University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Evaluating Digital Engagement

For the last two years we have been observing visitors in our gallery spaces to see what they do, where they go and what attracts their attention. Up to the end of July 2015 six galleries had been tracked, with 23 volunteers observing 678 visitors for just under 170 hours. 137 visitors were also interviewed. The results of these evaluations have been used in funding applications, gallery redevelopments and temporary exhibition programmes.

Read about the development of the project in our three previous blog posts – Audience Evaluation across our MuseumsAudience Evaluation and Just add Unicorn.

For the next phase of the project, I am interested in looking at how visitors engage with University of Cambridge Museums displays in digital ways. This project has started in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, evaluating one case of over 150 objects from the Cambridge region. There are no labels on individual objects inside the case, but there is information in a booklet available nearby, or through an app.


A small team of volunteers have been asking visitors to try out either the hardcopy list of objects or an iPad loaded with the app. Once the visitor has explored the resource they are interviewed about their experience. For comparison, the same questions have been used whether the digital or analogue resource has been used.

After we had started this phase of study, I attended a conference organised by Oxford University Museums Partnership: In Gallery Engagement: Digital vs Analogue. There were some very interesting sessions, discussing a diverse range of topics, including digital tours at Buckingham Palace, methods of using iPads to engage school pupils, the practical problems with interactives, creating audience centred experiences at Derby Silk Mill and the use of digital games as an interpretative tool for children. One phrase cropped up several times: “heads down versus heads up”. Are we providing resources that encourage people to engage with the displays (heads up)? Or are visitors spending their time looking at the resource instead (heads down)?

To test out these questions, over the next few weeks we will be subtly evaluating both the app and the hardcopy resource: do they encourage ‘heads up’ or ‘heads down’ engagement? To do this we will be unobtrusively observing visitors while they use the booklet or the app, timing how long they spend looking at the resource compared to the time spent looking at objects. Which do our visitor prefer and why? Which helps them to engage better with our incredible collections? I am looking forward to finding out.

Sarah-Jane Harknett, Outreach Organiser, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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