Engaging Exhibits: An Experimental Approach at the Smithsonian Institution

Andrew Pekarik discussing a new theory of visitor typologies to the education staff at the National Air and Space Museum.

Yesterday I had lunch with Tim Grove, the Chief of Interpretation at the National Air and Space Museum and author of the History Bytes column in History News, to catch up on various things.  We were discussing my current puzzling out of methodologies for my book on interpretive planning for historic sites and discussing Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” when he mentioned that I might be interested in joining his staff meeting that afternoon.  Andrew Pekarik in the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian was giving a presentation on a new theory for visitor engagement–would I like to come?   Absolutely!

Andy’s presentation was a short 30 minutes but was incredibly intriguing.  It’s based on dozens of evaluations on various exhibits at several different Smithsonian exhibits and is currently being independently verified, but the framework is public and was published with Barbara Mogel in the October 2010 issue of Curator as “Ideas, Objects, or People?  A Smithsonian Exhibition Team Views Visitors Anew.”  Here’s the new framework in a nutshell:

Visitors tend to enjoy one of three aspects in an exhibit:

  1. ideas (facts, topics, themes)
  2. objects (craft, materials, style)
  3. people (stories, lives)

Visitors come to exhibits with expectations, but when they discover new pleasant experiences, they have an even better experience.

Therefore, great exhibits will include all three aspects (ideas, objects, and people) to attract and engage all different types of visitors, and then provide a cool, surprising, fun experience to flip a visitor’s preference to another (e.g., from object to people).

To create a great exhibit, he recommended that we use teams comprised of diverse preferences, that is, it needs to have idea, object, and people people.  The challenge for museums is that we’re primarily composed of people with a preference for ideas and objects, and that we’ve pushed out the “people” people.  How to identify a preference?  Andy is developing a questionnaire to help assess preferences but you can often gauge it by asking what people find most interesting and memorable in your site and collections.  Are they primarily reading labels?  Looking mostly at the objects?  Gravitate to pictures with people or talking about the people who used the objects?

His second recommendation is that we appreciate this diversity of preferences and that they all have equal value.  That’s difficult because museums are primarily composed of people with a preference for ideas and objects, and we tend to value our own preferences over others (funny how that happens).

I’ll be thinking about this over the next few months and watching visitors to see if they fall into these three categories, as well as evaluating exhibits to see if they incorporate all three aspects.

PS.  Early December is a great time to visit the National Air and Space Museum.  I typically avoid it because it’s so crowded and noisy, but it was blissfully quiet and I could enjoy an entire exhibit section by myself.  No peering over someone’s shoulder to read a label, no getting pushed out of the way by an eager child, no roar of the crowds drowning out the narration on a video.  Serenity now.  And if you go, I recommend the exhibits “America by Air” (on the first floor) and “Pioneers of Flight” (on the second floor)–beautifully designed, great content, and diverse experiences.

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