Highlights of the APGA Education Symposium

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Mount Rainier, seen from the plane on my way into Seattle.

Conferences provide many opportunities for professional development, from the chance to meet and network with others in the field to seeing how other museums are operating.  The greatest opportunity is to learn and take that new knowledge home and put it to use.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Garden Association’s Education Symposium.  This conference was extremely well organized and I brought home much that I want to share and implement at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Symposium Organization
The organization of the Symposium was excellent and provided a framework that other conferences should follow.

The Symposium was held in the Seattle, Washington area over three days.  Each day was at a different public garden.  Visiting other gardens and museums is a great way to see what colleagues are actively doing to serve and engage their public.  It was great that the Symposium provided the opportunity for us to visit three separate gardens during our visit.

Organizers also took advantage of the proximity of the University of Washington.  Universities, of course, have researchers working in a variety of fields that can enhance museums.  The Symposium featured U of W professors from museum studies, neuroscience and environmental psychology backgrounds.

Evaluation / Washington Park Arboretum
Day one was held at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.  Dr. Jessica Luke, chair of the university’s museum studies department, gave a talk about the importance of doing evaluation.  Luke made three important points:

  1. Evaluation starts with strategic thinking: She encouraged us to think about outcomes in our evaluation.  What is the change that comes about as a result of our guests participating in the activities we’re evaluating?
  2. Evaluation doesn’t have to be big or expensive: Luke asked the audience what the major barriers are to doing evaluation.  Of course, the top two answers were time and money.  I appreciated her bluntness in asking us to get past these barriers and make evaluation part of our jobs.  Evaluation is something you can do yourself and with your team and something you can keep simple.  Just do it!
  3. Evaluation requires you to translate your results into practice: As Luke said, “Evaluation is about use. If you don’t have a use for your data, don’t collect it.”  Another way to put it is be prepared to act on what your data tells you.

Following this presentation we had a tour of the Washington Park Arboretum, including the park’s Fiddleheads Nature School, a nature preschool.  I encourage you to check out the school’s website to learn more about this program, which will hopefully not be so unique in the future.

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Me with Dr. John Falk

Meeting Dr. Falk
For the second day, we were at the beautiful Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Dr. John H. Falk is a name that many of you are probably familiar with.  His research has had a profound influence on my museum practice and our field as a whole.  One of the first things I wanted to do when I began my career at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was conduct a study based on John’s Visitor Motivation Theory.  I did and I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.  The opportunity to meet John, pick his brain, and gather ideas from him was one of the highlights of this trip.

Every once in a while, someone says something that you know is going to stick with you forever.  There was one of those moments during John’s presentation:  “Many people are coming for people things,” he said.  I’ll be repeating that quote to my colleagues for a long time as a reminder that we need to keep people things top of mind in our work.

So often we think about our content first.  But our guests are thinking about people things first:  spending time with family or friends, looking to get away from life for a little bit and relax, making memories, etc.  We need to consider these people things first and our content and collections second.  When we do that, we’ll create better experiences for our guests.

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Dr. Falk giving his keynote address and talking about visitor motivations.

Next, Susanna Cunningham and Jenny Williamson, two University of Washington faculty members, taught us how our brains work and what happens when this plastic organ learns.  Here were the points I found most valuable:

  • The regular attention span of the brain is 20 minutes, and may be getting shorter in our digital world. We need to provide varied experiences for our guests so we can continue to hold their attention.
  • People learn more when they believe they have a “growth mindset.” There’s an increasing amount of literature about this, which I encourage you to explore.  At our gardens and museums we can play a role in helping people believe they have a growth mindset.  Failure—and learning from it—is an important part of the process.  So is mindfulness.  There are things we can do to help our guests be more aware of their mindfulness, such as providing space in serenity gardens.
  • Cunningham and Williamson shared the Pyramid of Learning and encouraged us to think about how it applies to the programs and experiences we create for guests. Google the Pyramid if you’re not familiar with it.  Most learning takes place on the bottom of the Pyramid, which is active learning—discussion (50%), practice doing (75%), and teaching others (90%).

