Conversations at the Musée National de Céramique

Feedback on Feedback – Thinking Through Qualitative Tools for Understanding Audiences Today

Conversation at Pompidou Pavilion, Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, Paris on 16 May 2016.

Participants: Alun Graves, Senior Curator, V&A Museum, London, UK; Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History, Kansas State University, USA; Namita Gupta Wiggers, Independent writer, curator and educator, director of the Critical Craft Forum, USA; Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, University of Westminster, London, UK; Clare Twomey, Research Reader, University of Westminster, London, UK; Hyeyoung Cho, Independent Curator, adjunct professor, Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea and Helen Walsh, Curator of the Centre for Ceramic Art, York Art Gallery, UK.

Facilitator: Kim Bagley, Research Associate, University of Westminster, London UK.

Within today’s museum environment that encourages participation and interaction, how do museum professionals evaluate the experience of museum-goers in a meaningful and productive way? In this conversation participants discussed the role of the information gathered, the form it takes and who decides this? Raising these questions brought up creative ways to attract visitors to museums including the relatively untapped potential of social-media.

Namita: One thing that I found striking was something implemented by a member of staff working at the Science Museum in Alberta. Kristofer Kelly-Frere developed a bingo board for the gallery guards working at the exhibit entrance to evaluate user experience. The guards had to mark things like: ‘Did somebody come back and bring a parent or someone else with them to show them an activity?’ or ‘Did you overhear someone explain this particular science station to somebody else?’ It was a completely different way of examining user behaviour and user engagement that wasn’t about the length of time someone stood in front of a painting or an object. Rather, it was, ‘Did they care enough that they had to share it with somebody else?’ 

I thought it was brilliant! I want to figure out how to do that in our museum context. Kris also initiated a project about the colour of the sky. He had people dye liquid to create their favourite colour of the sky and then used that to help explain why the sky looks the way that it does. 

Is there a way we could let go of the preciousness of what we think knowledge is about with ceramics, to come back to simple engagements, like the sound of ceramics? What does it sound like when a fork hits a porcelain dish as opposed to stoneware?

Hyeyoung: In Korea we have engaged with computer based programs. For a blue and white exhibition at the national museum, kids could put on a monitor and were able to draw onto blue and white patterns. In one programme they used chalk to draw, to create the sound of bisque-fired work. It’s using the five senses. Because Korea is such a computer-oriented society, they were immediately drawn to this.

Alun: Going back to our conversation about social media yesterday, is there something in that for this kind of qualitative analysis?

When we created the ceramics galleries in the museum, we wanted to give the audience a voice. We created a workstation with a microphone where visitors could leave commentaries, but it dated so quickly. This was 2009 and within two or three years no one wanted to sit down at a computer in a gallery. They were tweeting instead; there was a commentary going on the whole time. It’s fascinating; I don’t think we harness it enough.

Look at the wonderful Laura Ford sculpture, Head Thinker III, which is a ceramic head of a donkey attached to the body of a small boy dressed in school uniform and lying his head down on a plinth; its very sad looking. If you search for ‘V&A donkey’, you’ll see lots of people who have photographed themselves with their head beside him on the plinth. How can we harness that?

Namita: I think it has to be done very carefully. What’s lovely about that is there’s a humour to it.

With the Object Focus: the Bowl show, we invited people to write and submit stories about ‘A Bowl,’ ‘The Bowl’ and ‘My Bowl’. A poem written about a bowl by a member of the public could have gone up alongside Glenn Adamson’s essay or Rob Walker’s essay. It was all equal. I’ve seen another museum project where they said, ‘Here’s our collection, tweet out or tag the images you think are the best and we’ll make an exhibition about that.’ To me that’s just stupid.

Alun: Absolutely.

Namita: It’s wildly popular but for the wrong reasons. There has to be a way to engage with ceramics, but really carefully. We tried to do this in a small way with Across The Table , a project Michael Strand and I did for NCECA. The idea was for people to share their projects that involved a connection between food, ceramics and community in some way. Anecdotally, the interesting thing that emerged was that in the high schools there’s a lot of experimentation and interpretation, and a lot of ethnic diversity. In colleges and the adult area, that diversity is gone. So we’re losing people who were working in ceramics as kids, when they could still be engaged as adults in some way. That was a big insight.  But in terms of the projects themselves, they went all over the map. It didn’t quite pull out data in the same way, but it was an open platform, which you can see online. 

Alun: Your starting point was a beautiful one, the idea of  ‘bingo’ – demonstrating how the museum impacts on people and about the depth rather than the breadth of experience. I’m really keen to find ways of harnessing that and doing things that have impact on people and actually change the way that they think or feel, or what they might do with their lives. If we can do things and understand what has that level of impact?

Clare: Helen and Alun, do you expect those answers about evaluation to come from your institution or do you expect to be the producer of those ideas? Where is the product coming from? Who’s the idea maker? Is it going back to the artists?  Is it going back to this other space?

Alun: The V&A’s learning department was very progressive in terms of doing evaluation for a period, but I feel that that’s drifted as a focus. The evaluation we did tended to be of that quantitative type that you were talking about, capturing whether it’s seven seconds in front of the case rather than twenty. I’m far more interested in finding out if somebody tells someone else about something, and brings him or her back. That seems a far more powerful way of gauging it. I don’t know whether you’ve had evaluations done on your galleries Helen?

