A Day in the life: watching a museum in action

Day 548

11:30 am
It’s been at least a year since I’ve spent a full day in the galleries at the museum where I work, a small medical museum in Boston. Normally, I have contact with visitors a few times a week, when I give tours of the museum, a responsibility that’s shared between staff and our volunteer docents. I’m effectively a curator/educator, and my days are full of researching, designing, and writing exhibits; scheduling group visits and working on educational programs; and putting out fires -- luckily, none literal yet. I spend time in the galleries when I’m refilling supplies, measuring an area for an exhibit in development, installing an exhibit, or talking with our docents or security officer. I strongly believe that spending time in the galleries and observing how visitors interact with the museum is important for museum staffers at all levels. Visitors give us our purpose, and we have to have our finger on the pulse. However, it takes real effort to make the time when there’s so much else to do. Today I’m covering our security desk, so I don’t get to interact with visitors that much, but I do get to be a fly on the wall.
A hand-held clicker for counting visitors.
When a museum's very busy, clicking
in visitors while also talking with them can
take a little dexterity! Today it was easy.

12:30 pm

I got here at around 10:30, and we opened at 11. Since then, we’ve had five visitors, which is about what I expected for a rainy Saturday. Because I’m covering the security desk, I get to use the computer program that shows us a feed from each security camera, tiled in one screen. It’s hard to get used to. People are small in the slightly warped lens views, and sometimes they show up in more than one camera at once, where there’s overlap. It’s hard to distinguish people when they’re not moving, but also, their movements are jerky. It even took me a second to recognize myself. Last summer, we had an intern do some visitor studies using our camera footage, looking at how long the average visitor stays, which corners of the exhibits they walk right by, and so on. I have even more appreciation for the work that she did, and that our security officers do, when I’m reminded of the trickiness of this way of observing people.

1:30 pm
I’m seeing a mix of people who appear to be completists, working methodically through the exhibits, and people who wander around stopping at things that catch their eye. Some of them use our interactive computer screens that play videos, and I’m finding that more than one soundtrack playing at once annoys me, especially on a day like today when it’s otherwise quiet in the museum. We have two films which play on a loop all day; one is silent, but as soon as anything else plays the sounds compete. Part of me wishes that we had less noise and some headphones on the kiosks, but I know that on a busier day the videos mix with the sounds of visitors talking, and while it’s louder it’s also more pleasant. Many museums have moved away from the old model of being still and hushed, and I think that while quiet contemplation has its place in museums, overall, an environment where people can talk and watch videos is great. Still, there’s no perfect balance. A big drawback to our model is that it’s unfriendly to people who are prone to sensory overload. An advantage is that it’s lively and engaging to many visitors who like the “wander and explore” method of visiting.

2:30 pm
Just a silly thing: of course, the phone rang and two visitors walked in just as I was taking a bite of my sandwich. It’s been slower for me now that our afternoon docent is here.

3:30 pm
One thing I’m noticing is that most people coming into the museum are in pairs. I don’t want to presume relationships between people, but it’s probably safe to say most of them are couples. I’m reminded of a blog post I read that pondered why museum-goers are more likely to be married than non-museum-goers. The untested theory, which I feel rings true, is that people with a live-in partner (whether or not they’re married) have an easier time planning trips to a museum, since most people go to museums with other people. Personally, I really like going to museums alone at least some of the time, but I know I’m in the minority there. After the first time I read the statistic about married museum-goers, I daydreamed about designing some sort of app or social media plugin for setting up platonic museum dates: you could post that you’re interested in visiting a particular museum, or any museum on a particular day, and be matched with a friend or stranger. I know some museums take the opposite approach, and have singles nights or general mixers, often catering to the young professional crowd. In reality, I’m not sure this pattern is a problem to be solved, as I think it’s true of a lot of leisure activities -- I’d be interested to see whether matinee movie-goers are more likely to be married, for example.

4:30 pm
We’ve had more visitors since 3 pm than we had the rest of the day combined. The ebbs and flows are pretty unpredictable sometimes. We close at 5, so I’ll be here until a little bit after that. Sitting at a desk near the entrance of a museum is no replacement for actually wandering around the galleries, interacting with visitors or seeing how they react to the exhibits. Still, it’s been an interesting day. I’ll continue to try to make time to be out on the floor. Even fifteen minutes a week, that isn’t for tours or anything except seeing what the visitors are doing, can be a way to help me better understand what resonates with them, which in turn helps me create better exhibits and programs.