Nurturing Engagement: How Technology and Business Model Alignment can Transform Visitor Participation in the Museum
Robert Stein, USA, Bruce Wyman, USA
In a world in which museums are frequently seen as stuffy and formal, cultural organizations are in a fight for the public's leisure-time attention. While informal learning spaces like museums are broadly appreciated as a “good” thing, the 2010 census survey on Adult Participation In Leisure Activities reports that only 14.5% of US Adults visited museums in the prior 12 months (Census, 2012).
It’s not surprising then that the topics of Audience Engagement and Participatory Culture have garnered a lot of attention in the field of museums recently. Following Henry Jenkins’ publication on the topic (2006), many contemporaries in museums have expanded on the impact these ideas are having on museum practice. (Simon 2010)(Richardson 2011)(Stein 2012)(Mack, et al 2012)
This paper will discuss the Dallas Museum of Art's approach of establishing a digital platform for museum engagement called DMA Friends that attempts to structure and measure the repeat engagement of visitors with the Museum and its programs. The paper will share the underlying approach in design of the Friends program, some technical detail about the implementation, and some significant initial findings from the project launch in January 2013.
Keywords: visitor engagement, participatory culture, online learning, social media listening,
1. The urgent need to embrace cultures of participation
In 2011, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) convened a meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar of leading thinkers from around the world to address the evolving role that museums and libraries play in a world of changing cultural participation. In the meeting’s formal report (Mack, 2012), participants noted the emergence of a participatory culture of an eager and engaged public that demands libraries and museums to be equal partners in this evolution.
Henry Jenkins (2006) describes this emergent participatory culture as one…
…with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the participants at the Salzburg Global Seminar made several recommendations (Mack, 2012), including:
Museums and libraries must develop and apply learning models and working methods that ensure a culture of participatory behaviors, both with our constituents and within our organizations.
Our institutions must adopt the new learning agenda characterized by 21st-century skills of critical thinking, of creativity and innovation, collaboration, and civility, and add them to our already embedded agenda of knowledge acquisition, interpretation, and dissemination.
Technology has irrevocably changed the landscape of programming in museums and libraries, increasing opportunities to reach the public in new ways.
2. What’s the problem?
Art museums around the country commonly pursue mission statements that promote the educational experiences of museum visitors with art and artists. Museum staffs that dedicate significant time and financial resources toward that goal take this focus very seriously; however, while some visitors clearly have meaningful experiences, research indicates a disturbing trend. In Learning in the Museum (Hein, 1998), George E. Hein, professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences and senior research associate at the Program Evaluation and Research Group at Lesley University, states:
Empirical data supports the view that visitors spend little time at individual exhibit components (often a matter of a few seconds and seldom as much as one minute); seldom read labels; usually stop at less than half the components at an exhibit; are more likely to use trial-and-error methods at interactive exhibits than to read instructions; that children are more likely to engage with interactive exhibits than adults, and that attention to exhibits declines sharply after about half an hour.
Douglas Worts, former interpretive planner and audience researcher at the Art Gallery of Ontario, summarizes this behavior as “grazing” (Worts, 2003). He theorizes that the pattern may arise from a mismatch in the goals of curatorial intention and visitor motivation. Furthermore, inexperienced museum visitors may not have the knowledge about the many possible ways that museums can be used that would permit them to achieve their self-directed goals.
In his paper Strategies for the Curiosity Driven Museum Visitor (Rounds, 2006), Jay Rounds also observes the “grazing” behavior witnessed by Worts and others:
[Visitors] meander about the museum, sampling randomly here and there, ignoring most of the exhibits, choosing in a seemingly haphazard manner those to which they do attend carefully. After having expended considerable effort to get to the museum, they fail to use the exhibitions in the thorough and systematic way that should reward them with the greatest educational benefits.
One can suppose that these visitors elect to come to the museum for fun and leisure, expecting to satisfy their curiosity about the varied exhibits offered by the museum. This self-directed approach to the experience of museums is an important factor to consider as we try to understand the influence of visitor participation on learning in museums.
3. The relationship between learning and participation in museums
Hein (1998) summarizes the current understanding of learning in museums as being inextricably linked with the active participation of visitors:
Learning is now seen as an active participation of the learner with the environment. This conception of learning has elevated experience (as distinct from codified information contained in books) to a more important place in the effort to educate. Museums focus on the “stuff” of the world. They specialize in the objects representing both culture and nature and therefore, become central to any educational effort when the focus shifts from the written word to learners’ active participation through interaction with objects.
