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Inside this issue:

Face to Face: Examining Educational Staff's Impact on Visitors

More than a Coat

Playful Attention: The Role of the Explainer

Crowd Pullers: Notes on Hiring and Managing the Ideal Explainer

Without a Script: The Art of Listening for Cues

Now Tell Me About It: Science as a Social Activity

Timely Transition: Floor Staff as Agents of Institutional Growth



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: January/February 2003
January/February 2003
Focus on the Front Line
Face to Face: Examining Educational Staff's Impact on Visitors

By Margie Marino and Judy Koke

As shrinking budgets and rising program costs compel science centers and museums to assess every aspect of operations, one question that comes up is the value of educational floor staff. Visitor research has begun to explore the impact of paid and unpaid facilitators, and is starting to understand how these interactions contribute to visitor satisfaction and learning.

This article draws on studies completed at the Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, California (the Tech); the Minnesota Historical Center, Minneapolis (MHC); and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, Colorado (DMNS). Each organization has experimented with, and studied the impact of, facilitators in different types of galleries.

Within these studies, common themes and issues emerge:

  • Staff on the exhibit floor, both paid and volunteer, can help guests to orient themselves and feel less vulnerable when exploring an unfamiliar task or environment;
  • Facilitators who mirror intended audiences can help visitors feel more comfortable and welcome;
  • By using a variety of approaches, such as exhibit prototyping, demonstrations, hands-on activities, theater, and storytelling, floor staff can facilitate social learning and help keep museum galleries fresh and new.

    Human interaction and visitor satisfaction

    In January 2000, Randi Korn & Associates Inc. (RK&A) reported findings from an extensive summative evaluation of visitors' overall experience at the Tech, which had then been in operation for two years. In that study, entitled Whole Museum Experiences, four issues;—staff courtesy, exhibit maintenance, staff availability, and exhibit availability—were found (in that order) to have an especially strong association with visitors' overall experience ratings.

    RK&A found that although staff availability was low (almost one-third of visitors reported no interactions with staff), staff courtesy was rated highly. The evaluator advised management to increase educational staff so they would be even more available to visitors, and to train new facilitators so that overall quality standards would be maintained.

    Staff at the Tech also had potential for influencing the exhibit-availability factor. The study showed that some visitors were spending so much time at certain exhibits that others did not have a chance to use them. The evaluator suggested that floor staff might encourage visitors to be courteous to others by limiting their time at these exhibits to three minutes.

    Research also demonstrates increased visitor satisfaction with galleries when helpful, well-trained staff are present. In 1998, DMNS observed visitor behavior—with and without floor staff—within the permanent gallery Botswana. In Night on the Kalahari, a dimly lit section where visitors can explore the nocturnal activities of African wildlife, the average length of stay in the area without floor staff was 56 seconds (range 13 seconds to 2 minutes, 42 seconds). When live programming and hands-on activities were added, visitor time investment increased to 4 minutes 59 seconds (range 1 to 18 minutes). Satisfaction with the gallery also improved significantly, and visitors chose adjectives like "fun," "interesting," "exciting," and "informative" to describe what had previously been an underutilized treasure.

    For some visitors, staff interaction is essential. The Tech found that more women than men "like staff to be available to help" in the galleries. The report references two previous studies by RK&A (a 1995 front-end study of MarsQuest and a 1998 audience study at the Hillwood Museum), indicating that females feel less confident and less comfortable with technology than males and suggesting that this could be one reason why females are more appreciative of explainers than males are.

    DMNS studies also suggest that live interpretation can support a wider range of visitors and encourage social learning behaviors. In a 1999 evaluation of the Bone Zone, a facilitated discovery center that was part of the Colossal Fossil exhibition, one visitor stated that "most of the museum is geared for older children and adults while this [activity] engages my [youngest] child." Another visitor commented that "this [activity] encourages families to interact—everyone participates."

