Fortuna Curiosa

Ethnographic Observation of Museum Visitors

A few weeks ago at the Ashmolean we had an excellent workshop delivered by the fabulous Frankie Wilson, Head of Assessment at the Bodleian Library, on applying ethnography based observation techniques to the user experience in spaces such as museums and libraries.

The point of this kind of exercise is to observe how people are actually using your space – surveying people and asking them is not sufficient as people are notoriously bad at reporting their own behaviour. This can offer real insights into usability – rather than demographics or satisfaction levels which again we gather from surveys – helping us better understand the impact of our exhibition layouts, signage and wayfinding and so forth.

Ethnographic observation basically involves direct observation of either a location, and how people are using that location, or a visitor, and how they are interacting with the space. It needs to be one of these at a time, not both, or it becomes too difficult to focus, and the space observed should be relatively small. Frankie also suggested not conducting the actual observation for more than 10 minutes at a time as you will struggle to observe all the relevant information, though of course the process is much longer as you also need to write up your results (generally recorded at that time of a piece of paper that includes a sketch of the floor plan or the space you are observing).

For a project Frankie recommends getting multiple members of the team, with their different perspectives, to do a few observation sessions, and then get all of these people together to do a workshop to share their finding, and see what trends and insights emerge from the cumulative observation. The plan at the Ashmolean is to do this for the current Warhol Exhibition, and I’ll be doing two observation sessions in the coming weeks.

I really enjoyed the training observation sessions we did on the day, and I found I did notice some really interesting thing about how visitors engaged with the space.


I did two observation sessions. First of the space, where I observed a tour group get bottlenecked between two cases making it very difficult for those at the back of the group to see the relevant object. Subsequently I watched the attention of those at the back slowly wander, despite the excellent content being delivered by the guide. It was then difficult to regain the focus of the full group when there was an opportunity to reform a tighter cluster – they had already been lost. This gives us an opportunity to look at the user experience and try different ways of leading the group through the galleries to avoid this.

In the second session I watched two young people move through the space. The first was with a foreign language group, and he was moving through the space taking photographs but without looking at the labels or looking in depth at the images – perhaps a language barrier with the labels pushed against this kind of engagement.

The second was a girl also visiting with a school group, which must have been on a photography session as everyone in the group was carrying very similar cameras. It was fascinating to watch her gravitate towards a touch screen interactive, engage with the content, and actually point out pieces of information to a friend. When moving onto other more traditional content, while she looked closely at and photographed the objects, engagement was much lower. It is considered common knowledge that young people engage with digital interactives, but it was fascinating to watch it in action!

Looking forward to our group analysis of the Warhol exhibition and what we can learn from that!

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2016 by in Museums.
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