This past week I completed my internship at the Kansas Historical Society (KHS) as their Visitor Studies intern. I am relieved yet concerned with the future of the Kansas Museum of History.
My responsibilities outlined at the beginning of my time only dwindled once reality set in. Expectations of my position shifted around once administration and board members settled on the adjusted timeline for the renovation.
It was decided that I would be spending my time; identifying the best practices in the field of visitor studies to develop a literature review, assisting with designing research projects, testing plans, and evaluations, and contributing my creativity to ideas and strategies in the advancement of KHS’s programs, services, and galleries.
I had five-ish primary projects I worked on during my 200+ hours at KHS. These were: the literature review, creating a ‘user handbook’, a SWOT analysis of the galleries, comment cards, and Kansas Memory.
The literature review started off as incredibly broad project to tackle down. I had to teach myself about the field of visitor studies, assimilating its history within today’s context, and how it exists in the museum world. I looked for information about human/visitor centered design, visitor needs and types, how to study visitor behavior, and comparing program evaluation types and steps of accumulating data, all just to name a few! This project took the majority of my time because there was no good stopping points quite honestly, and the more articles I read, the more interesting certain topics and research questions there were.
Any time I found a ‘relevant’ article to the process of museum renovation, yet had no real category it fit into, I would save it to a miscellaneous type folder (which I had to later re-organize!).
Secondly, I created a concise and accessible document with specific details for Kansas Museum of History staff to use in the future. The document had six pages organized by definitions followed by five topics. Hyperlinks were attached to citations, my previous notes from articles, or webpages with that information. I merely fashioned this document together to allow options in the future development of the museum.
Next, my supervisor, Ashley, and I, went on five different occasions into the galleries to conduct a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I had never practiced this exercise before in a museum. The most relatable experience I had previously was in my museum spaces and technology course the second semester in Florence. We practiced analyzing a single gallery space in a contemporary art museum in Florence, Museo Novecento, when we had to measure out our assigned space by steps, noting each element in the space. An element would include a wall text, an object, a weight-bearing column, a change in elevation of the floor, etc. Somewhat translating that process at KMH was not quite the same.
I was primarily focused on challenges and barriers that would prevent visitors from learning and enjoying the museum. The biggest trends I noticed across the entire museum was: label legibility, way finding, and continuity. Label legibility entails its placement to the visitor’s line of sight – if they have to strain or bend down to read it, its orientation to object – if it is not necessary to ‘find’ the label amidst all other supporting text, and size/color/font choice/lighting. Wayfinding is incredibly important in a museum that is organized by free choice, with no guided path to follow. This component closes the gap of a visitor wondering where they are in the galleries, if they are going the right way they want to, and recognizing change of subject or time. Continuity in a museum means that the stylization of signage is unified, the colors and themes are easily identifiable, and object protection has the same protocol.
On the contrary, my supervisor was focused on the content and ‘big picture’ of the museum. Her background is in sociology and social science, as opposed to my art history and museum background. While I was going through the museum I would go in the mindset of a first-time visitor, which is the majority of visitors at the KMH.
Next, after wrapping up my literature review finds, I was browsing the museum’s shared drive and came across a folder with comment card information from the past two years. The information was simply, and inefficiently, entered in Word documents that were difficult to synthesize. I took it upon myself to spend an entire day converting the information in a single Excel document with a few worksheets. The biggest trends that visitors would write about were: admission fees, labels and way finding, accessibility, and their overall visit experience. Hopefully the method will be sustained and used in the support of the gallery renovation proposal.
Lastly, I did some research for KHS’s online collection, Kansas Memory, in regards to usability. Usability centers a user’s (in this case a visitor) needs, limitations, and preferences to the platform’s objectives. I did not want to reinvent the wheel, so I looked into existing accumulations of online resources and information that would support my recommendations. This included IBM’s Accessibility Checklist that they frequently update, library website usability testing research articles, and existing websites that have precedents (or model) of components that could be considered for the future construction of the website.
My overall experience at KHS was a little different than I thought it would turn out, but nevertheless, I learned a lot about my work style and preferences, that I need to turn my academic writing style into concise points that are digestible in meetings and briefs with my supervisor. I have always been told to be as thorough as possible, but now that I soon shifting into the workforce, I need to be prepared for that environment. Ashley and I worked so well together, with similar work styles and preferences, and backgrounds compared to others in our division.
I am deeply appreciative for the convenience and flexibility of KHS being located in my hometown of Topeka, with only a 12 minute commute, and with supportive staff. Being a state agency, they do have their limitations and a certain degree of secrecy. Moving forward, I will not eliminate the possibility of working for the government.