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Museopunks Episode 22: Human Behavior

Category: Visitor Experience

Museums that want to impact their visitors are often concerned with changing their behaviors. However, before any kind of change can take place, it’s important to understand visitors and the behaviors that they bring into the museum with them. In this episode, the ‘Punks ask how museums can better understand and align their work around existing visitor behaviors. We talk to the first Neuroscience Researcher in an art museum to learn more about how the human brain understands the physical world, and how that connects to our emotions and then connect with an experience designer whose work has focussed on social media use in the cultural sector.

We also want to know: are you a museum geek who is also a fan of professional wrestling?! Reach out to us on Twitter and let us know.


Dr. Tedi Asher

Photo of Dr. Tedi AsherDr. Tedi Asher is Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The position — which marks a first for an art museum — supports PEM’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At PEM, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.
Read more on Dr. Tedi Asher’s work at PEM

Alli Burness

Photo of Alli BurnessAlli Burness is currently an experience designer with ThinkPlace, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value.  On the side, she is a freelance digital producer, designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and not-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. She previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She has created content for institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Wellcome Collection in the UK and the Powerhouse Museum and Museums and Galleries NSW in Australia. She is currently based in Sydney.

You can find Alli on Twitter @alli_burnie, on her website, and at

Show Notes

Field Study: Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum

Museum in a Bottle

NYTimes: How to Get the Brain to Like Art


Museum Objects and Instagram: Agency and Communication in Digital Engagement

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Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Twitter: @museopunks

Read the Transcript

Jeffrey Inscho: That wasn’t too awkward, was it?

Suse: Hey Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: What’s going on?

Suse: Not much. It is a warm, warm, uh, day here in Baltimore, and I am sitting sweltering in my home because I have realized I can never put, um (laughs) I can never put a fan on when we’re recording because my microphone is too powerful.

Jeffrey: I-I know. I shut off my A/C and so-

Suse: (laughs)

Jeffrey: It’s a little, little hot in here.

Suse: A little steamy.

Jeffrey: What’s that like that Nelly song?

Suse: (laughing) You wanna break into some song now Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: I don’t know. I will say though we have to not record on Monday nights because you’re cuttin’ into my WWE Wrestling time.

Suse: Ah, tell me about it. I had just been watching a couple of, uh, great, uh, great matches, the women’s match tonight was pretty fantastic.

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: Yeah, so, uh, yeah, tell me about it … Who knew that, uh, we were both into a little bit of wrestling?

Jeffrey: There’s a museum and professional wrestling, uh, connection here, uh, somewhere, I’m sure.

Suse: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Listen-listeners, I’m sure other listeners, um, are into, uh, wrestling and, um, if you, if you are, hit us up. Let us know.

Suse: Yeah. I, I’m, I’m less confident than you are actually Jeffrey. I have asked about this a couple of times on Twitter, and the answers have been few and far between, and in fact, when I’ve been at, say, professional gatherings like conferences and mentioned my, uh, my, my wrestling interests … Crickets.

Jeffrey: Really?

Suse: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Unbelievable.

Suse: People do not understand and, you know, it’s, it’s one of the great storytelling, uh, platforms of our time-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Suse: Some might say.

Jeffrey: I think museums can learn a lot from the compelling narratives that take place, um, a-at … Through WWE.

Suse: Yeah. I agree.

Jeffrey: Who’s your favorite wrestler?

Suse: (laughs) Ah, that’s a tough call. I, I, I’m, I’m pretty partial to some of the, some of the women’s division wrestlers such as, uh, Sasha Banks-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse: And, uh, Becky Lynch, I have to say. They’re pretty good, and then you have some really fabulous heels, a term you might have to explain, like, uh-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Suse: Chris Jericho who, uh-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: I’m a big fan of. (laughs) What about yourself?

Jeffrey: I’m a Bray Wyatt guy.

Suse: Oh!

Jeffrey: I like the, I like the cre-, I like the creepy ones, the ones with some, some deep dark-

Suse: (laughs)

Jeffrey: Backgrounds.

Suse: So, should we, should we explain to people what, what a face and a heel is-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: If they’re not familiar?

Jeffrey: Go ahead.

Suse: (laughing) Um, so wrestling is, as I say, one of the great storytelling spaces, platforms of, I think, our time, and one of the ways it plays with these big meta-narratives is having very clear, um, people to cheer for and people to boo.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse: In, in a simple, in a simple sense, and so a face, a baby face is, uh, someone that you cheer for that you love, someone who, uh, does the right thing more often than not. And a heel is the opposite. A heel is someone who will, uh, win by dirty tricks and that you … It can enjoy, uh, cheering against them anything they come onstage. Does that, does that, does that sum it up?

Jeffrey: It does. And the moral of this story is that museums out there, you got to be the face.

Suse: (laughs) Yeah.

Jeffrey: Right? Anyway, enough wrestling, on to, on to Museopunks Episode 22. How you, uh, what are we talking about tonight?

