What’s the Bleeding Edge for Museums?

Last week, I talked about our eye-tracking in the science center at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference, as part of a track on Evaluating the Museum. This was the first time I’d attended this conference, and it turned out to be very different from others I’d attended. This, I think, meant that eye-tracking was a little ahead of where the audience of the conference was in some ways and behind in others!

Many of the attendees seemed to be from the art museum world, which has some different and some similar issues to those of science centers – we each have our generally separate professional organizations (American Association of Museums) and (Association of Science and Technology Centers). In fact, the opening plenary speaker, Larry Fitzgerald, made the point that museums should be thinking of ways that they can distinguish themselves from formal schools. He suggested that a lot of the ways museums are currently trying to get visitors to “think” look very much like they ways people think in schools, rather than the ways people think “all the time.” He mentioned “discovery centers” (which I took to mean interactive science centers), as places that are already trying to leverage the ways people naturally think (hmm, free-choice learning much?).

The twitter reaction and tone of other presentations made me think that this was actually a relatively revolutionary idea for a lot of folks there. My sense is that probably that stems from a different institutional culture that prevents much of that, except for places like Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where Nina Simon is re-vamping the place around participation of community members.

So, overall, eye-tracking and studying what our visitors do was also a fairly foreign concept; one tweet wondered whether a museum’s mission needed to be visitor-centric. Maybe museums that don’t have to rely on ticket sales can rest on that, but the conference was trying to push a bit that museums are changing, away from places where people come to find the answer, or the truth and instead to be places of participation. That means some museums may also be generally lagging the idea of getting funding to study visitors at all, let alone spending large amounts on “capital” equipment, and since eye-trackers are expensive technologies designed basically only for that purpose, it seemed just a little ahead of where some of the conference participants were. I’ll have to check back in a few years and see h0w things are changing. As we talked about in our lab meeting this morning, a lot of diversity work in STEM free-choice learning is happening not in academia, but in (science) museums. Maybe that will change in a few years, as well, as OSU continues to shape its Science and Mathematics Education faculty and graduate programs.