Friday, May 23, 2008

Challenging topics

I got this request via the VSG discussion list: Dear Colleagues, We have just put up the Hard Rain exhibition in the zoo. The exhibition is a United Nations Environment Programme partnered exhibition that graphically illustrates our collision with nature and defines the major environmental issues of the 21st Century. Some of the images may be disturbing for our visitors and this is quite a departure for zoo culture. We really feel we should do some audience research on this and wondered if anyone in VSG could recommend a tried and trusted methodology, other than questionnaires which we don't want to do. We'd prefer unobtrusive observations and recording reactions, including conversations. But how to reliably classify and analyse? Many thanks, Maggie Esson.

Hi Maggie and congrats on what looks like an interesting exhibition. You're not alone in putting up controversial issues in an exhibition and certainly our research for the Exhibitions as Contested Sites project has found that visitors want to engage with museums on difficult and controversial topics. I don't think you should discount doing a survey/questionnaire – we have done several for quite disturbing exhibitions, for example death – the last taboo and Body Art, and got fantastic and thoughtful responses, and visitors were glad to be asked. For the Body Art exhibition we also had a large comments book where visitors posted their reactions which worked really well and we got some stunning answers. The power of this, of course, is that visitors also responded to others' comments.

As to recording and analysing conversations there is a whole book dedicated to this very subject (Leinhardt, Crowley and Knutson, 2002). I did a review of this in Chapter 3 of my thesis which can be found on my wiki (p.104-107), along with a section on observations (p.107-110). There has been some work using video-capture technology recording visitors' reactions to an exhibition on slavery which were subsequently published on YouTube, as well as in the exhibition. We had a discussion about this a long time ago on my blog which has various links to the project.

Good luck Maggie. My advice is to not worry at all about asking visitors to respond –you'll find, not only that they really want to do so, but that their responses will amaze and inspire.

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