John Falk and Lynn Dierking (1998) described the learning that happens in museums as “free-choice” learning, indicating the critical role that intrinsic motivation plays in connecting visitors to deep experiences in the museum. While formalized learning primarily depends on extrinsic forces to motivate the learner, free-choice learning in museums is most often characterized by user-directed choice in the matter. Falk suggests that learning and leisure are becoming a one-in-the-same experience. Australian researcher Jan Packer suggests the phrase “learning for fun” applied to museums to refer to the engagement of museum audiences in learning because they value and enjoy the process of learning itself, rather than for the attainment of any specific learning outcomes (Packer, 2006). Packer’s research shows that the participation of museum audiences for the purposes of learning and discovery represents a visitor’s active search for experiences that are new, interesting, and exciting.
This connects to research described by Peter Samis (2007), curator of Interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, when he describes the interpretive work of museum educators in his essay on art in museums as “visual velcro”:
The work of interpretation, then, is to give cognitive hooks to the hookless, and assure that these hooks are sufficiently varied so that they can successfully land in the mental fabric of a broad array of visitors. Once visitors have a framework, all kinds of sensory impressions, emotions and reflections can weave themselves into the fabric of perception.
This idea of museum engagement being the provider of hooks to informal learning outcomes is more than just theoretical conjecture. Research published by Pekarik and Mogel (2010) bears out the model proposed by Csikszentmihalyi, Packer, Falk, Samis, and others. Their studies propose a strategy for museum interpretation they call Attract, Engage, Flip. First, attract the visitors by piquing their curiosity regarding a topic they are predisposed to enjoy; next, present them with engaging material at a suitable level of challenge that matches their level of experience; and lastly, flip their interest by surprising them with content they didn’t expect they would enjoy. Like Samis’ Visual Velcro, their findings suggest that “Experientially richer visits seem to be rated higher,” and furthermore, “Visitors are happiest when they encounter experiences that are unexpectedly satisfying.”
4. Introducing DMA Friends
Designing a platform for engaged participation
The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) began work in 2012 to redesign the basic premise of engagement in the museum. Having conducted significant research into the engagement of audiences with art from 2005 to 2009, and having published those results in Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums (Pitman and Hirzy, 2010), the DMA has been a significant contributor to studies of visitor engagement in museums for quite some time.
While the practice of audience engagement in museums has become increasingly sophisticated, the heart of any successful engagement is the individual human connection that can happen in the museum. In large museums, this individual attention can be difficult; therefore, this project sets its focus on building an institutional infrastructure that can support many kinds of participation without getting in the way of a great museum experience.
Seeking to enhance the breadth and diversity of its impact on local audiences, the DMA recently moved to a model of free general admission and free membership beginning in January of 2013. Pursuing a vibrant community of engaged participation as the key to sustaining the relevance of the museum to its audience, the DMA has taken the first steps toward creating the knowledge, cross-department collaboration, and technical tools needed to form a replicable model for encouraging participation in art museums.
Dubbed DMA Friends, this program enables every visitor to the museum to now become a free member. Visitors join the program using an innovative Web-based platform via iPad kiosks located along the museum’s main concourse. After signing up as a Friend, visitors are presented with a series of possible activities designed by DMA’s education team in collaboration with experience design consultants and the well-respected team at LearningTimes, LLC. These activities provide new and fun ways to connect with the museum’s programs and collections and, upon completion, earn the visitor badges. Friends can “check in” to different activities using personalized membership cards at the iPad kiosks or by texting from their mobile phones.
As badges are earned, visitors can claim a variety of rewards created by the DMA to say “thank you” for participating with the museum. These rewards include traditional membership benefits, such as free parking and special exhibition tickets, as well as special and boutique rewards like behind-the-scenes access to staff and areas of the museum not generally seen by the public. One of the underlying goals of the program is to create long-term relationships with visitors while offering them value and benefits tailored to their experience and engagement with the museum. This long-term connection and repeat participation is seen as key to establishing the hoped-for relevance of the museum in the lives of visitors.
What does an engagement dataset look like?
To make this tailored experience possible, the DMA will—for the first time—begin to establish a dataset of participation and engagement in the museum that can yield clues about the strengths and weaknesses of museum programming and the degree to which the DMA succeeds or fails at connecting with an audience of some half a million visitors.
