S. (2011) Weaving a web of professional practice: The Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools. In B. Lingard, P. Thomson & T. Wrigley (Eds.) Changing Schools: Alternative Models. London: Routledge pp. 294 – 322.

Download our paper here: We have never been asked before



Visitor Research Forum 2019 / MuseumNext Sydney

conf logoIt’s on again – the annual Visitor Research Forum (VRF) on Wednesday 3 April (to follow MuseumNext Sydney).


  • The VRF  brings together industry and academic thought leaders working
    and researching in the area of visitor research across Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world


How much?

  • The VRF is free but  you need to register for catering purposes and to advise of any dietary requirements

How can I get involved?

  • If you are interested in giving a presentation on completed or current case studies
    and research please send a 250 word abstract by 4 March 2019 to
    Dr Naomi Dale:

What now?

  • Register! Go here to register and we hope to see you there.
    (PS It’s a great chance to get to see the Zoo for free – it’s amazing!)

What else is on?

  • And, while you’re planning to be in Sydney anyway why not book for MuseumNext? There are still a few tickets available and the program looks fantastic. Go here for more info

Engaging Museum Visitors in Difficult Topics Through Socio-cultural Learning and Narrative

For those of you who read my previous post, Learning from a project team’s experience: what works??, I promised to provide the chapter that detailed findings from the front-end and summative evaluations of death, the last taboo exhibition held at the Australian Museum in 2003. And below you shall find it!

hot topics coverBOOK ABSTRACT

Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums engages the highly problematic and increasingly important issue of museums, science centres, their roles in contemporary societies, their engagement with “hot” topics and their part in wider conversations in a networked public culture. Hot topics such as homosexuality, sexual, and racial violence, massacres, drugs, terrorism, GMO foods and climate change are now all part of museological culture. The authors in this collection situate cultural institutions in an increasingly interconnected, complex, globalising and uncertain world and engage the why and how institutions might form part of, activate conversations and action through discussions that theorise institutions in new ways to the very practical means in which institutions might engage their constituencies.


This chapter considers socio-cultural theory as a conduit for engaging visitors with difficult topics as well as assessing their physical museum experiences. A socio-cultural approach to identifying visitor learning is applied through analysing summative evaluation of visitors to an Australian Museum exhibition that tackled the difficult topic of death. The role of narrative is also considered through examining visitor responses to the more confronting aspects of the exhibition and considering how they felt about death within the context of their personal experience.


Kelly, L. (2010). Engaging Museum Visitors in Difficult Topics Through Socio-cultural Learning and Narrative. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds) Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums. (pp. 194-210). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: London.

Download the chapter here: KELLY Chapter 10 FINAL

This work also drew on the substantial literature review around museum learning from my thesis Chapter 2, and a re-visit of this literature in Chapter 7 (Conclusion) which can be downloaded here: KELLY THESIS CHAPTER 2 AND 7




Learning from a project team’s experience: what works??

front textThere’s been a lot going down on Twitter in the past few days around project teams, language, power and how to get the develop the best experiences for the end-user – whether an exhibition, a program, a digital project, etc, etc.

Much of the discussion has been focussed around the best way/s to approach these projects. Reading the (huge) number of tweets I was reminded of a project team evaluation we conducted back in 2003 at the Australian Museum. During the 1990s-2000s the Museum was pretty progressive in how project teams were structured – no curatorial dominance, a chairperson selected by the team (and usually not the exhibition project manager), and always an educator, marketing/comms person, programs person, subject expert, maybe a designer, often someone from the Finance or HR department (for PD reasons, as much as for their expertise), and (almost) always informed by audience research.

For one particular exhibition, death: the last taboo, we wanted to see how a (kind of) different approach to running an exhibition project worked from the perspective of the team themselves. I’m posting this study as I think it helps inform what has been discussed on Twitter this week.


