Visitor Surveys: The Good, The Bad, and The Painful

This week has been a testament to why I love museum work. For about a month I’ve been doing visitor surveys. Just when people thought they were done with us, when they had finally gone three times through every gallery looking for the exit and pulled out their DC maps to find the National Gallery, I would jump in their way.

Hey (folks/guys/everyone)! Are you (or y’all, depending on how folksy I’m feeling) headed out for the day?

They would nervously nod their heads, patting their chests assuming they had to hand over their visitor tag.

I would tilt my head, raise my eyebrows a little bit in case that awarded me even a little bit of sympathy for my task. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a 5-minute survey? You’ll get a free postcard… stay out of the heat for a little bit longer? Feigned chuckle.

If they were in a group, they would consult each other with a quick look. I can happily report that most people were actually willing to participate. We would proceed, often having a fairly cordial and enlightening conversation. I learned a lot, and spoke to people from at least 10 foreign countries. Inevitably, however, people saw me as a confidante, and it sometimes caused them to unload a corpus of complaints on me. I realized halfway through one man’s diatribe about hierarchy in the museum (and how members should somehow be exempt from the idiocy and absentmindedness of lay visitors) that I didn’t particularly like talking to people. Not all the time anyway. No one does. And back to my original point – why I love museum work: just when I was developing a pinched nerve from smiling all day and my threshold for responding sarcastically was getting dangerously low (You must have missed our sedan chair rental in the lobby, sir! Hop on, I’ll carry you myself!) the surveys closed, and I started database work.

Now, I get to put on my headphones and impulsively snack all day while I analyze visitor responses. It’s going really well so far, and comparing the in-gallery data with the online survey is really interesting. (People, for instance, were drastically more enthusiastic about technology geared towards visitors with physical and visual impairments in front of me than they were behind their computer screens.) And when I get tired of sitting at my desk, I’ll probably have something else to do that will get me away from it. The balance between hours spent in the office and hours spent with the visitors is essential to museum work. It allows us to continually gain new perspectives. And fortunately, it keeps us engaged, as well.


  1. emstrope says:

    I’m really enjoying reading your posts! What exactly were the surveys focused on? Are you analyzing overall visitor experiences or specific reactions to certain exhibits/types of media used in your exhibits? I hope to work in museums and I am always interested in hearing more about the ways in which public historians are responding to a changing world filled with new technologies and new historical and cultural interests.

  2. kafrenkiel says:

    Thanks for your feedback! Our survey was designed to evaluate digital engagement in the museum – so understanding visitors’ current use of our digital offerings and their interests in possible future projects. We also asked them for examples of things they’ve seen in other museums to use as a research base and understand what they liked or didn’t like about them. We’re hoping to develop a new digital project this year using the data from this survey. I find it incredibly interesting as well! I’m really interested in how visitors are engaging with the content in our museum. Education is obviously just as important, but visitors can’t be educated unless we convince them to engage first.

  3. machoffel says:

    I’ve really enjoyed following your posts! Your humor has made reading these posts really enjoyable. Have you found that traditional ways of digital engagement like movies or pressing buttons for information and the like are popular or are they falling short?

  4. kafrenkiel says:

    Thank you! I think the reason we keep coming back to these methods is because they’re so simple and intuitive, and I tend to believe that newer forms of tech like VR might not be the solution to our problems (a rant I’m about to post about haha). I’m a big fan of AR, because it would remove tech from the walls for those visitors who don’t want to see it, but it also creates the problem of visitors walking around carrying an iPad and being completely unaware of their surroundings, which is both a security issue and is annoying to other visitors. The Brooklyn Museum came out with an app that is literally just a messaging platform for staff to respond to visitors’ questions. I feel like this idea has been so successful because it is so simple, and this is what we need to strive for.