Imperial War Museum Image of Social Interpretation Blog title

When does a visitor become a user?

In the Red Corner... Two Youth Service Volunteers having a boxing match at an agricultural camp at Nunney Catch in Somerset during 1943. (D 16345,

In the most recent Project Board and Content meetings, we got into a really interesting debate (bear with me).

To enable Social Interpretation, we’re going to install 11 fixed-kiosks in IWM London, four in IWM North, and 50 QR codes between the two museums. At its heart, the debate turned on which objects we’re going to enable direct Social Interpretation against – and specifically how we choose them.

In the Red corner:
The ‘Classic’ Museum View, and for the sake of this, me.

In the Blue corner:
The User-Centred-Design Jedi’s view, and for the sake of this, Claire.

When talking about what objects to socially interpret, most of us automatically jumped to the normal, understandable questions, like “What has the most interesting story?”, “Which ones do we want to draw attention to?”, “Which ones are most interesting or most likely to provoke debate?” and “Which ones do we want to experiment with in preparation for the new First World War galleries?”

Claire, however, had a completely different suggestion: “Why don’t we ask visitors which objects they’re most interested in?” and “Why not just chose visitors’ favourites?”

They’re both valid view points. So which should dictate the choice of objects?

Visitor or user?

If this were a simple user-centred design question, the answer would be obvious. Blue wins. But it’s not that easy.

When someone steps through the door of a museum, they are a visitor. They chose to come into a curated space and already have expectations (arguably) of being somewhat led. They look to the authority of the museum to a certain extent to communicate what’s “important”. In this sense, the favourite test isn’t necessarily valid – when looking to an expert for advice, one’s own preference is less critical.

Similarly, it’s a (sad?) fact that if we were to be purely led on what our visitors want, the IWM would be exclusively Second World War Home-front (Blitz spirit and all that). So in blindly following favourites, taking a user-view, we would be completely failing in our core purpose – to communicate the breadth and depth of people’s experiences of modern conflict.

However, that’s not to say that Red wins hands-down either. Deliberately choosing objects that people aren’t using, and so already engaged with, is a risk to say the least. At worst, it’s pushing at a locked door. What’s the point of enabling user to leave tokens of their interactions with an object (Social Interpretaiton), when there’s evidence to indicate that they won’t choose to interact with that object in the first place?

Similarly, the temptation to use technology to lure people to objects is strong. But when we’re really trying to position tech as an invisible enabler, and not a gimmick, using it to encourage interaction with unpopular objects is, at least, philosophically dubious.

Social Interpretation is, at its heart, about elevating the prominence and primacy of visitors’ experiences within the museum. Shouldn’t this start with our object choices?

And the winner is…

There isn’t one.


This discussion is really an example of the populist vs. expert / narrative / worthy debate that happens in museums and exhibitions teams around the world. Although putting it in the context of of User-Centred-Design does, I think, appreciate that there’s more to being populist than simply pandering. In reality, the museum has to be attractive to its visitors, while also encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone. It has to appeal and challenge.

As pointed out to me, in a sense we’re also meta-curating as well. The objects we’re debating have already been picked to go into the IWM’s spaces. It’s a rarefied set of an already rarefied set.

In the end, we’re going to pick some objects based purely on popularity, and others based purely on narrative / museum need, and hopefully many that are towards the middle of that spectrum.

In a year or so, we might even be able to tell you if Social Interpretation encouraged greater interaction with less popular objects.



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  1. Mia says: December 13, 20119:59 am

    Why not ask your visitor assistants, security guards, tour leaders, etc, which objects in the galleries they work in currently generate the most interesting questions and discussion?

    • Tom says: December 16, 201111:25 am

      That’s actually one of the things we’re doing in IWM North. For this, and for anther project where we’re kitting our Interactors (I still prefer the name Explainers – or Pilots as we used to be called in The Exploratory back in the day) out with Android tablets with content to help them answer often asked questions or points of discussion.
      For instance…

      How on earth did you get the Harrier in there?

      … is very popular. Now we can show visitors the photos and video of it being done!

  2. Rhiannon Looseley says: January 6, 201211:35 am

    You say ‘Deliberately choosing objects that people aren’t using, and so already engaged with, is a risk to say the least.’ I don’t think it need necessarily be a risk if enough staff think that there is an interesting story behind that object, then, chances are, as long as this is communicated properly, the public will think so too.

    If I visit a museum knowing little about the context or the subject it deals with, I find it quite difficult to engage with any of the objects. At best, if I were asked to choose my favourite object, I might end up choosing a piece of jewellery that I thought was pretty. If, however, someone giving a tour told me why they found a particular object really interesting and told me a bit about it I’d be more engaged. In short, I like to be led a little. (sorry Claire to side a little with the red team!)

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