Prior attempts at measuring engagement in museums have generally relied on qualitative, survey-based evaluations requiring intensive effort of data collection and statistical post-analysis. While those efforts are still important, the intensive and specialized effort required means that only a few of the nation’s museums have the in-house expertise to conduct this sort of ongoing evaluation. Such qualitative analysis is frequently designed with specific questions in mind, making the discovery of new patterns of participation slow and cumbersome. Furthermore, the scale of attendance at larger museums further confounds this effort. For these museums, the adoption of integrated and automated processes is required to provide staff with regular and patterned insight into the behaviors of these multiple and diverse communities.
The engagement platform proposed by this project is designed with this need in mind, pairing the best features of qualitative analysis with a systematic and iterative approach to measuring engagement. The technical heart of the system provides a modular, Web-based interface for managing complex patterns of participation; and provides integration points with existing museum systems to allow it to adapt to the conditions of different museums and their varying levels of technical capability.
5. System design and description
The overall system is modular in design and execution. Our design intent was to scale the project beyond the specific needs of the DMA, and modularity would create possible flexibility for changing technical environments. Our secondary goal was to create an open-source solution, and our design minimizes the reliance on closed proprietary systems as much as possible. We did not want to create a technical environment that was overly reliant on any specific external system, and all of our software components are designed for change.
The diagram below gives a high-level overview of the software architecture and information flow through the DMA Friends implementation. Blue boxes indicate physical devices, and yellow boxes indicate software systems. Green arrows indicate bi-directional information flow, red arrows a one-way flow, and dashed lines manual processes. Some of the indicated elements—specifically the Visitor Appreciation Display (a rich, interactive visualization of participation) and the User Awareness System (utilizing Radian6)—are for future expansion of the system.
At the heart of DMA Friends is a relationship management system that is a modified version of BadgeOS, developed and customized by LearningTimes sitting on top of WordPress. This system is the primary source of interaction for all systems and is the engine driving feedback for visitor engagement. Visitors are registered, engagement recognized, credit earned, and rewards redeemed through this system. BadgeOS was an early candidate given LearningTimes’ experience in creating learning management systems with elements of gamification and activity recognition, both of which strongly paralleled our experience intent. Early conversations demonstrated a deep and mutual understanding that swiftly identified core functionality tied with strong interface design.
As we thought about visitors to the museum, we wanted to create a blend of interaction that relied on personal devices in addition to kiosks provided by the museum. Using iPads as kiosks was a natural choice given iPads’ overall low price point, flexibility, and durability. It is increasingly common to see them used for point-of-sale interactions, and the iOS platform has the highest penetration of use among typical museum visitors. We envisioned a Web-based interface, and a number of frameworks exist to marry Web technologies to the device hardware. This interface approach also would work for modern smartphones—although not for older-generation devices, which require an alternate approach. Software review quickly settled on Twilio as an easy-to-use and well-designed API providing an SMS interface for our platform. Twilio consistently proved robust and easy to use during our development process.
Business systems are typically not designed for this sort of logic and software interaction. This was true of the gift shop, café, and parking point-of-sale systems. While early exploration looked at methods of potential integration and automation, we instead turned to an existing technology that has proven reliable over a number of decades: coupons. Our internal software system prints uniquely barcoded coupons with expirations that can either be scanned or quickly recognized by staff, providing an efficient and scalable solution.
DMA uses two other business systems, Patron Edge and Raiser’s Edge. The former is the current ticketing system, and the latter is used for preexisting development and membership needs. Synchronization between these two systems and DMA Friends was originally envisioned, but not needed, as core functionality in the final implementation. Ticketing will be couponed as well, and only basic identification information will be shared with Raiser’s Edge. Both systems are proprietary and require significant effort to cleanly integrate with each other.
Activities, badges, credit, and rewards
DMA Friends focuses on visitor engagement and providing ways for the museum to show appreciation and recognition of visitor effort. A long-term relationship is imagined, and while we have created an environment drawing upon basic elements of gamification, that is more a byproduct of the overall experience that provides an easy and recognizable touch point.
A series of online collaborative workshops followed by months of iterative spreadsheets eventually resulted in a series of badges, credits, and rewards that reflect the unique culture, experience, and personality of the museum. Badges are both explicit and discovered—visitors are incentivized to undertake particular activities in the museum through a series of obviously earnable badges. To add an element of surprise, other badges, which are initially hidden, are awarded as visitors engage in other sets of activities. Badges are earned around a fairly broad range of activities ranging from simple gallery visitation to identifying favorite artworks to creative activities.
