Awhile ago, I promised to share some of my experiences in collecting data on visitors’ exhibit use as part of this blog. Now that I’ve actually been back at it for the past few weeks, I thought it might be time to actually share what I’ve found. As it is winter here in the northern hemisphere, our weekend visitation to the Hatfield Visitor Center is generally pretty low. This means I have to time my data collection carefully if I don’t want to spend an entire day waiting for subjects and maybe only collect data on two people. That’s what happened on a Sunday last month; the weather on the coast was lovely, and visitation was minimal. I have been recently collecting data in our Rhythms of the Coastal Waters exhibit, which has additional data collection challenges in that it is basically the last thing people might see before they leave the center, it’s dim because it houses the projector-based Magic Planet, and there are no animals, unlike just about every other corner of the Visitor Center. So, I knocked off early and went to the beach. Then I definitely rescheduled another day I was going to collect data because it was a sunny weekend day at the coast.
On the other hand, on a recent Saturday we hosted our annual Fossil Fest. While visitation was down from previous years, only about 650 compared to 900, this was plenty for me, and I was able to collect data on 13 people between 11:30 and 3:30, despite an octopus feeding and a lecture by our special guest fossil expert. Considering data collection, including recruitment, consent, the experiment, and debrief probably runs 15 minutes, I thought that this was a big win. In addition, I only got one refusal from a group that said they were on their way out and didn’t have time. It’s amazing how much better things go if you a) lead with “I’m a student doing research,” b) mention “it will only take about 5-10 minutes”, and c) don’t record any video of them. I suspect it also helps that it’s not summer, as this crowd is more local and thus perhaps more invested in improving the center, whereas summer tourists might be visiting more for the experience, to say they’ve been there, as John Falk’s museum visitor “identity” or motivation research would suggest. This would seem to me like a motivation that would not make you all that eager to participate. Hm, sounds like a good research project to me!
Another reason I suspect things went well was that I am generally approaching only all-adult groups, and I only need one participant from each group, so someone can watch the kids if they get bored. I did have one grandma get interrupted a couple times, though, by her grandkids, but she was a trooper and shooed them away while she finished. When I was recording video and doing interviews about the Magic Planet, the younger kids in the group often got bored, which made recruiting families and getting good data somewhat difficult, though I didn’t have anyone quit early once they agreed to participate. Also, as opposed to prototyping our salmon forecasting exhibit, I wasn’t asking people to sit down at a computer and take a survey, which seemed to feel more like a test to some people. Or it could have been the exciting new technology I was using, the eye-tracker, that was appealing to some.
Interestingly, I also had a lot of folks observe their partners as the experiment happened, rather than wander off and meet up later, which happened more with the salmon exhibit prototyping, perhaps because there was not much to see if one person was using the exhibit. With the eye-tracking and the Magic Planet, it was still possible to view the images on the globe because it is such a large exhibit. Will we ever solve the mystery of what makes the perfect day for data collection? Probably not, but it does present a good opportunity for reflection on what did and didn’t seem to work to get the best sample of your visitorship. The cameras we’re installing are of course intended to shed some light on how representative these samples are.
What other influences have you seen that affect whether you have a successful or slow day collecting exhibit use data?