Museums in India are constantly experimenting with new activities – workshops, lectures, clean-up campaigns, storytelling sessions and so much more to engage visitors. However, there’s a slight difference in planning for an audience and engaging a visitor. Audiences are often at the receiving end, whereas engagement can include them in the process of Museum curation, and planning. How can we tell whether our visitors loved an exhibit? ‘Feedback’ – but is that about it? How about asking visitors what they’d like to see? During the Visitor Survey we undertook, an important point that emerged was that Museum objects don’t have labels or galleries don’t have signages. In this post, Anne Morgan, Head Curator and Archivist at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum talks about her experience in using visitor-voices for developing signages and developing as many iterations as possible to get to ‘exactly what visitors want’.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in these past few years it is “iteration, iteration, iteration”.  Did something work? How can it work better?  What can you tweak to get more interaction?  Did something not work? Why not? What can you change?

This week I designed the second generation of our test sign panels to see what people wanted in outdoor signage. I took all of the comments and feedback we received from visitors on the original roadrunner panels and made a set of panels that took these comments into account, while still asking visitors to think of what it was they liked in different signs.

Some comments were the same across the test signs: everyone liked the habitat range maps, the footprint examples (despite my bad artist’s rendition!), and some of the fun facts.  While most people were leaning towards the flip signs by the end of the first test, it was still mixed enough that I decided to test both single panel and flip signs again to get a larger audience feedback.  

The biggest thing that I changed was to include audience prompts.  Apparently it wasn’t obvious enough in the first round of test panels that we wanted visitors to give their opinions of the signs, or certain features they liked best about the different signs, even though we seeded comments on each of the boards to act as prompts.  So, this time I wrote out specific questions on the top of each sheet.  The hope is that this will further prompt visitors to give the opinions I’m interested in, that will play into future sign design.  Hopefully it will also help people to understand that they are being given options to choose which they like best, something that seems to not have always been clear in the first round.  Even when docents explained the roadrunner signs and encouraged people to write down specifically what they liked, often they would simply put “I like this one best”, leaving it up to us to guess what it was they liked about a particular test sign.  Visitors who toured the exhibits on their own seemed less likely to write on the panels, suggesting further prompting was needed to encourage people.
These early test signs are certainly basic in many ways.  I’m no graphic designer, and personally I think it shows.  I’ve mounted the panels on cardboard and people will use basic sharpies to write their thoughts on paper.  But I don’t think that early iterations are necessarily about sharp designer looks.  They are about engaging visitors in any way possible, and encouraging both staff, volunteers, and visitors to think about the content they want in a finished product.  And then taking those comments, sharpening the test product, and trying it again until you’ve got exactly what people want.
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Anne Morgan is the Head Curator and Archivist at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, designing and developing the Museum’s new permanent exhibits. She also researches and edits for manuscripts and is an independent book reviewer.This post originally appeared on her blog

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