Lynn Manzo and Kathleen Wolf, environmental psychologists, presented next.  Manzo talked about placemaking and place attachment, two related ideas extremely important for museums and gardens.  (She’s co-edited a book about this, which went on my reading list.)  Our environments are special places and through place attachment we can help people create emotional bonds.  Manzo said that we need to love what we save.  This reminded me of Freeman Tilden’s principles of interpretation and his idea that through understanding comes conservation.  Love is a very deep type of understanding.  Place attachment was new to me, but an area that I am going to become more familiar with, since it has important implications for how people interact with the physical space of gardens and museums.

Interest-based Marketing
Gabe Kosowitz, the acting head of brand marketing with the Smithsonian, presented on this topic.

The goal of interest-based marketing is to reach new audiences by meeting them where their interests are.  Falk has encouraged museums to pay more attention to the interests of visitors, including in marketing.

Kosowitz encouraged us not to only market to what he called our “gold viewers” (he comes from the world of television).  He says that gold viewers are super fans—they are already engaged.  Instead, focus on new audiences through three steps:

  1. Identify what those motivations might be for people to interact with you. Kosowitz called some of these motivations “sideway entrances.”  I’ll give an example in a second.
  2. Create contact groups.
  3. Find places to reach the audience with the motivation.

Kosowitz provided an example using the dating website Hinge.  Hinge needs places where people who have met online can meet in person.  The motivation in this case is people looking to fall in love, the contact group and the place to reach the audience is the Hinge platform.  If a museum holds a Hinge meet-up event it can become a platform where new audiences and brought into the museum.

Evaluation, Visitor Motivation Theory, the importance of understanding how the brain works in learning, place attachment, interest-based marketing and the incredible Seattle scenery—these were the highlights of my Symposium.  These highlights were inspirational thanks to a well-designed conference that was well worth the trip.  I’ll be putting these ideas into practice over the next few years at the Botanical Garden!

Thoughts on beginning a museum career, the visitor experience, and positive word-of-mouth marketing

This week, after years of thinking about making a career move into museums, and two years of intense graduate study, I begin my museum career.  I couldn’t be more excited!

This is an exceptional time to begin working in museums.  Our field has recognized that in the 21st century it is the visitor that is at the center of museum activity.  However, in many ways museums are still adapting to this shift.

Understanding visitors and meeting their needs is not easy.  It’s also work that never ends.  As the demographics of our society changes, as new communication methods are created, and as we continue to refine our own practice of serving visitors, we must continually change and adapt.

My museum career begins as a Guest Experience Manager.  I’ve noticed that many museums are starting to create roles around the guest or visitor experience, and I think this is an important development.  If our field is serious about serving visitors then we need someone in each of our institutions who is responsible for managing and refining the visitor experience.

All museum professionals and staff—guards, curators, educators, directors, human resources managers—should have the visitor experience top of mind.  However, putting someone in charge of the visitor experience helps the museum coordinate its efforts and resources to create a seamless experience.

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Positive experiences at the museum promote return visits; the cultivation of visitors into members and possibly donors; and encourage positive word-of-mouth marketing.  Thanks to the internet, we live in a world in which we can all be reviewers and have the ability to see what other people think of their experience before we try it out ourselves.

Gone are the days when we rely on this information only from family or friends.  Before I travel for leisure, I always check websites where people review hotels, restaurants, and places to visit.  I don’t know any of the people whose reviews I read and yet I trust their opinion and make choices based off what they’ve said.

We place much trust in those who do not have a stake in the marketing of a service or product because we perceive that the person giving us their opinion is unbiased.

This is ultimately why a visitor or guest experience manager is so important.  When people have good experiences at our museums, they will become our advocates and tell others.  It helps us advance our mission by giving us the potential to reach more people.

What people are saying about your museum to others is one of the most important indicators of whether or not your museum is successful.  A visitor or guest experience manager can focus on creating outstanding experiences and maintaining a high level of visitor satisfaction.  This work is bound to have a positive impact on the museum.

What are people saying about the experience at your museum?

Image credit: 212 Media Studios