Timing and tracking at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art - Fall 2017

Think about your favorite museum. What immediately catches your attention? Which attractions—whether an artwork, a specific exhibit, an interactive activity—do you always make sure to see? Are there ones that don’t interest you, ones you tend to skip over?  

This fall, I was given the amazing opportunity to conduct a tracking-and-timing study as an intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art. During this time, I observed visitor behavior in the Created, Collected, Conserved: The Life Stories of Paintings exhibit in the museum’s Scaife Galleries. Tracking and timing is an observational method that gives museums an idea of how their spaces are being utilized—what museum components attract the most attention, how long visitors are spending in museum spaces, and more. It’s a great tool for museums to understand which elements of their exhibits work—and which ones do not—in order to better construct exhibits that truly engage their visitors.

Before I began this internship, I was an employee of the Visitor Services department at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History; I have worked there since October 2016, and working directly with visitors proves to be an eye-opening experience every day. However, verbal or written visitor feedback is often lacking or impractical—it would be nearly impossible for a visitor to recount their opinion of every work in a given exhibit, and surveys are relatively infrequent, and thus less reliable. In this case, timing and tracking, a way to anonymously ‘survey’ visitors, can signal the good and bad in a museum solely based on the behavior and movements of a visitor in a gallery or exhibit.

The most important thing I learned from this internship is how much our understanding of visitor opinion changes when we view museum-goers in a more natural, relaxed state. As a Visitor Services representative, my job is to directly engage with our guests and ask them blatantly, ‘How did you like our museum?’ My tasks included taking surveys directly from the visitor, seemingly looming over them while they choose from formulated answers to closed-ended questions. I’ve come to realize how intrusive formal surveys can feel to a visitor. But my task as an intern was to take a hands-off approach with visitors, to watch them from afar, to let their actions answer the questions we have about our galleries. These behaviors are incredibly informative; by studying patterns of our guests’ movements and coding the pertinent behaviors, I was able to glean which artworks were the most eye-catching and which ones tended to be ignored, and study. Based on their engagement with each art object, visitors wordlessly showed me what they liked and what they didn’t find interesting. It was amazing to see how some of the most valuable visitor feedback lay in the unconscious behaviors of museum-goers.

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here