Friday, November 17, 2006

Visitor experience and technology in the Getty Center.

I was recently pointed toward the podcast of Dave Cronin's presentation at this year's Ideas Conference (the slides and podcast can be found here), Art for the public: supporting a visitor-directed museum experience. Cronin works for Cooper, a consulting company brought in to develop and implement new technologies to enhance visitor experience to the Getty Center art museum in LA; the podcast was essentially a presentation of this as a case study, and was a very interesting listen.

They redeveloped the computer 'kiosk' system, replaced audioguides with handhelds, and integrated it all with the Getty Center's website. They fed a lot of visitor experience data into the development of this, which is a fantastic way to make sure the technologies you're putting in are going to work for the visitors, rather than dumping technologies in and trying to make the visitors use and enjoy it. What I liked about their approach to developing this stuff was that it wasn't all just about education/information about what was in galleries, but also about wayfinding and orientation in the museum. I like that mix of practical and educational info.

I also found the way they examined the visitors interesting - they looked at the varying levels of art knowledge people have, the things they might be interested in when viewing a piece (i.e materials or artist, or subject etc), the different ways people learn in museums, as well as attitudes to the use of technology in museums. It's a nice broad approach that informs the development of the technology they were looking to install - and it's valuable visitor information for the museum to use in the future. Out of their visitor research the group came up with "Personas" - or "Archetypal user models based on behavior patterns observed during research" - which Cronin states are design models and not statistical realities. I like the idea of this - rather than a strict statistical demographic group, it's more informed by statistics and research and actual visitor observation to get down to sorts of individuals - which, while painted with broad brushes, are probably more useful than large demographically based groups. As well as including visitors, they had a docent persona - what a great idea! I think a lot of museum administrators try so hard to provide for their visitors that they tend to forget their employees are important to consider when planning exhibitions/new technologies/programs/activities etc.

The stuff that Cooper ended up producing sounds terrific - full of information (of varying forms) - and accessible in the 3 different ways. I had a look at the slides, and the appearance of them is quite good, too (for something that could've been too complicated to present) - the handheld looks particularly awesome! After using something like that in Te Papa in Wellington (they were testing the technology), it's awesome to see it being integrated into museums as a valid guide tool. The Getty's been terrifically lucky in who they chose as consultants, because I think Cooper are really clued in as far as where you can go with this sort of technology for visitors in museums now. I would love to see my museum go anywhere even NEAR having these sorts of things on offer for visitors - we don't even have proper guide booklets, let alone tours or audioguides! Wishful thinking.. Anyhow - if you're interested in hearing about research and development with regard to museum visitors, I highly recommend giving this a listen!


[News] Proposed merger for Austrailan Museum and Powerhouse Museum

Museum merger sparks international concern (ABC Science News)
It appears as if the NSW Government is looking to integrate the Australian and Powerhouse museums under one board, and at a "functional" level - basically, to try and save the government some money. As someone who's visited both these museums enough times, it's simple for me to recognise this is a bad idea from not only a visitor's perspective but also a behind-the-scenes perspective. Looking at the responses in the article linked above, it seems like the major concern is the possible loss of scientific research at the Australian Museum (in addition to people being concerned that a merger just wouldn't work because of the different histories of the museums and their vastly different collections). I've visited both museums a number of times, not only when I was growing up, but also in recent memory. While it's true that the AM could benefit from the quality and turnover that the PM displays, I don't think that this would be a result of the two museums merging - rather, that existing resources would have to be shared and stretched, more than likely not improving the AM's chances at all.

I visited both museum's websites to take a look at their vision statements and whatnot - here's what they are currently:

Australian Museum
Our Purpose
To inspire the exploration of nature and cultures.

Our Vision
A beautiful and sustainable natural world with vibrant and diverse cultures.

Our Values
As the Australian Museum, we strive to embody distinctly Australian values and qualities. We seek to be:

* egalitarian and fair minded
* willing to use humour and not take ourselves too seriously
* inquisitive and explorative
* creative
* outgoing
* respectful of the rights of others

Powerhouse Museum
The Powerhouse Museum develops collections and presents exhibitions and programs that explore science, design and history for the people of New South Wales and beyond.

The Powerhouse will further its reputation as a museum that celebrates human creativity and innovation in ways that engage, inform and inspire diverse audiences.

The Museum believes in engaging its diverse audiences, promoting scholarship and presenting its collections and programs in ways that captivate the intellect and challenge the human spirit to excel. We place high value on nurturing the abilities of staff and volunteers, and fostering community partnerships.

On the whole, I don't think their values differ too much - they're worded a little differently but are in the same spirit. However, when you compare the purpose/mission and the vision statements it's apparant that it would take a restructure of one or both museums to have a merger work at an even basic level. These are the things that inform the way the museum operates and what it provides and does - the Australian Museum is a very typical natural history/anthropology type museum while the Powerhouse has a focus on society, design and physical, rather than biological, sciences. What I gather the government is doing my proposing a merger is aiming at downsizing the amount of staff and operational costs - I doubt that the spirit and aims of both museums would be untouched and uncompromised.

If there's a positive way for this merger to happen, i'd love to see it. However, these are two large museums with niche research and exhibition objectives - I don't think a plan for unified board and operational structure is taking this into account. It'll be very interesting to see where this goes - and if it does happen, how they'll manage it practically.