Responding to Audience Research
The team approached Gallery One as an interactive space that could connect art and ideas, forge connections between art and people, provide visitors with tools to enhance their permanent-collection gallery experiences, and ultimately facilitate inquiry and discourse. They wanted to convey information in ways that felt like experiences rather than didactic lessons, allowing visitors to drive their own encounters with works of art and share their experiences with each other. The Gallery One team wanted both novice and experienced visitors to engage with one other in the collections, rather than positioning the museum as the sole voice and arbiter of the visitor experience. They wanted people to view—and use—the museum as a place to spend time learning, exploring, and having fun with each other.
Empowering the Visitor
To provide a transformative experience, the CMA team knew that the interpretive space would have to empower visitors. They wanted visitors to:
- Feel empowered to browse, explore, and create personal meanings about the museum’s collection.
- Enjoy an organic, visitor-driven experience in the space without feeling like the experience was haphazard.
- Engage with interactives – both technological and hands on – that use investigative methods and tools for critical observation and engagement with the collection and interpretive concepts.
- Create a personalized profile driven by their interests.
In gathering data from its visitors, CMA took advantage of transformations in museum education and visitor studies, which have provided new ways of understanding museum visitor behavior. Rather than collecting data on demographic information alone, experts have found that collecting information on how visitors behave in museums and what motivates their visits can provide a more nuanced visitor profile to guide museum interpretation and program development. In 2009, John Falk released Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, an important study that shifted thinking from characterizing visitors by demographics alone to segmenting their motivational behavior by individual experience-seeking styles. The Dallas Museum of Art followed in 2011, with Ignite the Power of Art (Pitman & Hairy, 2011) detailing their long-term research initiative to understand the triggers that engage visitors with art. Both of these studies capture the aim of the work begun at CMA: to learn our visitor styles and what ignites their visiting museum experiences.
These efforts are an extension of the museum’s long-standing focus on art and education, which were given expression in the groundbreaking 1994 publication The Visitor’s Voice, which summarized the findings of a three-year program of audience research and evaluation and guided the installation of CMA’s galleries of Renaissance and Baroque art (Schloder, Williams, & Mann, 1993). At the CMA in 2009, a major visitor study conducted by Marianna Adams of Audience Focus, Inc. allowed us to ascertain how visitors were making meaning in the newly reinstalled galleries of European and American art, circa 1600 to 1800. In this evaluation of the interpretive strategies employed by the museum in the historic 1916 Building, Adams asked: How were the interpretive themes that the museum chose for the new galleries received by our visitors? How could the lessons learned as a result of the study be applied in future?
The study revealed that many of the visitors to our permanent collection galleries can best be characterized as browsers: not acting on a predefined agenda for their visit but gravitating to the works of art they strongly responded based on their tastes and prior knowledge.
Visitors told us that they had not really thought about overarching themes that organized the works in a gallery, but were more drawn to individual works of art. Accordingly, they tended not to read the interpretive introductory gallery texts, but instead read object labels if they wanted to know more about a work they liked. This browsing mode, from object to object, provides a challenge to museum educators and curators who have conceived of the permanent collection gallery as a unit, with broad concepts organizing the individual works into a cohesive whole. If visitors were not picking up on the thematic concepts, how could the interpretation have been
Visitors spend an average of six minutes in a gallery, which is actually longer than visitors at other museums. The leading question became: How can the museum provide the kind of interpretation that will honor visitors’ browsing behavior and increase their expectations?
Visitor Analytics after Launch
The main goal of Gallery One was to build audiences, including families, youth, school groups, and occasional visitors, by providing a fun and engaging environment at all levels of art knowledge. The museum wanted to propel visitors into the permanent collection galleries with greater enthusiasm, understanding, and excitement about the collection.
Led by Elizabeth Bolander, Director of Communications and Research, and Meghan Stockdale, Audience Research Associate, and funded in part by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, research has focused on usage, usability, and understanding the impact of these new technologies on the visitor experience.
