Eric White describes how Old Sturbridge Village assessed their family audience and how they interacted with museum’s offerings. They then responded by developing exhibits and activities that attracted, entertained, and educated their family audience.
All in the Family
A Family Learning Roundtable Presentation
by Eric White
June 14, 2005
Outline of Presentation
Old Sturbridge Village has operated as a traditional living history model since the 1960s, primarily demonstrating life of rural New Englanders from the 1830s. This living history model is highly dependent upon large numbers of costumed staff demonstrating the lives, actions & deeds, work and play of those from another lifetime. From the 1960s to 2000 surveys of family audiences often revealed their favorite experiences in visiting OSV were areas unrelated to history— such as meeting the animals, horse & wagon rides and chocolate chip cookies. Over time family attendance declined— assessment revealed issues of high price, lack of interactivity and change, and increased external competition as major reasons for the decline. At the same time we were confronted with serious financial deficits that sadly resulted in staff layoffs and the need to provide new visitor experiences. In 2003 we examined these concerns and took a look at ourselves recognizing the need to change. We were in the process orrewriting our mission to:
Old Sturbridge Village, a museum and learning resource of New England life, invites each visitor to find meaning, pleasure, relevance and inspiration through the exploration of history.
— Mission Statement, 2004
We assessed our situation at the time through internal discussions and informal conversations with our visitors and key stakeholders. We engaged in a strategic process that examined critical questions including:
- What can we do (internal strengths and weaknesses)?
- What must we do (external opportunities and threats)?
- What do others expect (stakeholder expectations)?
- What new capabilities do we want to develop?
- How do we shape our environment to create new possibilities?
- What do we need to learn to care about?
- How do we partner with stakeholders to develop shared expectations?
We also identified the key audiences we were going to concentrate our current resources on to teach and stabilize our situation. We examined these audiences needs and expectations, and how we could best meet these within our mission and resources as well as how we could differentiate ourselves from other organizations (In marketing this is Segmentation, Targeting, Positioning). The three audiences we chose to target were: increase members and member participation, improving the school audience experience, and creating strong experiences for families— which is the target of this report.
Assessing the OSV family encounter led to the realization that we were stronger at adult than child experiences. Therefore many of our efforts have concentrated on building the interaction and opportunities for the younger audiences. The primary principles we have built these opportunities around are: Imagination, Play, Experimentation, Discovery, Immersion, Drama, Pleasure, Conversation. All of these built around our expertise of early 19 th century New England history.
NEW EXPERIENCES INCLUDE:
- Kidstory— an interactive exhibit where children can play with the past and draw their own learning conclusions
- A Child’s Life— an interactive thematic house where visitors can explore the lives of children in the early 19 th century through artifacts, interactives, hands-on and play.
- Historical demonstrations with staff trained to engage with families.
- Fee-based Interactives— visitors pay an extra fee to try their hand at the potter’s wheel, writing with a quill pen, making and eating/drinking tea & cakes (cookies), and more.
- Performances aimed at family audiences— such as a recreated tour of the Oxcart Man book complete with meeting the oxen, the farmer and storekeeper or “participatory history game shows” such as Mythbusters, What’s My Line and What Is It?
- Personal Encounters— opportunities for families to have special tours and programs designed especially for them such as the family garden tour.
- Special Events created around themes that draw upon ideas and themes important to families— such as December Holidays (Spirit of the Season that explores the history of holiday traditions) and historical “Base Ball.”
- Reflective spaces for more quiet contemplation and discussion.
- The role of costumed interpreters dramatically changed becoming family facilitators rather than recreating the past and encouraging visitors to watch, the staff role is to engage the visitor by facilitating conversation, hands-on interactives as well as expert demonstrations and performances.
The change is one shifting from the family being a passive observer to providing choices between passive and more active experiences— including opportunities where the family is the focus of the action. In this environment, the objective is to create experiences where child and parent are engaged, sharing and teaching each other.
We are very much in the beginning phases— trying different ideas, testing, talking with our audiences and in many cases throwing out “prototypes” that don’t work, learning from these and trying something new. There are several areas where we have tried something that didn’t work and then moved on— sometimes back to something that worked better before and sometimes to something totally new.
While this isn’t necessarily the measure of success (or the means to track families) our youth (ages 3–18) attendance last year increased by 2600 (8%) and is currently up 1100 (11%) from this time last year.
Currently we are working on Mapping the Visitor Experience. We are attempting to plan out those areas, exhibits, programs, etc. that are designed for families, those for adults, schools and members. We are looking at all elements of the experience— where to encounter costumed staff balanced with self-guided opportunities, where to have reflective moments balanced with highly interactive engagements, places to rest, drink, eat, restrooms, etc.
In mapping the experience we are testing a new proposed model (see below) that explores the idea of a hierarchy to planning the visitor experience. This matrix comes from combining ideas from our work at OSV as well as many (some obvious others less so) theorists, psychologists, educators and writers including— Maslow (hierarchy of needs), Falk & Dierking, George Hein, Piaget, Pine & Gilmore, Kotler & Kotler, Pitman, among many others. This hierarchy begins with:
- Level 1: Identify the audience you are designing for.
- Who are they, what are their needs and expectations?
- Level 2: Address the Service Needs.
- Physiological: restrooms, food, drink, shopping, accessibility, seating, etc.
- Physical & Emotional: secure, orientation, understand the rules, feel comfortable & safe, clean, maintained, orientation & wayfinding, safe footing, etc.
- Personal: welcomed, friendly, respected, etc.
- Social: multi-user, multi-model, intergenerational, multigenerational, etc.
- Level 3: Address the Learning Needs.
- Content/Epistemology: what is the “it” to learn, key content, themes, ideas, etc.
- Values: goals of education— skills, knowledge, etc.
- Psychology: How does this audience learn? —language, learning styles, age appropriateness, social interaction, etc.
- Affective: What emotional expectations do you want to create?
- Level 4: Address the Experience.
- Putting it all together— what methods do you use to achieve the ideal museum experience? Are these passive/active, absorptive/immersion, staff driven/unstaffed, directed/discovery, fun/academic, etc.
This model is only in initial discussion stage and we offer it for feedback and criticism. Museums, like all learning institutions need to change. I leave you with this quote:
“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the Earth; while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.”
— E. Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change