Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Remember the Visitor’s Perspective

by Minda Borun
The Franklin Institute and Museum Solutions

Visitors come to the museum with all levels of knowledge and preconceived ideas. Some ideas are developmental; they are attached to particular age ranges in children, and tend to disappear or evolve over time. Piaget’s famous example of a developmental concept is the child’s idea that a thin eight ounce glass with a taller column of liquid always holds more than a wide eight ounce glass, with a shorter column of liquid. Other ideas are what are known as “naïve notions.” These common sense explanations persist into adulthood and are widely shared. An example of a naïve notion is that in summer the Earth’s position on its elliptical orbit is closer to the sun. Actually, the warmth of summer is due to the tilt towards the sun of the Earth on its axis and comes at opposite times for the Northern and Southern hemispheres. One of the most important aspects of developing an exhibit is visitor input. Visitor-testing an exhibit is a way of delving into the intended audience’s psychology, and emerging with insights only obtainable by seeing the activity from the visitor’s perspective. A visitor’s perspective is something even the exhibit’s most informed scientist or creative designer cannot possibly possess.

It is critically important to conduct front-end evaluation studies to uncover misconceptions that are widely shared and to explicitly address these misconceptions in the exhibit. Such findings can dramatically change your ideas about what needs to be included in an exhibition. For example, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia was planning an exhibition on global warming. Front-end interviews revealed the widespread idea that the ozone hole lets in the rays of the sun, that warm up the earth. Further, it was believed that all environmental problems were one problem—pollution—which created the hole is the ozone layer. Since the global warming exhibition was intended to stimulate ecologically positive behavior, it was important to uncover this confusion and to address its various facets. Visitors needed to understand that ozone is good up there (in the stratosphere) where it reduces our exposure to the sun’s rays, lessening skin cancer. But that ozone is bad down here (in our atmosphere), where it one of a number of greenhouse gasses that trap heat and contribute to increasing global temperatures, climate change, and disruptive consequences to settlement, food, and weather patterns. Without front-end studies, we would not have known about the need to untangle the two effects.

In the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, which interprets “Old Ironsides,” a father was heard explaining to his son how the ship’s wooden hull was fitted with metal plates. Actually there were no metal plates on this wooden warship. The name “Old Ironsides,” comes from a battle during the war of 1812 when sailors saw cannonballs bounce off the ship's thick oak hull and one cried, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron.”

USS Constitution

USS Constitution nicknamed “Old Ironsides”

If such widespread misconceptions are not directly addressed, visitors will see the new information they encounter in the exhibition through a filter of misconceptions and leave with their preconceived notions unaltered or reinforced.

Another example of the power of misconceptions was uncovered in conversations with visitors to The Franklin Institute’s Gravity Tower exhibit. Visitors, including those in a graduating class of soon-to-be science teachers, explained that without air, objects would not fall to the earth and that’s why things float in space. Further, it is the spinning of the Earth that holds things down. Without going deeply into the physics involved, suffice to say that it’s the great mass of the Earth that attracts other masses to it, which this has nothing to do with the presence of an atmosphere, and things appear to float in space because they are far away from the pull of the Earth’s mass. Further, the spinning of the Earth tends to fling things away from it and the Earth’s gravitational pull counters the outward push of its spin.

Another reason for visitor input is that visitors come to the museum with different goals. Some will want to wander on their own and then share what they find out with their visiting group. Others are just looking for a social experience. It’s important to create experiences that satisfy these differing needs and inclinations in order to serve the broad and diverse museum audience.