    Of course, live facilitators do not work equally well for all visitors. The 2000 Tech report indicates that men are less likely to use on-floor staff or attribute their satisfaction to such interaction. In Denver, a study of one of the first attempts at staffed, constructivist exhibits (Experiment Gallery, 1997) suggested that all-adult groups are generally less likely to interact with facilitators or attribute their enjoyment to such interaction. And a DMNS study of the 1999 traveling exhibit Africa: One Continent, Many Worlds revealed that adult males and teenagers of both genders were significantly less likely to initiate interaction with an explainer than adult females or children.

    The presence of floor staff was not shown to be more important than other delivery systems. At MHC, visitor appreciation of interpretive programming, documented in a 1996 study by Jane Marie Litwak and Andrea Cutting and a 2001 summary report by Cutting, was rated the same as looking at objects, reading text, and watching videos. And in some cases, interpretation may actually be detrimental to the visitor experience. At DMNS, a 1994 study of the blockbuster exhibition AZTEC: The World of Moctezuma documented that overeager explainers sometimes interfered with visitors' desire to engage individually with an exhibit.

    Human interaction and educational effectiveness

    Matching a program to specific individuals may be the best reason of all for increasing the presence of educational staff. In science centers, perhaps more than in other types of museums, facilitators are trained to guide visitors and to promote constructivist, self-directed learning. Good facilitators in any informal learning environment customize their approach to the unique needs of the individual, detecting in a visitor's attitude, voice, and body language (as well as gender, age, culture, and abilities), the level of interaction that visitor may need.

    Some researchers have posited that learning increases when visitors spend more time in an exhibition (see chapter 3 of Beverly Serrell's Paying Attention: Visitors and Museum Exhibitions, AAM, 1998). It seems likely, therefore, that the quality of a visitor's experience will improve when trained staff are present, engaging visitors in a variety of ways.

      Research at the Tech Museum of Innovation
    Research at the Tech Museum of Innovation revealed that more women than men "like staff to be available to help in the galleries." Photo courtesy the Tech

    At DMNS, a January 2001 evaluation of the traveling exhibition
    Treasures of the Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs revealed that having Native Americans serve as hosts increased both the amount of time visitors spent in the exhibition (average 25 minutes, 41 seconds) and the number of stops (average 24.9) made at individual exhibit components. Visitors who had one contact with a host averaged 30 minutes, 58 seconds, with 31.1 stops, and visitors who had two or more contacts increased their participation to 58 minutes, 29 seconds, and 45.3 stops.

    Additionally, in a 1999 study of the DMNS planetarium show Incoming: Comets, Asteroids and Meteors, visitors who heard a live speaker were better able to recall key science facts than those who heard identical narration on film. When asked to articulate three or more of the "five steps to tracking a meteor," only 19 percent of visitors in the recorded show, as compared to 52 percent in the live narrated shows, could do so.

    One visitor attributed this to the fact that the hosted presentation felt "special," commenting that it was "not just a canned show shown again at this time, but a special performance for me and my family." At MHC, visitors confirmed that a personal presence in museum exhibits greatly enhanced their level of engagement; 63 percent felt they had gained more from their visit because they were able to ask questions and get answers.

    Implications and challenges

    The findings reported here may be useful to museum managers as they contemplate the cost-benefit ratio of live interpretation, and consider whether staff time should be assigned to particular topics and programs.

    Further research into the role that women play in deciding how families spend their leisure time might be useful. In the Tech study, RK&A suggests that female visitors "may assume that a staff member would be able to foster enriching experiences for their children." The use of trained explainers could help women and other less-frequent visitors gain entrance to what may be, to them, unfamiliar territory.

    For some audiences and in some situations, live interpreters can provide significant benefits to institutions struggling to stay vital in challenging times. Science center leaders deciding how best to serve their audiences and institutions must consider the balance between these advantages and their significant costs. Even volunteer floor staff don't come free; they, too, need ongoing professional development.

    Is it worth it? In many cases, the investment in interpretive staff would appear to have a strongly positive impact on customer satisfaction.

    Margie Marino, formerly manager of evaluation and exhibit development at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is now manager of ASTC's Exhibition Services. Judy Koke is manager of visitor studies and program evaluation at DMNS and serves on the executive board of the Visitor Studies Association.

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