Suse: So, tonight we’re talking about museum visitor behavior, but really about the behaviors that visitors come into our museums with. This started from, uh, some interesting research that you’d been doing actually, Jeffrey, and you published not that long ago-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Suse: Talking about, um, phone use in museums. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work that you were doing?

Jeffrey: Um, yeah, sure, so at the studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, uh, like I talked about in an episode earlier where we’re building a chat bot, which, um, is an artificial intelligence, um, bot that visitors could, um, or will be able to interact with over SMS text messaging-

Suse: Hmm.

Jeffrey: And we wanted to base all of our design decisions on real world data, uh, and we wanted to align those decisions with the behaviors that we’re h-, we thought were happening in-

Suse: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Our galleries. We had a, we had a pretty good, good inclination that yes, people were bringing phones. Yes, people did not really make use of existing museum apps, and yes, people sent text messages and felt comfortable sending text messages, so we did a, um, several week study of several hundred museum-

Suse: Hmm.

Jeffrey: Visitors, and um, found out some interesting results, um, and those results are now informing our design decisions as we develop this chat bot over the next couple months.

Suse: It’s r-, it’s really great. It was a really interesting paper to read, and we will obviously include a link in the show notes. I think one of my, um, favorite stats from that, uh, although not a surprising one was how, uh, few, uh, visitors have museum apps on their phones.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and you know, it’s I think one of-, you know, one of the things I’m looking forward to talking to Alli or one of our two guests about is, you know, figuring out a way that we can start to create data sets across the sectors because I could, I would only assume-

Suse: Mmm.

Jeffrey: That my data in Pittsburgh, very kind of regional market, not a lot of tourists varies, v-very much from, say, New York museums or London museums, so, um, while, you know, it’s … Our data is very important to us as we build our experience, it would be interesting to kind of start to compare some of this data with other museums if they sh-, if they do do this type of research.

Suse: Yeah. Absolutely, I mean there’s always benefit in being able to see very much what applies to your own institution but also for us to start to see trends across the sector in, in where those differences lie.

Jeffrey: Yeah. So, like I said, we’re talking with Alli, um, who, um, has a museum background but has, has been making a transition outside of the sector to, um, to, um, the, the larger experience design field, um-

Suse: Yeah. And she’s done some really interesting work over the last few years around how visitors are using their devices, particularly around things like selfies in museums and how visitors are using Instagram and social sharing and what they’re sharing in museums.

Jeffrey: Definitely valuable stuff, and uh, but first we’re gonna talk to Tedi who is, um, I believe the first neuroscience, uh, researcher, uh, at a museum, at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts-

Suse: Yeah. I am so excited about this. I … Areas of … I am not a scientist. I am not … I have never-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: Trained formally in any of the, you know, major sciences, but I find, I find science in all its dimensions fascinating and the idea of neuroscience, of digging into how humans process behavior, how the brain works, how the body works and how they all work together is fascinating to me. I am so excited for this interview.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Me too, so let’s get to it. Tedi is a neuroscience researcher at The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The position, which marks the first for an art museum, supports the museum’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from The Bar Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her PhD from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At The Peabody Essex Museum, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

Tedi, thanks so much for being a guest on Museopunks.

Dr. Tedi Asher: Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey: Oh, uh, our pleasure. So, um, Tedi, you, yours is the first neuroscience position in an art museum, but before we get too deep into your work at the museum, could you just tell us a little bit about what neuroscience is and the kind of research that falls under its purview?

Tedi: Sure. Um, well the way, the way that I think of the term “neuroscience” as kind of an umbrella, um, that spans a number of different disciplines, so you can have, um, you know, the study of human behavior that falls more into the psychology realm or, um, cognitive neuroscience where you might do some neuro imaging of the human brain all the way down to the cellular level and molecular level using animal models to study gene expression and cellular mechanisms-

Suse: Hmm.

Tedi: In the, in, in, in neurons.

Suse: So, with such a wide range then of, of such terms that, that this covers all, all areas of science that this covers, what aspects of this have you been bringing to PEM and how does this kind of research apply to an art museum?

Tedi: Sure, so, um, this, this job has been a bit of a transition for me. I’ve always worked in animal models studying the brain-

Suse: Hmm.

Tedi: Um, but this, this position, um, gives me the opportunity to really delve into the human literature, so I’m sort of focused at that end of the spectrum, um, and you know, we’re, we’re interested in researching all kinds of topics pertaining to attention and visual and auditory perception, um, and wayfinding, so navigating through a, a localized space, um, so I’m researching all of these different kinds of topics and bringing what I find to, into meetings, um, so that we can collaborate and try and extrapolate from those basic findings to how they can be applied in the galary.

Jeffrey: So, I mean it seems like your, your, your view of the museum is, is, is intentionally kind of holistic, right? Everything from like, uh, you know, wavefinding and space navigation to the more conceptual aspects, so who do you work most closely with at the museum? And can you talk-

Tedi: Sure, um-

Jeffrey: A little bit … Can you talk a little bit about how that position was, was created or, or what area of the museum, um, kind of brought you in?

Tedi: Sure. Uh, so I kind of float (laughs) is the way that I see it. Um, so PEM takes a very team-based approach to designing expeditions-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Um, and I’m part of some of those teams, so any given team will have a curator, an interpretor, a designer, a project manager, you know, so there are all of these different roles, and for the teams that I’m on, there’s also a role of neuroscientist. (laughs)

Suse: (laughs)

Tedi: Um, so that’s, that’s basically how I integrate into the structure here.

Suse: It’s a little bit wild. Uh, this actually sort of blows my mind thinking about the different types of positions and, and other ways that museums can be investigating, um, everything from how our brains are wired to appreciate art, which is something you’ve spoken about in one of your blog posts, as well as how we can use knowing more about these sort of things within expedition design and, and even sort of further out into the museum as well, not just looking at expeditions but other aspects of the museum design. Where do you even start such an investigation though? I mean how do you, how do you even start asking the right questions when you’re faced with a new expedition?

Tedi: Yeah, that’s a really good question. (laughs) Um, so I think we’re all still sort of figuring out how this works-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Um, but basically the way that I come at it is I see, um, basically that there are two categories of influences on our perception. There are those influ-, influences that come from the so-called bottom up and those that come from the top down, so let me explain that a little bit.

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: So, what I mean by “bottom up influences” are those, um, factors that stem from the physicality of a stimulus, so its color or contrast or lighting, um, whereas by “top down”, I mean sort of more of an inside out influence, what associations do we have with a stimulus, what memories or emotions does a particular stimulus conjure, so either bottom up or top down influences can impact the nature of our experience. Um, so to me, it seems like our access to a visitor’s top down influences are mu-, is much harder to access-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Right? Accessing their memories or their, you know, what they were just doing before they came in the museum, all of that is sort of sequestered from us, um, so I’ve started by focusing on the bottom up aspects, so one really clear example of that, I think, is learning about how visual system is structured to influence our perception.

Suse: (laughs)

Jeffrey: I’m just kind of blown right now. (laughs)

Suse: Me too.

Jeffrey: Um (laughing)-

Tedi: (laughing)

Jeffrey: Uh-

Tedi: Did any of that make sense?

Jeffrey: Yeah, no, it makes, it makes complete sense-

Tedi: Okay.

Jeffrey: And you know, it’s something that, that we, I-I don’t, you know, we … At my museum, we don’t have a neuroscience on staff, but we definitely are starting like to think about things in this way, in this way, um, and I’m wondering like how, like what kind of insights, if you can talk about any of it-

Tedi: Sure.

Jeffrey: What kind of insights or data that I-, you know, have you been generating and, and um, or, and, and incorporating into the design of an expedition or the way the museum is laid out-

Tedi: Sure.

Jeffrey: If you have, have you gotten to that point yet?

Tedi: Um, so you phrased the question in an interesting way that makes me think of two things-

Suse: Hmm.

Tedi: Um, you asked what kind of data we’re generating, and so, um, hopefully we will be generating data of our own, um, using various evaluation techniques, so um, once we create hypotheses about what kinds of, um, changes to expeditions, um, to, to, to make, we can implement them and then evaluate the effects, so that’s sort of one form of data collection that we’re in the process of starting. Um, but then I think what you’re asking is more about the findings from the literature that we draw on to inform expedition design?

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Tedi: Yeah, so, um, there are lots of different kinds of data that we draw on, so just to start with something super simple, um, just to give you an example of the way that the structure of our visual system might impact choices that we make in the gallery, so, um, probably everyone is familiar with the idea that, um, the retina, the tissue in the back of your eye has two kinds of, um, cells that are sensitive to light, rods and cones, right?

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Yep.

Tedi: And so, cones can detect color whereas rods can detect just light and dark. Um, and so what’s interesting is that the cones tend to be centered in the middle of your eye whereas the rods tend to be clustered on the periphery of your eye, so what this means is that when we wanna see something in high detail and in color, we need to use the center of our vision-

Suse: Hmm.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: But when we’re trying to just detect brightness levels, it’s actually more effective to use our peripheral vision, which is why you may have noticed that stars actually appear brighter out of the corner of your eye than when you look directly at them.

Suse: Hmm.

Jeffrey: Hmm. Okay.

Tedi: So, this is a very simple, um, kind of elementary example of how learning about the biology of the visual system can help us figure out, well, where should we place this colorful object relative to the lighting or, you know, to, it help … Might help us to compose scenes within the gallery.

Suse: Hmm.

Jeffrey: Cool.

Suse: Yeah, that’s amazing. (laughs) It also, I think, helps make sense … I was thinking about what you were saying about starting with sort of bottom up versus top down, and correct me if-

Tedi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suse: I’m wrong, I, I’m just trying to sort of get my head around this, would there be much more commonality with the bottom up experiences … So, thinking about the biology of the eye and how it takes in light versus the top down, which would be much more individualized if you’re looking at things like memory and experiences people are bringing into the, into the space?

Tedi: That’s the hypothesis that I have, yeah, is that the bottom up systems, because they’re based in our sensory systems, which should have some common biology, that those are gonna be more common across cultures and across the population.

Jeffrey: Interesting. So, one of the things we’re looking at in my museum is, um, aligning the experience with, um, with the behaviors that have, you know, um, been permeated throughout our culture recently, specifically new technologies, right? Like people are bringing these mobile devices with them and, um, and using them in the spaces, so could we optimize our experience to kind of align with those in interesting ways? Have, have, does any of this, any of, any of the techn-, technological developments or have these, have any of these technologies had impact on, on the way people think and process information in the museum in your opinion?

Tedi: Um, you know, I don’t know if I’ve had enough experience working in a museum yet to know that.

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: (laughs) Um-

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah.

Tedi: Yeah, I think from a neuroscience standpoint, um, I would imagine that it, it does change the nature of your experience, you know, to be acting with something digital versus something more analog that might be right in front of you. Um, but I, I feel like I haven’t quite been here long enough to observe enough to really have a definitive answer for that.

Jeffrey: Sure. Do you think m-museums could be doing a better job of, of, um, sharing research in this area, like, you know, um, whether it be publishing evaluation data or, um, you know, you know, so that we can start to learn from each other? Would that be, in your opinion, a valuable, um, w-way that museums could-

Tedi: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: Work together? Yeah.

Tedi: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Cool.

Tedi: Yeah. Definitely. I think, uh, I mean it’s just my stance across the board that the more open and, uh, the more we can share information, the further we’re gonna go.

Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. Uh, Tedi, I read that one of the ideas that sort of motivated bringing a neuroscientist into the museum was this desire to better understand how the human brain not just connects to the physical world but how that then connects to and feeds into our emotions, so I’m-

Tedi: Yeah.

Suse: Really curious what you sort of anticipate the impact of the scientific or neuroscientific approach might be to the emotional aspects of the visitor experience.

Tedi: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Um, so I think that’s something that we’re very interested in figuring out. Um, there’s definitely data out there to suggest that, um, the more emotional an experience is, the, the better you’re going to remember it basically. Um, and I … There also seems to be some connection there between the emotionality of an experience and deriving meaning from it, um, and I say that more in an anecdotal way than in a data-based way, but um, so I think we’re really interested in gleaning what we can from the literature about how various changes to the physical environment can evoke emotion or can impact one’s emotional experience, um, in the hopes that that will help to create a more meaningful experience that, that visitors are likely to take with them when they leave the museum.

Jeffrey: Hmm. This is such a progressive approach to experience in my opin-, in, you know, from my perspective. I’m wondering, uh, how more, how some of the more traditional, um, I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase this … How more of the, some of the more traditional museologists at PEM or-

Tedi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Throughout the sector may, um, uh, start to think about this, um … Uh-uh-I-I-I … Basically are, are curators receptive to this (laughs) in your opinion?

Tedi: Um, yeah, no I think everyone here at PEM at least, I haven’t had too much contact with museum professionals outside of PEM-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Yet, um, but certainly here at PEM, everyone has been really welcoming and really open-minded. Um, when I first started, I met with each of the curators and sort of talked to them about how we could work together and what their approach, you know, in the past has been and what, how they envision it going forward. Um, I think there’s definitely, um, and with, you know, good reason, I think, not skepticism but-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: You know, faith in the fact that curating in the, you know, with, without a neuroscience, um-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Tedi: Perspective has been going on for many, many, many (laughs) years-

Suse: (laughs)

Tedi: And you know, that it’s been productive and meaningful, and so I think there is some desire to not lose what that brings-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Tedi: Um but in, in my experience, people have been very open to what can be gained by incorporating a neuroscience perspective.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and I think, I think definitely there’s value around, um, you know, talking about this type of approach, communicating it, again, sharing what this type of approach, the impact it can have on expeditions and programs in the museum and, um, you know, it’s, it’s completely fascinating-

Suse: Yeah.

Jeffrey: In my opinion.

Tedi: Yeah.

Suse: Tedi, I, I, I’m actually just … I-it … You’re really a pioneer in this. You, you are the first person certainly in an art museum that I know who is doing anything like this, uh, particularly in a permanent way. I’m sure there might’ve been some other short-term interventions. What, what do you hope to take out of this? Or what do you hope to, to achieve in bringing your own work and your own perspectives to this ’cause it’s not just the museum that … Although they, they sought this position out, it’s obviously not just them that are bringing, um, a desire for investigating to this. You must have your own thoughts and, and things that you’d really like to get out of this position.

Tedi: Yeah, um, well, I sort of see this position as an exploration, um, sort of personally and professionally, so this is my first job out of grad school. Um, it’s really my first job out of a lab. Um, and so I’m sort of exploring what can be done out in this great world-

Suse: Mmm.

Tedi: (laughs) Um, without a pipette in hand. And, uh, but I think more conceptually speaking, you know, I’ve always had this really strong interest in trying to understand human emotional experiences, um, you know, where they come from and why they manifest as they do and why they affect us as they do.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Uh, and so I really am taking this as an opportunity to dive into the literature that’s relevant to that question, um, and really just glean as much as I can from it, um, and then apply it to something that has the a-, the potential to impact other people, which is really … Something that I was looking for in grad school was that kind of human element to my work-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Um, so, I, I really see this as just a great exploration.

Jeffrey: Well, I, I can only assume that the listeners of this podcast and, and many throughout the museum sector will find, uh, your work to be, um, as interesting and fascinating as Suse and I do, so I’m wondering, um, if, if there’s a, a way that people can, can follow you and follow your work at PEM, um, uh, where they might be able to do that?

Tedi: Yeah. So, right now, um, we’re not too outward facing about it yet-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tedi: Um, but as part of the, the grant from The Bar Foundation, we will be putting together a publication, um, at some point.

Suse: (laughs)

Tedi: (laughs)

Jeffrey: Great. Great.

Tedi: And so, um, I hope that that will be accessible once it’s complete, um, and I can certainly keep you updated about where to find it.

Suse: Yeah, that would be fantastic.

Jeffrey: Fantastic.

Suse: It might be really great for us to check back in with you when you are a little further along in your research as well and start to see … You know, this, this is a program in its, in its infancy, and it would be really nice to see how and where it develops and what that can start to mean for the sector longterm.

Tedi: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeffrey: It was so awesome talking with you today. Um, we really appreci-, appreciate you taking the time, and we look forward to really keeping up with you and watching what happens there at Peabody Essex.

Tedi: Well, thank you. This has been really fun.

Suse: Alli is currently an experienced designer with Think Place, a global strategic design consultancy that applies human-centered design and complex systems thinking to create public value. On the side, she’s a freelance digital producer designing digital presences for artists, small arts organizations and non-for-profits. She also researches, publishes, tutors, and speaks about the value of creative digital expression and social media use in the cultural sector. Alli previously worked in museums and galleries as a digital producer and collection manager for around 10 years. She’s created content for institutions such as The National Gallery of Art in the Was-, in Washington DC, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Welcome Collection in the UK, and The Powerhouse Museum and Museums, and Galleries of New South Wales in Australia.

She is now based in Sydney. Alli, welcome to the show.

Alli: Thanks so much for having me. I’m a longtime listener, so very pleased to be invited.

Suse: It’s so exciting, and I have to say a little bit of a shout-out to home. It’s nice to be talking to someone back on the, uh, on the, uh, other side of the world back in Australia.

Alli: Yeah. Over the [crosstalk 00:27:20].

Suse: (laughs)

Jeffrey: I feel outnumbered here.

Suse: (laughing)

Alli: (laughing)

Suse: Now you know how I usually feel Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: So, in this episode we’ve been talking about how museums can really better align their work with the behaviors that visitors bring into the gallery. Alli, you recently published a study with Kylie Budge looking at the way that museum visitors engage with objects through Instagram, the social media platform. Can you tell us a little bit about that study and your findings? Why do visitors to museums take photographs and share them on social media?

Alli: Sure. Um, so yeah, I did, I did this research with Kylie Budge who at the time was the research manager at The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences here in Sydney, and so that includes The Powerhouse Museum. And another really key, um, member of our research team was Jim Fishwick who’s a program producer at the same museum. He’s also a freelance experience consultant and general immersive theater punk rock warlord, whatever we want to-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: (laughs)

Alli: Response we wanna take. Um, so, um, in, in all the research that I do, I take a human centered and qualitative approach. I don’t have a quantitative or market research background. I’m always looking for motivations rather than what people are doing. I’m looking at why they do what they do. Um, and so in this particular piece of research, Kylie and I took one data set, and we took a, a case study approach. We looked at 400 images that was posted to one geotag on Instagram, uh, for one museum in one week. Um, we actually semi-automated that collection through, um, IFTTT, um, so, um, we were able to go in and, and click particular images and we removed the museum’s post from our data set. We really centered the visitor’s eye, and we just wanted to look at what visitors, um, were taking images of.

Um, that automated system isn’t possible anymore unfortunately since Instagram changed its API. Um, so that, that, with that first, um, with that data set, the first approach we took to analyzing that was through a visual analysis approach, um, so, we, we printed out each of those 390 to 400 images, stuck ’em up on the wall, and we grouped them into categories that organically emerged from the data set. Um, we looked at the images first and then referred to the captions if it helped to clarify, uh, what an, what an image might be focusing on or what its purpose might be.

And out of that, we had a, a range of categories, um, categories that had objects in them. It took up about 75% of the data set, um, and but these were kind of overlapping, so there were, um, categories that included people, and that might, um, be social happenings, selfies, that kind of thing, um, and they had about 45%, so you know, you can see that social inclusion and the social motivations for a visit is really manifesting in our images, um, but of course, we’re in buildings full of objects. That’s the prime purpose. It makes sense that objects are so present. Um-

Jeffrey: Yeah, so A-Alli, when a museum does this, for example, say they mine posts that are happening on Instagram and other social media to kind of get a sense for what and why their visitors are, are posting-

Alli: Mmm.

Jeffrey: How might they start to engage those people around, um, that content?

Alli: Yeah, well, I think that’s the ultimate end goal for, for this research. Um, a few things we found about why, um, visitors were posting that we can build on. Uh, visitors were really enacting their own sense of agency by weaving themselves and their experience into the collection, the exhibition, the programming through their photography.

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: Um, we can see that in the captions. We could see that in the images. Um, and I mean our social media managers, uh, wander around with this intimate knowledge about our visitors are interpreting, um, our collections every day. It’s this data set that, that sits in our social media managers’ heads. Um, and you know, that, that’s something that is sitting pretty … It’s just this ripe opportunity to build on, um, and I think if we were to be ab-, we were able to build our social media managers and, and provide them with the resources to do similar studies … And, and I think the findings of this initial paper aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but I think the method that is-

Jeffrey: Mmm.

Alli: Is where the value is. Um, anyone can to … Can follow the same method, uh, and, and discover what it is visitors are doing and, and find insights for why they’re doing it in the data set that they are being given every day by their visitors.

Jeffrey: And, and think about also expanding that out beyond social media managers. Imagine the value, uh, that, you know, if a curator were given access to that or an educator were given access to that to see which objects and which, um, subjects are … People are resonating with. Right?

Alli: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: I mean is that goal-

Alli: But at the same time, as we have [inaudible 00:32:58] and visitor service offices on the floor of our museums who have a deep understanding every day of what visitors are doing physically in the museums, social media managers, uh-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: Have that comparable knowledge-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Alli: And for them to work closely with programming staff, education staff, curator, that, that’s incredibly powerful. Social media’s … Media managers need time, professional development, and a team and, and, you know, that they’re there. The curators are there, can, you know, to co-design, um, some kind of response from their museum together. Um, that, that would be incredible. And I know Meghan Estep at The National Gallery of Art in DC has talked about this really, uh, compellingly about the idea of using our visitors as teachers-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: And building on our visitors’ interpretations of our collections. So, what’s our response going to be? And I think, um, that’s, that, that’s … The answer’s still hanging. Um-

Suse: Yeah, Alli, it’s interesting. You sort of mentioned that although this was a singular case study, the methods were actually really useful, and you think they could be more broadly applied. Are there any data sets that we have that do span the sector, or are there ways that we might be able to compare, say, tourist market museum behavior with regional behavior? A-are, uh, I guess what I’m really getting to … Are there ways that museums can begin to share their social data and collaborate around the sorts of work that you’ve been doing to analyze behavior across the sector rather than in an individual exhibition or an individual museum?

Alli: Um, there’s hurdles in the sense that technologically it’s a challenge, and as I mentioned-

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: Instagram changed its API, which means it’s really hard to even semi-automate some data collection from it.

Jeffrey: Mmm.

Alli: Um, that, that’s a real, uh, [inaudible 00:34:52] in the works for creating a similar data set again, let alone doing so across institutions, but I know there are people working on this, and, and I think, um, well, I, I presented … I was part of a panel at The Museum Computer Network Conference next year, and Chad Winard who … Talked about efforts to develop a process for ingesting data sets that might sit along and link with collection data. Um, so there are efforts there, and, and I know that, that, you know, museums do collect … Well, some museums do collect these huge data sets. Ryan Dodge from the Royal Ontario Museum has talked about having an enormous collection-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Alli: Of this data that’s waiting to be interpreted and, and it’s certainly, um, a set that I’d be keen to sort of, um, you know, expand my own research into.

Jeffrey: Yeah. So, photography, now that we’re all walking around with, you know, incredibly powerful computers in our pockets, the thing, you know, one of the things, uh, most everybody does is obviously take photographs ’cause the cameras are getting better, the quality of the imagery is getting better, do you think that museums really have fully understood or even embraced the, the ways that visitors are starting to use these devices, like taking photographs or, you know, s-sending text messages and, and just the full capabilities that these little computers now offer us at any given moment.

Alli: Yeah. Um, I think we’re getting there. Um, I think it’s a journey. I mean museums have this centuries long history that began well before digital technology. It, it, and that is now still being worked into the core processes of what museums do, and so it’s a journey that we’re on. Um, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to use digital technology ourselves as an organization. Um, and then there’s this other question of, well, our visitors come in with these little computers in their pockets, what are they doing with them?

Suse: Yeah.

Alli: You know, how do we leverage that as a separate question to what technology are we using internally? Um, so-

Jeffrey: It … Maybe I can rephrase the question.

Alli: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Do you feel that museums n-need to or should be aligning with these, uh, existing behaviors because or, or should, or should our experiences be meaningful enough that we can change the visitor experience or visitor behavior?

Alli: I feel that, um, there’s a sweet spot that we should be aiming for, and it’s knowing what our mission is an organization, as a museum, what, what impact we would like to have on visitors when they, they interact with our collections, knowing what visitors are doing with digital technology and, and their phones in this particular example, and why they’re doing that, where do those two interests overlap and leveraging that little overlap. That’s the sweet spot-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: Where the museum’s interest and the visitors’ interest are one. That’s what we need to be going for.

Suse: Yeah. I was quite interested. A few minutes ago you mentioned the importance of user agency, and it’s something you also talk about in the studies; this idea of user agency and authority. And I think often when we think about authority in a museum context, we mean it quite differently from what you were thinking about, so getting to that sweet spot, how do museums empower their visitors or help, um, enable that sense of agency and, and give them that agency over their experience, um, whilst, whilst they’re in the galleries but also help them find the sweet spot that is also the sweet spot for us?

Alli: Um, I, I think visitors come in and enact their agency whether we like it or not.

Suse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: Um, and um, I, I’m not sure if I have the most compelling answer to this. It’s about talking to our visitors and, and, and doing the research to deeply understand what they’re doing with their phones and why. And I mean there’s been a hell a lot of conversation around what our expectations of visitors are in terms of behavior and how Smart Phone technology is disrupting that. If we can take the time to properly understand why these behaviors are happening in our galleries and then work out how they align with our missions and what we, what we want, what we want for our visitors, um, that’s, that’s what … That’s the goal. Rather than changing visitor behaviors, it’s working with them to support what our missions are.

Jeffrey: Yeah, for sure. Um, so Alli, I’m gonna change gears real quick ’cause it’s-

Alli: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey: Um, and think back to I think my, my first memory of you and how I think I became in contact with you. In 2013, you took a 12 month museum pilgrimage, right?

Alli: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Um-

Suse: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And visiting more than 200 museums across, you know, tons, like dozens of countries. Um, and so you had this opportunity to travel the world, visit museums of all kinds, gain really nuanced insight, I think, into, um, just the, the diverse, diversity, the breadth of museum practice, what has stayed with you about that trip?

Alli: I have so many answers to that. (laughs)

Suse: (laughs) That’s great.

Alli: And so, I didn’t take any systematic approach to my experience that year when I was touring all those museums. Um, often people have come to me and asked, you know, through your analysis, what would be your answer to these questions? I, I didn’t analyze. I immersed myself in the visitor experience.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: So, I described that year as my, um, human-centered design origin story. It, I, I cannot think o-outside of that. I am inherently visitor-centered-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alli: And user-centered in my mindset now, uh, so that’s, I mean, in that sense it has radically changed my career and, and my outlook on what I do. Um, it, there was all sorts of things that came out of that that have stayed with me and keep rising up again. Um, one of them is, uh, sort of like a differences on a, on a vertical level, so differences in how collections that try to speak to a broad geographic area, a national narrative, how they engage or inspire engagement in their visitors in comparison to those tiny, tiny collections that have a very community-specific focus and, and the kind of reactions they inspire. They’re quite different.

People engage very differently, and, and that’s, that’s a really interesting spectrum, um, and, and there’s so much that our really big collecting institutions can learn from our really tiny collections that maybe don’t even have a curator. Um, so that was definitely something that sat with me. Um, and now the topic that seems to be becoming a bit of an obsession is the relationship between art and design because I came from an art historical background. I’ve moved into design, and museums kind of sit in that hot spot, um, so I’ve been thinking about how art might sit on a spectrum of innovation. And art would be the creative R&D hot house, so we’re all-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Alli: Is this magic? I don’t understand.

Suse: (laughs)

Alli: Where is design is that real implementation place where we trust what designers make and they implement at scale. Um, it’s a … And I’m still teasing out that relationship. I’m always innately drawn to the boundaries of things, so it’s been a fascinating leap to make, and, and, and museums kind of sit within that.

Suse: (laughs) It’s really interesting hearing you talk about this idea that people trust designers or we trust designers but don’t necessarily have the same trust in art? Is that, is that something you were getting at? Is there a, is there a trust gap between art and design?

Alli: Potentially, and that would be a really interesting topic to, to dig into. I know that in Australia, the art sector has sort of been under attack-

Suse: Ah.

Alli: And the, the sense of public value that art can bring is not, not very broadly understood. I think, um, because it’s so hard to measure, art can … The impact is hard to measure. It has a smaller audience. Um, and so the art sector I know here in Australia has been forced to defend itself in, in all sorts of ways. Um, yeah, it’s, it’s a, um, really interesting, interesting topic. Yeah. I think that, that’s … I haven’t sort of come up with a, um, with a comprehensive answer on that one yet.

Suse: That’s totally okay.

Alli: (laughs)

Suse: I’ve been really enjoying you, um, ’cause you started writing about some of these things of sort of trying to define the differences between art and design, and it’s been really interesting to watch you grappling with some of these ideas-

Alli: Mmm.

Suse: And to know that they were really coming out as much as anything of, of museum pilgrimage and that real deep dive into visitor experience, so-

Alli: Mmm.

Suse: I think one thing I’d love to ask then is you’ve been making this career transition from being a digital producer in museums to becoming an experienced designer, in your view having experienced both inside and outside the museum sector, what insights or approaches do you think museums can borrow or adapt from the private sector with respect to aligning with better, better with user behavior patterns?

Alli: Um, I think there’s a really strong movement inside the museum to adopt to user-centered design and design thinking. That’s a really strong trend, particularly in those areas that directly interface with visitors. Sometimes I wonder if that can be expanded more deeply into those, um, into the organizational structure, into the design of deep strategy. Um, they also would benefit greatly from co-design techniques, from design thinking. Rather than those strategies being conjured in-house at high levels of management and then pushed out, let’s co-design a digital strategy for the museum with audiences. What would that look like? Um, if audiences wanted to have some input into, um, the organizational structure of the museum, what would that look like?

Um, so instead of it being on a project by project basis, what about at a deeper level of the institutions? I think, I think there is scope to grow that human-centered design skill at those deeper levels.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Um, Alli, do you, do you miss being in it every day? (laughs)

Alli: (sighs) Um, uh, no. (laughs)

Suse: (laughs)

Alli: No. No, you know-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Alli: I mean one thing that I’ve learned is that to work every day and to devo-, devote your whole life to a burning passion, something you so deeply believe in, you’ll burn out really quickly, and you will also become disillusioned really quickly because you’ve got really strong views about how things could work. And I always end up at that forefront trying to push things into a more innovative space, and it … I … As an industry, I don’t think it naturally sits there.

Um, so I-I think, um, I’ve learned that there’s real value in dipping in and out for self-preservation, um, um, but also, you-you know, leveraging that opportunity to work with other sectors to grow knowledge from that to bring it back into the museum sector but also to take a breather in those, you know, those other spaces where, perhaps, you know, it’s not coming out of y-your sense of identity. Um-

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Alli: That’s a really heavy load to carry all the time.

Jeffrey: T-that was a brilliant, um, link back to Episode 20, which deal with self, self-care.

Suse: Oh, true.

Alli: (laughs) Indeed-

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: And also, in fact, Episode 21, dealing with insiders and outsiders. (laughing)

Alli: Yes.

Jeffrey: Yeah. There we go.

Alli: Yes.

Suse: Ah, way to bring it home, Alli.

Alli: (laughs)

Suse: (laughs)

Alli: Excellent.

Suse: Yes, Alli, thank you so much for coming and chatting to us about this. It has been really enjoyable to hear about the work you’ve been doing and the way your thinking is evolving as you continue looking at these different things from both inside and outside the museum.

Alli: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. It’s, um, been a very interesting discussion. Thanks.

Jeffrey: Okay, Suze, a lot to, uh, process there.

Suse: Yeah, there always is. Every single episode I walk away with so much to think about, and this gave us, I think, some really different perspectives, thinking about research in the museum and working with visitors and about the behaviors that visitors are bringing into the museum with them.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I cannot wait to see how Tedi’s research, uh, progresses over the next few months and years really.

Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. I do think we should definitely check back in with her in a year or so and see-

Jeffrey: Definitely.

Suse: What she’s discovered.

Jeffrey: Season three.

Suse: (laughs) Season three, I like it.

Jeffrey: (laughs)

Suse: Well, that, that is a, a really classy segue, a nice way for us to thank our presenting sponsor, uh, this month and every month. We are, as always, presented by The American Alliance of Museums, and we are so happy about that. Um, Jeffrey, if people wanna find us on the internet, where can they do so?

Jeffrey: You can tweet us at Museopunks, and you can also view show notes and links and information about all our guests at

Suse: Yes, and uh, this month in particular, we would love to hear your wrestling stories. If you are another closet wrestling fan out there in museum world, we have to believe they exist, get in contact with us. Or if you just don’t understand why we are into wrestling, hit us up as well. I am sure we would love another excuse to, uh, dive a little bit more into this incredible narrative format.

Jeffrey: And maybe in the future, we’ll have an episode dedicated to what museums can learn from professional wrestling.

Suse: I absolutely think we should.

Jeffrey: Okay, Suse, that’s another episode in the can and, uh, look forward to chatting with you next month.

Suse: Yeah, Jeffrey, it has been great fun. I can’t wait to chat to you again soon.

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