August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

Which is not unrelated to concerns about…

  • Our vocabulary/semantics (i.e. “public value”)

  • Semantics — using common language

  • Professional development

  • Promoting practices for growth in visitor studies departments of organizations

…or to the other major call-to-arms that echoed around the conference: the need to share, aggregate, and disseminate our findings.

  • Sharing knowledge

  • Aggressively sharing work — with each other, public policy makers, other fields

  • Partnerships (good ones)

  • Communicating what we know about the impact of ILE to the broadest possible audience

“ILE,” by the way, stands for informal learning experiences (or environments). One newcomer to this conference got a laugh by noting that you can tell you’ve wandered into somebody else’s professional community when you don’t understand the acroynms and initials.

Some attendees wanted to probe the assumptions underlying our work:

  • What is meant by “learning” (in measuring it) and are there different modes of knowing that different museums foster?

  • What defines quality in visitor studies

Others were worried about academic or geographic provincialism:

  • Ideas from outside worlds of museums and informal science

  • How to be more aware of trends in social science and other fields and thinking about implications (fear of becoming too isolated, insular, uninformed)

  • Internationalism (not just U.S.)

A few people called for new approaches, especially studies conducted over time to examine the long-term impacts of visiting museums or participating in informal learning programs:

  • Taking risks with new methods

  • Longitudinal studies across contexts and time

  • Long-term, longitudinal [studies]

VSA focuses on learning, and many attendees hail from the science world. So two people wondered about applications to other domains, like art and civic engagement:

  • Creativity & aesthetic experience

  • Learning” outcomes in art museums

  • The nature of civil engagement

(This last phrase could also mean, “how to engage in a civil, polite fashion,” but I think it’s probably about civic involvement. If you wrote this one, let me know whether I’m misinterpreting.)

By contrast, one person sounded a note of caution about the claims the informal learning field makes for itself, and the ever-increasing burdens on visitor research and evaluation to demonstrate those results:

  • Counter goal inflation

The list needn’t stop there. Please add your own answer(s) to the question in the coments section, and tell us whether you’re in the visitor studies game yourself. (You can also forward this page to a colleague who wasn’t at the conference.)

1 Comment »
Sharisse Butler — August 03, 2010

I'm struck by the last point: "counter goal inflation." I wish I could have a conversation with the person who wrote it to hear more. It reminds of how eye-opening it was when I first learned about Michael Scriven’s idea of “goal-free evaluation.” I think it's a perspective worth keeping in mind so that we don't forget to look broadly and pay attention to emergent data.

In "Evaluation Bias and Its Control" (1975) Scriven wrote:

"It is extremely important as a methodology for avoiding overfavorable evaluations and for detecting side-effects. Since one has not been told what the intended effects--goals--are, one works very hard to discover any effects, without the tunnel vision induced by a briefing about goals. If GFE sometimes errs in the direction of being too critical or missing a main effect, the cost of those errors is insignificant because they can be picked up at the_debriefing. Putting it another way, the GFE mode is the best way to begin an evaluation because it is reversible without loss, whereas the GBE (goal-based) mode is not reversible and more likely to be biased."

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