Museum Visitor Experience and Learning Styles

The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I’m connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner.  These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation. 

I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience.  It’s been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn’t hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.

My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn’t previously visited heritage site with.  The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.

 For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen.  He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best.  Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn’t seem to engage him – regardless of what was in the display case.

Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth.  Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities.  But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station.  In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement.  Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.

Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience.  The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences.  It’s impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.

Digital Exhibits: Display and Format Challenges

As part of a work project, I recently spent some time scrolling through a variety of digital exhibits created by heritage organizations.  My goal while looking at these online exhibits was to compile a list of functions and visual characteristics which comprise a ‘good’ online exhibit.   I’m not sure my efforts resulted in an ultimate list, but I did come a few digital exhibit techniques I liked and a lot I that found verging on horrible.

Common Online Exhibit Problems:

  • Poor flow of information and the user is left unsure of how to navigate information.
  • Way too much text.  Most curators often refrain from including an overload of text in a physical exhibit, but it seems like this practice is often ignored in digital exhibits. 
  • Overuse of flash or other elements which take a long time to load (even on highspeed).

Digital Exhibit Elements That Work:

  • Combining mediums and using the digital space to display video, audio, and photographic material from a collection. 
  • Facilitating hyperlinking to the online collection descriptions so users can learn more about an item. 
  • User choice is integrated into the design.  For example, the user is able to decide which part or items of the exhibit they wish to look at and in which order. 
  • Exhibit theme (colours, images, etc) allows the image to stand apart from the rest of the institution’s website.

What makes a good digital exhibit? What is your favourite virtual exhibit? 

Museum of Online Museums

I recently came across the Museum of Online Museums (MoOM) site. The site is one of the initiatives undertaken by Coudal Partners, a company focused on design, web publishing, advertising, and commerce. Sadly the site isn’t useful as a searchable database of museum exhibits and it is a bit awkward to navigate. However, it does provide an interesting look at a seemingly random collection of online “museum” exhibits. Note: Museum has been placed in quotes as the site uses the term museum very loosely and includes links to exhibits from personal collections.

The main feature of MoOM is an aggregate list site of museums with online exhibits and virtual exhibits. The Museum Campus portion of the site highlights some of the more well known museums (eg. Smithsonian, MoMA, and the Virtual Museum of Canada) which have an online presence. This list in an interesting mixture of institutions and it’s not entirely clear what criteria an institution must meet to be placed on the list.

The site also includes a section devoted to interesting small collections and galleries. The majority of these exhibits are hosted on personal websites and are not affiliated with a heritage organization. For the most part this Galleries, Exhibits, and Shows portion of the site focuses on personal collections not on museums. Some of the more interesting collections currently in this section include: the Library of Dust, The Tiny Pineapple Nurse Book Collection, the Matchbook Registry, and the advertising gallery Found in Mom’s Basement.

Although I didn’t find the Museums of Online Museums site horribly useful from a heritage professional or educational standpoint, the site did provide an interesting look at what people outside of the heritage field consider to be museums or collections.

Exploring Fort St. Joseph

A few weeks ago while my parents were visiting me, we made a trip to St. Joseph’s Island. Part of this day trip included a visit to Fort St. Joseph. This site was strategically located on coastline of St. Joseph’s. The fort was occupied by the British until 1812, when the fort was taken over by American troops during the war of 1812. The abandoned fort was later burned by American troops. The fort has been designated as a national historic site, the site includes a small museum and the public is able to explore some of the excavated fort’s remains.

The staff at the site recommend that visitors start off by watching an educational video about the fort. This video provides a lot of context on the site, explains why the site is historically significant and examines a lot of the artifacts found on the site by archaeologists. The major downside of the video is that is 15minutes long. Children and even some adults may find the video too long, and a bit too dry. Case in point, my Dad who tends to enjoy military history, fell asleep about 10minutes into the video.

The exhibit portion of the heritage site focuses on what life was like in the fort. It highlights the life of the typical solider, how the officers lives, and includes some information on neighbouring First Nation communities. The majority of the artifacts mentioned in the educational film are on display in the portion of the facility. Somewhat lengthy text panels feature predominately in the exhibit hall. However, there is a small interactive section where children (or big kids…like my parents and I) can dress up in period clothing. This provided a bit of a break to the more traditional forms of historical interpretation which are prominent in the exhibit hall. If nothing else, the dress up corner resulted in much laughter and some amusing photos.

Visitors to Fort St. Joseph are also able to look at the ‘ruins’ of the old fort. A good portion of the fort has been excavated, and pieces of almost all of the original stone buildings can be seen. The ruins provide a nice physical example of the information learned about the fort through the educational video and the exhibit hall at the site. Overall, the visit was well worth the drive down a horribly weathered road.

Coming to a Museum Near You: Digital History in 3D

So this might not be coming to a museum near you in the intimidate future, but it is in Canada already, and seems like something that could benefit many museums. In conjunction with CHIN the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal has created a 3D interactive, “touchless”, exhibit which allows users to explore and manipulate the McCord collection without actually touching the objects. Using hand gestures, and without ever touching a screen users can turn, re-size, and explore various artifacts. This manipulation allows users to see details of objects that would not normally be visible while objects are on display. You can see how the program works here.

This innovative exhibit allows objects to be displayed that may be too fragile to be on display for a long period of time, allows increased detail to be examined, and when released as a Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit (Spring 2009) the exhibit will allow many more people to explore the Museum’s collection in a unique way. Granted this type of exhibit is far out of the price range of most local museums, but despite this drawback the 3D exhibit has great educational and exhibit potential for those museums which can afford it.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights Debate


This Friday Stephen Harper will attend the ground breaking ceremony for the much debated Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg. Initial estimates suggest that the museum will cost somewhere around the $265 million range. The construction costs are estimated at being the greater than the costs for the ROM or the War Museum, while operating costs are anticipated as being the lowest of all the national museums. The design for the museum is architecturally pretty amazing and the idea that a museum should be dedicated to the struggles of marginalized groups is fairly refreshing.

One of the main debates about the project has been the location of the museum The CMHR will be the only national museum located outside of Ottawa. Some of the arguments for having the CMHR in Winnipeg include: it is at the center of North America, Winnipeg has a unique civil rights history, and that Winnipeg has a diverse cultural community. The fact that the General Strike of 1919, Louis Riel, and Neillie McClung are all connected to Winnipeg is one of the many reasons Winnipeg was chosen.

That being said I’m still not entirely sure placing a national museum in Winnipeg was the best decision. The phrase “national museum” implies it is connected to the nation as a whole and is aimed at serving the entire nation. One of the nice things about having all the national museums located in Ottawa is that one trip allows people to experience all of them. Likewise there are numerous other incentives to visit Ottawa, such as seeing the Parliament buildings, which Winnipeg does not have.

However I do think this project is salvageable and has the potential to succeed. Providing proper incentives to visit Winnipeg are created and more importantly a digital version of the museum is at least partially available. A digital tour or digital exhibits would all more Canadians to experience this national museum, even if they cannot make the trek to Winnipeg.