The objectives of the review were to explore the team’s experience in developing the exhibition:

  • processes that worked well
  • processes that worked less well
  • how they solved problems and how they dealt with conflict
  • the measures of success held by the team and to what extent they were met
  • evaluate the value of external inputs (audience research, community, internet)

The review started with uncovering the team’s goals, which were, in an overall sense, to talk about a subject that’s not talked about, and answer some of the questions no-one wants to ask, specifically to:

  • demystify death, especially since it’s so sanitised in Western society
  • provide an opportunity for people to consider death at a time and place removed from death
  • generate community debate
  • educate, and therefore help people

Visitors reported never seeing such an array of urns before

Importantly, team decided that rather than cover the whole topic, which they thought impractical for a number of reasons, they decided to focus on a specific aspect of death:

  • the practical aspects of what happens when you die and the choices you have

And to make it as real as possible:

  • provide full, factual detail, get the details right, make it object based, using the Museum’s collection as much as possible


By their own account, the team worked very well together because:

  • the subject matter meant there weren’t any ‘experts’
  • they got on well as people, jelled as a team and respected each other
  • between them they had a good balance of skills and therefore different strengths
  • all carried their share of the workload
  • they were able to talk through and resolve conflicts with a minimum of casualties
  • they had a relaxed approach and got on well as a team
  • they weren’t precious about content
  • they made field trips, for example mortuary, crematorium, funeral parlours, cemeteries etc to help them explore and discuss the topic and help provide the realism and authenticity they desired and acted as a bonding mechanism for the team
  • they had the use of a project room:
    • somewhere for the researcher to work
    • a place to keep everything together
    • a place to meet away from everyday distractions

They also felt that audience front-end research benefited the process:

  • helped them to focus at an early stage, by having to prepare the concept
  • allowed the team to watch potential visitors talk about death – their questions, interests, what they did and didn’t want to see / experience, and helped them decide what to focus on
  • provided them with feedback on their ideas and specific objects
  • provided some guidelines as to the boundaries of interest, good taste and appropriateness
  • gave them a ‘false deadline’ – they had to be able to explain the concept to visitors and think about the questions they wanted to ask early on in the development process

They adopted a new approach to graphics production:

  • two people rather than one
  • split roles – allowed each to focus and be more productive
  • team was happy with the output and they finished ahead of time

They also decided to have the focused services of a researcher:

  • provided the team with new skills
  • found stories and made relevant connections between these stories and the Museum’s resources (objects, images from archives)
  • allowed the team to use the collection more extensively

The team identified areas that could be improved:

  • the middle ‘dead patch’ where initial enthusiasm is lost and the pressure of the deadline hasn’t yet set in was compounded on this project by waiting for a sought-after team member to return from holidays
  • would have liked the services of a writer – better if content providers don’t have to also write for less ‘performance anxiety’
  • allows team members to operate within their area of expertise

The senior manager on the team (a member of the Museum’s Executive) claimed it was too difficult to be both a team member and a manager due to conflicting responsibilities and roles and therefore hard to be frank! They felt that in future an Executive member could act as mentor but not be part of the team, and be able to lobby on the team’s behalf.

They reported that being part of the team had unexpected benefits:

  • their attitudes to death changed as a result of being on the team – they can talk about it now and would know what to do if someone close to them died, and possibly make different choices, as well as thinking about their own choices in relation to death

How the team resolved conflict and removed barriers:

  • they wrote themselves a brief early in the process, aided by audience research and by their desire to include objects from the collection
  • then used this as a decision-making tool, to good effect, helping them to focus, saving time and provided a rationale for their approach and decision-making
  • they debated difficult areas to reach solutions, respected each other’s position, were willing to listen and be swayed, yet the team manager took control when needed, clearing difficult blockages



Decomposition section

Some salient lessons here for production teams and one of my favourite projects of all time – both personally (my father died during this project and it helped me a lot) and professionally (one of the most interesting evaluations ever in terms of how far audiences felt a museum could go with a topic of this nature, for example maggots and a decomposing pig on display was OK, a child’s coffin was not).

And, if you’ve got this far, thanks for reading!


  • The project team review was conducted by Robyn Hayes, owner of Nosey Parker, a social research agency
  • The audience research – front-end and summative – was also conducted by Robyn with my input as the Museum’s audience researcher
  • More about death the last taboo exhibition is on the Australian Museum’s website
  • A summary of the front-end and summative evaluations have been published as follows:
    • Kelly, L. (2010). Engaging Museum Visitors in Difficult Topics Through Socio-cultural Learning and Narrative. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds) Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums. (pp. 194-210). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: London. [if you’re interested and kind to me I’ll send you a pdf of the chapter, just don’t tell…]
Audience Research

One of THE most poignant exhibits – you’ll have to read the chapter to see why…


The display of how Victorian-era folks marked death was one of the most popular areas

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.