One hundred visitor groups of various demographics, composition, and visit frequencies participated in the main phase of the research, which studied the impact of Gallery One and ArtLens on the visitor experience through in-depth interviews, visitor-created videos, and phone interviews three months after the visit. This central research phase was complemented by observations, in-depth usability testing, and Skype conversations with off-site users. In total, nearly 1,000 people participated in the project and over 300 hours of audio and video was captured and analyzed. Combined with Google Analytics tracking, this resulted in a rich and varied data set, offering significant insights into the visitor experience and impact of technological tools. Though the data is still being analyzed, there are some exciting preliminary findings that can be shared. The team will have completed results in July 2014.
The post-launch phase needs were largely centered on documentation. This can be understood within the context of operational support: visitor service training, concise and non-technical user manuals for each of the interactives and immediate and continued service and maintenance support with both Local Projects and Zenith (Hardware and AV Integrators). Once Gallery One opened to the public on January 21, 2013, the museum saw an influx of visitors on a scale unprecedented for CMA. The many interactive software elements would need to withstand the touch and use by thousands of visitors and be robust enough to meet that challenge. Granted, that is looking at Gallery One more from a technical perspective and contingencies were put into place to ensure swift resolution to any unforeseen issues with functionality. The mandate was that screens were never to be ‘black’. From an operational and Post-Launch perspective, the behavior patterns and use of visitors was key to assessing any needed changes or updates to the software in the year ahead. The lenses, ‘Line and Shape’ and ‘Sorting and Matching’ interactives were designed to be hardcoded or minimally integrated with external systems (external email capabilities and linkage to the Beacon display screens are implemented only on 3 of the 6 lens games: Sculpture, Painting and Epic Stories) and the only operational issues that arose were related to implementing the timing of the automatic hardware and software application re-starts (truly!) in order to ensure that memory did not overload and freeze the application.
The assumptions made about user behavior were largely correct and validated shortly after opening. Analytics (using Google’s API) were implemented as well to track specific use and interest. In-depth assessment of the data stemming from the analytics implemented (number of times each game was played, average duration of play, how far into each game did a user get) will be cross-referenced with the observations of on-site visitor traffic and location patterning. Ultimately and maybe obviously, the lens game that is most popular happens to be in the center of Gallery One, specially lit to ensure accuracy for the facial and gestural recognition games. At this time, over 55,000 visitors have emailed themselves photos of their game play.
The Collection Wall and ArtLens mobile application are much more integrated on the backend and required greater diligence when looking at resulting data from repeated use. Overall the backend for the Gallery One interactives is highly integrated, with the database, internal server, S3 server, website, RFID readers at the Collection Wall, ArtLens mobile application and Wi-Fi networks all working in concert with one another to ensure a seamless visitor experience.
One of the most transformational aspects of Gallery One involved the goals for visitors’ ‘take away’.
Gallery One aimed for experience rather than specific content delivery.
The team wanted visitors to:
- Have fun with art.
- Use the interactive games and interpretation as the spark for understanding and social experiences with art.
- Find transformative moments of discovery that make art relevant for them today.
Gallery One and ArtLens were designed to honor visitors’ behavior. Pre-launch audience evaluation showed that CMA visitors preferred browsing according to their own preferences. Hence, there is no preferred path through Gallery One; visitors can move from one art installation to another, each with its own story. The Collection Wall asks visitors to browse rather than search: to find artworks they like visually, and to discover connections to related works by collection, material, or time period. The ArtLens app follows browsers as they meander through the permanent collection galleries, indicating where they are in the building and the artworks near them. Today visitor excitement remains as exhilarating as opening day. Art and business professionals, regular museum goers, and the newest and youngest visitors continue to display awe and wonder as they enter Gallery One and discover exciting, surprising and playful new ways to enhance their understanding and enjoyment of art.