Helen: As the art gallery team, we’ve always been very responsive to visitors and interested in what they say. Since we opened we’ve got a wall at the top of the stairs where we ask the question, ‘What made you visit today?’ We’ve had some really interesting responses. We don’t do comments books; we do sketch books where people can respond creatively to the collections. We go through both of those bodies of material each month, highlighting certain things, looking at what people have said and discussing how to respond to that. Since 2002 we’ve developed our gallery ‘interactives’ based on the collection and what visitors say. 

Clare: It’s interesting to hear the different approaches. It comes back to permeability again doesn’t it? So from the museum without walls, we come back to elements of control: is it too scary to say there must be some controls, there must be some education, there must be some link to the museum? It’s that kind of leadership, that guidance, and I suppose it’s why I was asking the provocative question of who owns leadership? Surely the experts are you?

Alun: Well it should be the education departments in the museums but I’m not sure that they’re pushing it at the moment. 

Glen: I think this applies to all different places. You were talking about the institutional voice, trying to get beyond that. You’d do that by putting the public in contact with the artist, but at the same time, when they come back to see the exhibitions, they want the institutional voice there as well.

Alun: It’s not a question of getting rid of the institutional voice altogether.

Glen: That’s what I’m saying, control is in different places. The institutional place and then perhaps it’s somewhere else.

Hyeyoung: You have to mediate the kind of response that you’ll get. 

Namita: I keep thinking of the time that I showed my father in law the film Helvetica. He mocked it; he just thought it was so silly to make a whole movie about a font, but I said, ‘Dad, you would be surprised how much this font is a part of your life’.  The next morning he came downstairs with arms full of everything – his medicines, things out of his wallet – and it all had Helvetica on. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, I had no idea how much it’s permeated my life’. 

How do we create the opportunity for people to have that ‘aha’ moment, when they go home and realise, ‘Oh my God, ceramics is completely a part of my life’? We need to figure out how to ask these questions in museums, to open up that space. In most museum surveys we ask things like, ‘Why did you come today?’ I have never felt like I get good answers. I get interesting answers but what am I supposed to do with, ‘I came because my grandma dragged me here,’ or, ‘I came because it was raining’? You get this marvellous range of reasons but they don’t feel productive to me. 

Alun: I think that’s right, when you’re asking those kinds of questions, it shouldn’t be delegating responsibility to the wider public in deciding what we do; it’s our job to decide what we do. You just want to be the best that you possibly can be in everything you do. There’s no point in doing anything that’s mediocre. You just want to take ideas as far as you possibly can and make and the experience as intense as possible.

Clare: We could say: what is the qualitative process? who is the information for? I think that’s a really important part of this dialogue. I’m thinking of an Arts Council report that just came out from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust on a project that I was involved in. Because questions are very important to me, I have to ask the right question, with exactly the right amount of responsibility, to enable difficult subjects to be addressed, so the nuances are absolutely graded perfectly.

There was one quote that came back to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust project, the person who gave it had to find us. There isn’t any information about me or about the organisation on the spoons I gave away in this proejct. This person went through a great deal of effort to respond, so they made sure that what they had to say was important, and it was – it was very, very powerful. It’s now in the final report and The Trust value it. So when we say qualitative processes, I think it’s also about the rationale for that information. Who is it for?  That must affect the qualitative processes. 

Christie: Well it’s for the artists as well as the institution isn’t it? I did a very broad questionnaire of four basic questions when I did the show at the Freud Museum. ‘Did you come here to see the Freud Museum or did you come to see the art show?’  And, ‘Has it affected the way you might know more about Freud?’, and so on. A lot of people simply answered yes or no, but then every now and then you’d get an essay, and for the artists that’s really interesting. 

Clare: But to the institute it might be very galvanising as well. 

Hyeoung: I guess it depends on the context.

Namita: I wonder if we should be switching it to, ‘How do we change culture through qualitative assessment?’ This is not a great example, but when we did an interactive jewellery show in 2008, everybody had the option to take a picture of themselves wearing contemporary jewellery from the show. Now there are more than fifteen hundred images on a Flickr site of people adorning themselves.  There are a few of a particular piece that was made as a bracelet, with six-foot long tendrils of thread hanging down, but everybody was putting it on their head. The artist came back to us when she understood that her object didn’t communicate what it was intended to be, saying, ‘I realised I needed to redesign it in order to make it clear it’s a bracelet and not a headpiece’.

Maybe it’s not just asking questions, maybe it’s using this proliferation of these smartphones and images as a means of capturing data as interpretation or as documentation. 

You could use it to answer a question like, ‘Send me a picture of ceramics in your daily life’, ‘What’s the first ceramic object you touched in the morning?’ What kind of information could you gather from that? That would give you a different understanding of how people realise, ‘I touch clay all the time’. 

Is it a how question that can shift? Does it change then from the institution feeling responsible for all of it? Does it shift it to a vehicle that you can use to ask the questions outside of words?