A series of sophisticated triggers are built into DMA Friends that allows staff to refine the availability and earning of particular badges and activities. For example, checking in to museum galleries is only possible during the regular operating hours of the museum. Likewise, check-ins are limited in frequency to prevent ready abuse of the system. This same system of triggers allows for more sophisticated possibilities by sequencing together other activities into bundles. For example, checking in to multiple galleries will earn a visitor the Globetrekker badge, and multiple visits to a weekly series over a few months can also be recognized.
Each activity check-in and badge earned results in credit that can be redeemed for rewards most relevant to the visitor’s experience. The lower-level rewards tend towards the transactional, matching the basic features of the previous membership program, including gift shop, café, and parking discounts. Higher-level rewards typically give access to more unusual experiences such as time behind the scenes with a curator or custom wedding photos at the museum. The higher-level rewards also are a rich ground for creativity, imagining rewards that might allow roller skating in the concourse or go-kart racing in the parking circle.
This series of interactions, while whimsical on the surface, is the source of deep data about visitor interactions in the museum. As visitors engage, new patterns quickly emerge showing how visitors use the museum and what sorts of programs are most valued. Ultimately, this pattern of data collection will allow more spontaneous types of programming, almost akin to a game of pick-up basketball: for example, a spur-of-the-moment docent tour around a critical mass of self-identified enthusiasts appearing in the same place at the same time.
The iPad-based kiosk is the primary point of interaction in the museum for visitors with the DMA Friends program. The software is a custom-built application around a Web-based interface. The iPads are housed in off-the-shelf enclosures providing basic security with guided-access mode offering protection at the software level. A custom mobile provisioning profile may also be deployed to lock down the hardware buttons on the device without jail-breaking as a final layer of protection.
The kiosks are clustered in custom-built cabinetry located at the entrances to the museum. Above the cluster, digital signage acts as a visual beacon for DMA Friends. The iPads are angled for easy viewing and use, and one end of each cluster is wheelchair accessible. Constant power is provided, with the iPads never being turned off and a private wireless network providing network access. Housed in the cabinetry under each iPad is a coupon printer providing immediate response when required. Membership card printers are located at the adjoining Visitor Services desk, providing a moment of human interaction and welcome when new cards are printed.
New visitors go through a short sign-up process that collects basic information and results in the printing of a customized DMA Friends membership card. Later visits to the kiosk use the iPad’s camera to recognize the printed barcode on the card for quick and immediate sign-in. One the sign-in process is complete, users are presented with the DMA Friends dashboard, which is broken into four discrete areas of functionality: Home, My Badges, Get Rewards, and My Profile.
Home, the dashboard of the app, is the quick-entry point for visitor check-ins. Every activity is identified by a three-letter code unique to that activity, with quick, immediate feedback and recognition provided. Further down the screen are lists of available badges that identify activities in the museum. Tapping on a badge provides additional detail, and badges can be bookmarked for easy later reference. The My Badges section details the badges explicitly earned, and Get Rewards shows the listing of possible rewards in the system. Rewards are ordered by value, and redemption requires a few quick additional taps to print out a coupon. My Profile gives editable access to personal information and shows a scrollable list of personal activity in the system.
Shortly after the initial launch of the project, a dedicated web portal will be available for visitors to manage their accounts online at their leisure.
The SMS interface, powered by Twilio, provides a simplified interface and point of interaction with DMA Friends. As part of the signup process, mobile phone numbers are optionally requested. When provided, visitors can check into activities by entering the unique three-letter activity code on their phone. Custom responses indicating success, badges earned, or potential problems are delivered a few seconds later. Eventually, visitors will also be able to sign up via SMS and do other basic account lookup functions.
6. Launch and initial results
DMA Friends initially launched January 21, 2013. Before the launch, an extensive media campaign heralded the launch of the new program and the return of free admission to the museum after an 11-year absence. While there was substantial fanfare on the first day of the program with a day of peak registration and participation, the program settled into a comfortable rhythm with new visitors registering each day. In the first week, DMA saw approximately 1,500 new Friends, 5,300 check-ins, 90 rewards claimed, and 3,150 badges earned. With the exception of the first day, this period of the year has relatively low attendance, ideal for ramping up a new public-facing experience.
The public launch was pleasantly smooth, with few problems. In the final month of software development, the feature set was purposely frozen and the team endeavored to move any new requirements to a future scope of work. This narrow focus allowed the team to concentrate on core functionality without distractions and eliminate any final show-stopping problems with a broader team as the launch approached. There were the usual last-minute glitches—deleted printer templates, bad iPad cables, and an unexpected camera-zooming bug—but these are to be expected well into the final stages of a complicated launch. Substantial queues quickly formed, and overall throughput remained fairly constant throughout the day.
