Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
In museums we spend a huge number of hours putting together exhibitions and displays: selecting the perfect objects that fit our theme, writing informative text, making mounts, adjusting lighting and removing fingerprints from glass cases. We work hard to try to create interesting and engaging displays using our diverse collections for a variety of different audiences.
But what do these visitors do when they come to museums? What do they find attractive and engaging? What makes a visitor stop at a display? What do they photograph? This University of Cambridge Museums project is seeking to better understand our visitors, so that we can improve our displays and help people to engage with our collections.
To try to answer some of these questions, we are tracking visitors to particular galleries, timing their stops and other behaviours (such as discussing objects, calling over another member of their party or photographing a case). We also conduct a short exit interview with a sample of tracked visitors. The information we gather is used to create simple colour coded plans, to show the most stopped at cases and the average time spent on each stop.
25 volunteers have been trained in the techniques used in the project. Since April 2013 they have tracked over 300 visitors, recording 4151 case stops, which took a total of 39 hours. The longest gallery visit so far recorded on this project was over 83 minutes, the shortest just a few seconds. Sometimes visitors have been engrossed in a gallery, other times the space we are tracking is clearly being used like a corridor for visitors who know where they are going. Visitors use some displays as if they were in a pinball machine – bouncing from one side to the other. Some people visit every case, some make a beeline straight for their favourite object. Hardly anyone spends much time reading text panels.
Each gallery presents its own unique set of challenges when tracking. We have tracked visitors in large, open galleries with hundreds of potential stops. Other spaces have had areas which were tucked away, making it very difficult to see what visitors are looking at. But the team of volunteers has been brilliant – working hard to unobtrusively observe how people have been using museum displays.
Three gallery reports have been fully completed and feedback given to key members of staff in each of the museums. These reports have been used as evidence for funding applications, to evaluate changes since galleries have been redeveloped or to give ideas and suggestions to improve future displays.
All the project volunteers are prepared to answer questions from members of the public about what they are up to and signs are put up to inform visitors about the evaluation. We are currently collecting data at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, so do feel free to stop by and greet our data collectors.
Sarah-Jane Harknett, Outreach Organiser, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology