Talking back

September 15th, 2011 by ExhibitFiles

Co-created content and community participation are now part of the standard vocabulary of museum exhibits — in theory if not always in practice. Running into Janet Kamien the other day was a reminder that at one time it was a brave step for a museum to invite visitors not just to comment, but to talk back — to assert that their voices had a place alongside the curators’. At the Boston Children’s Museum from 1972 to 1986 and the Field Museum from 1986 to 1996, Janet helped pioneer the approach.  In this post, she looks back at what was to become “a temperature-taking device, a venting mechanism, a dialogue enhancer, and an integral part of the exhibition content.”

The Boston Children’s Museum was probably not the first museum to engage in organized methods of direct visitor feedback, but we were surely in the game early.

It was an obvious step. We believed in being “client centered,” so finding out what the client needed, wanted, or thought about our museum was important to us. This was in the late 1960s and early’70s. Visitor research, as we now understand it, barely existed.

In our beginning use of “talk-backs,” as we called them, we simply cut to the chase and asked people what they thought about the Children’s Museum. We posted many of these comments, both good and bad, and the suggestions for improvements or new exhibits and programs for other visitors to see.

We eventually began to incorporate talk-backs into specific exhibitions. One of the first of these was for a project called Lito the Shoeshine Boy. This 1974 exhibition was based on a photo-documentary-style children’s book about a day in the life of a poor, abandoned street boy in Guatemala. A maze-like space, stage-set-style rooms and large black-and-white photos and text from the book suggested the environments and activities of Lito’s everyday life, as he made it more or less on his own, with little adult help and no schooling.

Visitors were asked to consider this story and write to us about it on notepaper that could be tacked up on a bulletin board. And write they did, about their sorrow for this boy, with thanks for telling his story, or appalled that we were telling such a sad story in a “fun” place. There were also political opinions about how the Litos of the world had been created—one writer blamed the United Fruit Company and included a snide suggestion about our possible connection to those scoundrels!

Our motives may have been a bit disingenuous. We knew that this exhibition would raise a few eyebrows, and we wanted feedback about this risk from our visitors. We suspected that visitors who opposed our installation for whatever reason would feel a bit more forgiving of us if offered the chance to tell us so in public. We also thought that visitors who were emotionally touched by the exhibition would be grateful for a place to reveal their feelings.

Thus was born the notion of the talk-back as a Boston Children’s Museum device that might do three things:

  • inform us, the producers, if our products were found to be useful and enjoyable to the people for whom we had produced them;
  • provide a place for people to vent strongly felt emotions or opinions that the exhibition may have evoked;
  • mitigate controversy evoked by some of our possibly risky undertakings by providing a public forum for naysayers to “tell us off.”

Subsequent experiments would bear out the utility of all three of these suppositions and eventually add two others:

  • provide a medium for visitors to talk to each other;
  • provide a way for visitors to become part of the exhibit by continually adding to its content.

If ever an exhibition cried out for the use of talk-backs for all these purposes, it was the 1986 Endings: An Exhibit about Death and Loss. We designed three talk-backs for the 5,000-square-foot space. (As developer of this exhibition, I should have known to have made it four… but more about that later.)

The first component asked visitors if they had been named for anyone. We expected a light response, mostly citing grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The response was light, but surprisingly featured many examples of children named for soldiers—kin and friends—lost in the Vietnam War. This was fascinating both to us and our visitors.

The second component asked for opinions about the afterlife. After describing a variety of beliefs (unattached to a specific religion), including the notion that there is none, visitors were asked, “What do you and your family believe?” Two of my personal favorites were, “My family believes in heaven, but I’m not so sure,” and “Our soils (sic) fly up to heaven,” complete with an illustration thereof.

The third component should have been two: It asked visitors to tell us what they thought of the exhibition or to share an experience they had had with death. I think some visitors were confused by this double question, though most chose to answer one or the other. Visitors answering the first question were all over the map, often responding to other people’s postings. Some thought it brilliant, others that it was inappropriate for a children’s museum, or that we should read our New Testaments—then we’d know that there was no such thing as death! Some younger visitors wanted to tell us that they thought the material was OK for them (9- or 10-year olds), but they feared it was inappropriate for “younger” visitors.

Answers to the second question were sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and sometimes so personal they weren’t posted, but placed in the box we provided. Many of these were written by adults. Many were very long and heartfelt. One often had the sense that some of these visitors had been looking for a way to tell someone about their feelings for a very long time. In many ways, the content provided by our visitors was just as engaging as the exhibition itself.

Talk-back boards were used with equal effect and poignancy in an exhibition called Families, about the love and commitment of members of nontraditional families to each other. Here again, we, and our visitors, heard how grateful kids felt that their own particular type of family had been recognized, although some adults took issue with the appropriateness of the presentation of a homosexual couple in a children’s museum.

In the mid-1980s, Michael Spock and I took our love of this device with us to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. One of its first uses there was to help us and our visitors focus on an old, miniature diorama called “Morning Star,” in the Native American Hall. In it, a young woman was being sacrificed by a group of men. Label copy explained that this was an annual event meant to please the gods. Though the diorama had sat un-remarked upon for 30 years or more, a white feminist visitor was so outraged by it that she wrote a scathing letter to us. We consulted a Pawnee eldress, and she too wrote a letter explaining that this really did happen, that they weren’t proud of it, but that there was no reason not to talk about it. These two letters were posted in a talk-back, in which other visitors could state their opinions. Should we get rid of this exhibit, we asked, or keep it? In the meantime, staff research revealed many flaws in both the presentation and the label copy. Based on visitor commentary over a long period, we decided to keep the diorama and correct it. It became a less lurid presentation and more accurate—for instance, the whole village had participated, not just a group of overexcited-looking men.

Other talk-backs were used, especially in Life Over Time, the Field Museum’s large exhibition about evolution and the history of life on Earth. These talk-backs addressed some sticky issues that would be seen by some to have religious implications. One asked (in the context of the Urey-Miller experiment* of the 1950s and a book of creation stories from all over the world) what visitors thought about how life began on Earth. Responses to this ranged from “kill all abortion doctors” to “Darwin is God” to “evolution is a glove on the hand of God.” None of these, of course, addressed the question we asked, but all made it clear that visitors of every persuasion were eager to state their opinions and show what side they were on or, like the last, that they could see both sides.

One important lesson learned at the Field Museum was in Animal Kingdom. An early talk-back in that conservation-minded exhibition asked, “What can you do to help the environment?” and provided some prompts, such as recycling, or saving gas or electricity. To this, visitors replied with observations like “Charlie loves Sally” and a variety of four-letter words. Why? Because they knew they were being set up. We weren’t really asking them what they thought, we just wanted them to parrot something back to us, and they refused. We took it out.

Now, a few words about technique. Readers will have noticed that every example uses paper and pencil and not computers. The biggest innovation seems to be that of the Post-it. (And how glad I am of it—no more worrying about little ones with thumbtacks or pushpins!) Though computers were considered at the Field Museum, we eventually decided in each case to stick to the old technique. There are a couple of reasons. One is that it is much easier (and easier for more people at one time) to scan the comments of others or to add their own. Another reason is that people can place their comments in relationship to others or to graphics that are supporting an idea.

This is not to say that the variety of uses of computers and video kiosks for feedback in many institutions doesn’t work fine. In addition to having innate appeal for some visitors, computers also offer the institution a simple way to keep all the comments, instead of having shoeboxes of “stickies” floating around. But it is also important to remember that no matter how consistently or scientifically talk-backs are collected, they are no replacement for actual visitor research, and that collecting talk-backs will not yield a reliable database for analysis.

At the Field Museum, we also experimented with the use of a “comment book” at the end of Daniel’s Story, a traveling exhibition about the Holocaust. This is a perfectly good way to allow for visitor feedback. But even using paper and pencil, it shares some of the aspects of computer feedback, in that only one person can use it at a time, and it’s more difficult for other visitors to review what others have written or to respond in a direct way to the comments of others.

It is for these reasons that the single question “talk-back” seems to me to be the most useful format. It becomes a temperature-taking device, a venting mechanism, a dialogue enhancer, and an integral part of the exhibition content. All in all, talk-backs, by their very participatory nature, help to turn every exhibit they are in to one of dynamic daily change and thereby change the tenor of each installation for the better.

* In this stunning experiment, the combination of water, hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and an electrical spark yielded the creation of three life-essential amino acids in a week’s time, suggesting that life on Earth could have begun through a happy, but accidental combination of common materials.

Janet is now an independent museum consultant and member of the Museum Group. This post was adapted from articles that appeared in the Journal of Museum Education, Volume 28, Number 3 (Fall 2003), and in Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, edited by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock (ASTC 2007).

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