The launch has been viewed internally as a milestone rather than a finish line. All staff are engaged in constantly reviewing the newly established processes to determine where they can be improved, realizing that this is substantially more than just a technical project. In the next few weeks, an online portal will be launched for Friends to manage their profiles. Additional reporting will be developed to track more detailed use of the program and to watch for any early signs of possible abuse of the system. Internal and external email addresses have been created to allow any participants of the program to easily email ideas and suggestions.
The process has already begun of identifying potential future partnerships with other museums, and several have indicated early interest in adopting variations of the program. This cooperative venture is ideally best realized through grants, and as that team coalesces, key features to be scaled will be identified. The senior leadership of the museum has ensured the fiscal viability of DMA Friends to allow for at least a year of testing and evolution of the core idea of the program.
A clear way forward
Given the challenges and opportunities of participatory culture described at the outset of this proposal, it is clear that museums need to take an incremental and experimentally driven approach to engaging audiences in new ways. By creating mutually reinforcing systems and platforms that incentivize engagement, museums can begin to build real datasets of participation to study and learn from. At the same time, such an approach encourages an organizational shift toward deep engagement and long-term relationships with visitors, which will adapt and evolve as visitor interactions are increasingly observed and understood by museum staff. By pairing quantitative data about audience participation with qualitative studies of individualized engagement, museums can leverage audiences’ intrinsic motivations to learn, and can adapt successes and failures of integrating this new knowledge into an evolving museum practice.
Psychologists and theorists Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson (1995) make the following point about the need of museums to succeed in catalyzing the participation of audiences:
It is essential to realize, however, that current knowledge is insufficient to provide a basis for a thoroughly informed museum practice. While we are getting to understand the general principles of motivation tolerably well, the necessary details are still largely lacking.
In the meantime, however, it seems that each museum could generate knowledge about these pressing questions by taking a more experimental approach, by becoming a more active learning institution. If even 10% of museum space and staff efforts were devoted to collecting systematic information about how visitors were affected by the visit, we would soon have a much better idea of what learning takes place within the walls. Only by experimenting with one alternative after the other, in an iterative process can we learn what works and what does not.
While the DMA Friends program may not—in its current state—constitute a be-all-and-end-all solution to these problems, it serves as a proof of concept, providing a platform to begin to understand the inner workings of museum engagement beyond simple counting of attendance. Nothing comparable exists at this scale in the museum field. It holds promise in its ability to scale to many hundreds of thousands of visitors and provides a model that can be replicated and tested in museums across the country.
The iterative and experimental approach proposed by the project, together with a passionate and determined team of experts, assures that an investment by the IMLS in support of this project will result in significant progress toward the understanding and actualization of significant museum engagement in a changing participatory culture.
As museums work hard to address the needs of a 21st-century audience, it is critical for museum professionals to become more sophisticated in their understanding of what it takes to engage visitors as a relevant platform for understanding the world around us. It seems that the Salzburg seminar participants came to a similar conclusion: “Seminar participants returned again and again to the power of participatory learning as the visionary core of what museum and library professionals need to know and do to transform institutional effectiveness” (Mack et al., 2012).
It is the hope of the Dallas Museum of Art and its partner museums that the DMA Friends program can play a role in that process. A recent article from the Guardian sums up the situation very well:
When you can slip into a gallery for just 15 minutes to see a favorite painting, or when parents can take their children without having to budget for it, the museum takes on a societal function. It’s no longer just a fortress or an amusement: it’s a civic platform, where education and citizenship go hand in hand.
For Dallas, a museum membership should be like a library card: everyone should have one, and it should foster an engagement with the museum that goes beyond the occasional visit to a kind of civic pride.
I hope it works. Because in a perpetually privatizing world, the kind of civic culture that the Dallas Museum of Art is trying to foster has become rarer than any antiquity (Farago, 2012).
Citations and References
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Falk, J. H., & L. D. Dierking. (1998). “Free-choice learning: An alternative term to informal learning?” Informal Learning Environments Research Newsletter 2(1):2. Consulted July 7, 2004. http://www.umsl.edu/~sigiler/ILER-Newsletter- 0798.pdf
Farago, J. (2012, November 30). “Dallas Museum makes art free for all.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Consulted January 25, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/30/dallas-museum-art-free-for-all
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