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“Learning and understanding, not measuring”

Reading Room, Wellcome Collection ©Wellcome Collection

At Wellcome Collection, visitor evaluation proves exciting

by Clare Curtis, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection

Visitor Experience Assistants (VEAs) at Wellcome Collection have a unique role. Wellcome Collection is a free visitor destination on London’s Euston Road, exploring the connections between medicine, life and art. It is part of Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation which supports scientists and researchers to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. At Wellcome Collection the VEA team invigilate the galleries, help visitors find their way around the venue and do all manner of other daily operational duties. We’re also on hand to help visitors interpret what they find in our spaces. We research and deliver exhibition tours and activity sessions for visitors called “busks”, we create content and enable our visitors to experience what is on offer by working closely with the Exhibitions, Events, Communications and Library teams. Participating broadly in the wider work of Wellcome Trust, the quality of these collaborations is distinctive and highly unusual in the sector.

Staff ethnography is a key part of a project called “Creative Investigation”, run by Maurice Davies, now Head of Collections, Royal Academy of Arts, and Christian Heath, Professor of Work and Organisation at King’s College. I began working with them in 2014 when Ken Arnold, then-Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, brought them on board to look at creative approaches to evaluating visitor experience at Wellcome Collection[1]. This followed their report “Evaluating Evaluation”, which criticised summative museum evaluation for having poor visibility within museums and rarely leading to learning or reflection.


[1] Clare Curtis and Maurice Davies, “Evaluation doesn’t have to be boring: Creative approaches to understanding audiences”, presented at 2015 UK Museums Association conference

Shifting the gaze

The redevelopment of Wellcome Collection provided an opportunity to take a different approach to investigating how visitors use our spaces. Rather than rejecting typical evaluation methods already in place (such as visitor numbers, dwell times in galleries and quantitative visitor questionnaires),  this involved doing something deliberately different in addition to them. Ken Arnold described this as being about “learning and understanding, not measuring”. 

The result was “Creative Investigation”, which explored visitor experience through video observations, creative visitor feedback methods and revamped feedback boxes, a Post-It takeover (where visitors could leave their thoughts, comments and criticisms on Post-Its in our galleries) and staff ethnography, which is on-going today.

A workshop session was held with Christian Heath and a project group of VEAs and Library staff. Christian gave us a brief introduction to ethnographic principles and methods so we could have the necessary working understanding to observe visitors in the galleries. When we began observing visitors in Wellcome Collection, forefront in our minds were key questions from the workshop: “What are the routines and practices that seem to inform the way visitors engage?” and “What are the practical activities and knowledges visitors draw on?”

Ethnography practice draws on the honed observation skills of our VEAs: we are always watching people, although it’s usually to read cues that might signal how we could best help visitors enjoy their time at Wellcome Collection, rather than for the purposes of evaluation. Our team are adept at when to come forward to speak to a visitor, when to step back, and how to negotiate the tricky space between the two. Our exhibition programme is exciting and challenging, with multi-disciplinary content that approaches topics ranging from sexuality and gender to murder and disease. Our spaces and events aim to be bold, experimental and provocative. Reading visitor reactions to our content and spaces as visits unfold is a key part of our role.  

With ethnography, we can take advantage of our skills and experience, recording observations of the smallest gestures; of what visitors attend to in our spaces; of visitor pathways through exhibitions; and of the nature of visitors’ interactions with participatory artworks as well as with our events, our staff, interpretation panels and wayfinding in the venue. We look at groups of visitors as well as lone visitors, and try to observe without making assumptions. 

Reading Room, Wellcome Collection ©Wellcome Collection

The fact that we are a potential influence on visitors as we try to unobtrusively observe is understood, but accepted. After making discreet “field notes” we hold shared discussions to see if any themes or visit patterns have emerged. This is an iterative, critical process that Christian introduced us to, which helps us to focus further fieldwork. 

Insight and impact

So far we have looked at the kinds of engagement that arise in different spaces and the nature of participation, including participation in open events or with VEA-led activities. We have observed visitor behaviour in and around the Reading Room, a hybrid space that blends gallery, library and meeting area, and with a powerful artwork by Šejla Kamerić, Ab uno disce omnes, in our Forensics exhibition, which allowed visitors to view documentary video and images within a mortuary fridge. Recently we have looked at some more practical issues such as visitor wayfinding and use of the central Atrium. This has already led to several immediate, simple changes in the way we think about the Atrium and has the potential to inform other areas in the future, such as staff allocation and signage. Staff ethnography findings have garnered interest in other departments of Wellcome Collection and beyond its walls as well. Following on from “Creative Investigation”, the next step is refining how we might best present our insights in brief and creative updates.

Support from the management team has allowed staff ethnography to become a regular part of our practice. Head of Visitor Experience Christopher Burns has always believed that visitor experience staff gain a wealth of knowledge about visitors from their everyday work. Staff ethnography complements the ambition that Wellcome Collection’s Visitor Experience team become a leader and key influencer in how frontline staff expertise and talent are integrated into the visitor experience. It has also proved a great way for the ethnography staff group and the wider VEA and Library teams to share best practice and learning, acknowledge our skills and keep them sharp.