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A little while ago I got to do something I’ve never done before. I was invited to participate in an exhibition focus group for a new museum, which shall remain unidentified, in Philadelphia.

The museums I’ve worked at haven’t typically had the luxury of time or resources for focus groups. The best I could do was steal a few minutes from the administrative staff (those who didn’t have museum backgrounds) and ask what they thought of an idea. While that’s a pretty unscientific approach, which provides only limitedly useful results, it was the best we had and it was helpful. Still, I would have loved to have had a test audience.

The new museum had already hosted two focus groups before ours, one for tour operators and one for educators. I would have liked to sit in on the tour operator group. I feel like all of their questions would have been about the bathrooms, cafe, and gift shop. Our group consisted of museum professionals who work directly with the public. We were invited to offer our perspective on how visitors would engage with their exhibit. I felt a little like the country cousin. The rest of the participants represented Philadelphia museums, while my museum is outside of the city in the Montgomery County sticks. Plus, I represented the smallest museum at the table.

The meeting progressed as one might think. They introduced themselves, we introduced ourselves. They had us fill out a written survey about our backgrounds and historical awareness, followed by a brief overview of their goals for the group. Then they asked us a short round of open ended questions, presented a slide show of the draft exhibit designs and interpretation, and asked our reaction to the designs. It was efficient, collegial, and thoughtful. While it was pleasant all around, I was secretly hoping for a little argument. You don’t often have that many history people in a room and expect so much agreeing. What the group lacked in academic drama, it made up for in interesting conversation.

Perhaps the conversations were only interesting to me. I think such conversations are important, no matter the project, but all too rare. They’re important because they give the participants on both sides of the table time to learn, reflect, test, and tweak without consequences.

While our conversations ranged all over, a few of them stuck in my head and got me thinking about the field, my current museum, and my own work.

First, I learned a new term: “witness object.” I don’t recall having heard that one before. I’ll bet I don’t even need to explain what that is, but in case I do, it’s an historical artifact which was actually present at the moment which is being interpreted. It’s a much more expressive term than the rather clinical “artifact.” The new museum seemed full of witness objects. That reminded me that my own museum is, for the most part, full of whisper-down-the-alley objects.

Because we were museum people, we were required to have a history v. heritage discussion. Have you ever noticed that every museum, no matter the size, thinks it is the keeper of history, while at the same time thinking some of their sister organizations only care about heritage?

Part of the heritage v. history conversation included the perceived visitor itinerary, which included the Liberty Bell, State House, Betsy Ross House, and a few other ending with the sports stadium. A couple of reasons were given for this, including it’s what people heard about in grade school and now they want to see it and they’re free. Which led to a discussion of how to break that pattern. Maybe because it would sound too cynical, but I didn’t say that I don’t think any amount of marketing money and widespread PR is going to overcome most people’s long-held and often simplified understanding of American history. It has always been a challenge and it always will be.

During the exhibition presentation the new museum laid out their intention to offer a layered approach. The exhibits would be written in such a way that visitors could drill down for greater detail as they went along. I love this approach. It allows us to reach visitors who are new to the story and those who have more familiarity with or interest in it. I’ve done it with a few exhibits, using design elements to differentiate the big ideas and from the details. But I wonder, with all the work that goes into creating those layers, if we forget to tell visitors about them? Instead of hoping visitors will independently discover the layers as they go, perhaps we need to put up a short key identifying the layers, so those who want to get the general story know where to look, while those who want more and more detail know where to find it. I guess I’m suggesting that we need to publicly interpret our public interpretation a little better.

Since this is a modern exhibition we had to discuss technology in the exhibits. Tech comes standard now, and like many standard features, it can be more or less useful. These conversations often seem to be less about what’s the right medium for the message, and more about how much technology can we include. Fortunately, the new museum was a little more reserved with their tech talk. They asked us what we thought of immersive theater (movies augmented with sensory components). My view of them is a little different than the rest of the group’s, who all seemed to think they were a fine and fascinating addition to the exhibit. While sensory experiences can help set a mood, they can also overwhelm the story. The visitors I’ve talked to about their immersive theater experiences almost always remember the rumbling seats or the fake snow, but never why the seats shook or the snow fell. True, museums who offer immersive theater productions can claim to be cutting edge, but I’m not convinced they can claim effective interpretation. Guess it comes down to what the museum wants visitors to remember about their visit.

Perhaps the most interesting question was how did we see the new museum fitting in with the existing Philadelphia museum landscape, both thematically and logistically. Everyone felt the museum could tie several thematically-related sites together, but they were less sure about the logistics. It was felt that most visitors spend a day in the city and they’re already loaded with places to go (as mentioned above). No one was sure there was enough time for visitors to see the new museum, which could take an hour or more, and still see everything else. I thought it was a very necessary and real question to pose.

The one question I had difficulty with was what did we think visitors wanted to know about the history interpreted by the new museum? This supposed that visitors already had a historical framework in mind and were curious for more, but didn’t know how or where to express that curiosity. It felt like it would have been more appropriate if the nouns were changed from visitors to scholars, hobbyists, or reenactors. While not endemic to the new museum, it often seems to me that many museum professionals think our job is to turn visitors into mini-museum people.

I wish the new museum well and I’m grateful for the invitation and giving me so much to think about. Hopefully they found it as interesting and useful as I did. Now that I’ve participated in a focus group, I want to watch one being planned or, better yet, help plan one.

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