Thursday, August 5, 2010

USS Midway Museum's family audio guide sticks with visitors

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending two days aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. As part of my preparation for an exhibit evaluation project, I spent almost four hours taking the audio guided tour of the entire ship in order to gain the valuable perspective of an uninitiated first-time visitor. Upon receiving my headset I was told about the brand new family audio tour, which debuted at the Museum just a few weeks prior to my visit. I expressed a particular interest in this tour, which was developed specifically to engage kids and adults simultaneously, and the docent explained that I was welcome to sample the new guide along my journey whenever I encountered a green numbered audio stop.

I began my tour as many adult visitors would, typing in the appropriate yellow numbers and receiving the carefully crafted and duly informative messages aimed at a mature museum audience. However, after listening to only three of the stops on the family tour, I found myself typing in the green numbers first at combined stops, postponing the adult tour, and listening to it as I made way along the passageway to the next stop. What was the significant difference, and why were the family stops so much more compelling to me?

In essence the strength of the new family audio tour lies in several key principles I believe are critical for any successful museum narrative:
  1. Keep it short: most of the family tour recordings seemed to last less than a minute and a half.
  2. Make it personal: a friendly sailor character personified the experience, developing a familiar rapport between the visitor and the guide, while also allowing an insider's look at life onboard the Midway.
  3. Make it authentic: appropriate sound effects, attention to subtleties, and little details described in intimate spaces piqued the visitor's interest and instilled a desire for more.
  4. Don't get too technical: the emphasis was on how men lived and worked aboard the Midway, and the importance of that work, not on the specifics of how the work was accomplished.
  5. Less is usually more: with markedly fewer stops along the tour, the visitor did not grow as overwhelmed by infinite details, instead the pace was steady, but manageable.
The USS Midway's new family tour works because visitors are treated to a first-hand accounting of the history of the ship, but are not expected to disembark as experts. The pressure to retain great amounts of information is replaced by a casual initiation into the ranks of those who served. Looking back on my experience, I find that I can easily recall numerous memorable stops on the family tour and convey the significant take-away message from each, but I have only a few such take-aways remaining from the adult tour. It was too much information, delivered in rapid-fire succession and unfortunately not as much of it stuck.

In relating my experience with the tour audio guides onboard the Midway, I am reminded of the keynote address delivered this past May by Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors at the Ohio Museums Association's annual conference. Susie reported initial findings from Reach Advisors' survey of over 40,000 museum-going households across the country. In talking about the most memorable and profound museum experiences described by survey respondents, Susie used the term "sticky." The longest-lasting museum encounters were sticky moments when memories were being formed in the minds of young visitors.

Naturally, most museums want to create opportunities for children and their families to have these sticky experiences together within the context of their own particular content. In my opinion, the USS Midway's new family audio tour creates exactly this kind of sticky opportunity. There is a remarkable space to explore, a personable character guide, and a wealth of history and objects to share. I certainly fall well outside of the seven year-old average age for sticky memory creation, but the Midway Museum's family tour will stick with me for years to come. It will be interesting to see if evaluation of this new educational program identifies the same kind of information retention in other visitors, both kids and adults, but that's a study for another day. Stay tuned.

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