Writ large

Simon Stephens, Issue 117/11, p32-37, 01.11.2017

Simon Stephens discovers that visitor comment books divide museum professionals like almost nothing else

“Downright outrageous. Charlotte Cory should be shot.” This was one of the more extreme comments in the visitor book for Capturing the Brontës, an exhibition created by the artist and photographer Charlotte Cory at Brontë Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire in 2014.

Comment books often contain strong opinions, with some visitors finding the relative anonymity giving them the opportunity to be as honest, and offensive, as they want. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the merits of these books seem to deeply divide many museum professionals.

For some museum staff, comment books are a valuable forum for people to provide unmediated comments about what they loved, loathed and learned during a visit. But for others they are a waste of time, full of banal statements that do little to help museums understand what their audiences want, think and feel.

But whether you love or loathe them, it can’t be denied that many visitor books contain an unbelievably broad range of material. Comments can be at turns bemusing, incomprehensible and fascinating, often on the same page. And while there are always lots of short mundane statements such as “cool”, “it was great” and “I loved it”, in the most interesting comment books these are counteracted by passionate, surprising and heartfelt responses to visitors’ experiences.

For those interested in the use of language, comments often contain what can be best described as an inventive approach to spelling and basic grammar. And it is interesting to note that while exclamation marks are practically outlawed in fields such as journalism, in museum comment books they seem almost obligatory, the more the better in fact. And of course there is often swearing, lots of swearing.

Visitors, adults included, also often feel inspired to draw something. These range from simple symbols to elaborate attempts to convey their ideas in image form.

So why do opinions on the usefulness of comment books differ so much? Why do they provoke instant disdain among some sector professionals but misty-eyed affection among others?

Some of it might be down to views on the importance of visitor research in general and where comment books sit within this. Those directly involved in the field of audience research seem the least enthusiastic.

“Too often, visitor comment books are a chance for people to vent, to show off, or to namecheck,” says Sarah-Jane Harknett, the visitor engagement project manager at the University of Cambridge Museums. “I think they are liked because they are simple: buy a book, add a pen – instant evaluation. But they are rarely looked at by staff.

“The visitors that write in them tend to be very positive, very negative, or they just want to let us know that they were here,” Harknett says. “We don’t know who is filling them in, and they are a self-selecting group, so we can’t use data that comes from them in any robust way.”

But others value the fact that comment books often provide an instant reaction to what visitors have seen and the responses are unmediated, unlike other audience research tools, such as visitor surveys, focus groups and interviews.

Geoffrey Marsh, the director of the department of theatre and performance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), has been fascinated by the visitor comment books for two recent V&A temporary exhibitions: David Bowie Is in 2013 and You Say You Want a Revolution? in 2016-17.

“Why on earth would any curator or museum director not want to know what the immediate reaction of their visitors is to something that the museum’s put a lot of effort into?” Marsh says. “They’re qualitative, and so some people may say, ‘well, what’s the value in that?’ I think there is a value because you’re getting something you’re never going to get anywhere else, and I think that outweighs any concerns about subjective bias, as long as you’re aware that this is taking place.”

Marsh says the immediacy of the response gives comment books an advantage over visitor surveys, which inevitably lead people to feel they are being interviewed by an institution, which colours their responses. Many visitors now also post comments on the online travel forum TripAdvisor, but Marsh says these tend to fall into the five-star “everything was fantastic” category, or the one-star “it was completely awful” variety.

But Marsh does acknowledge that visitor comment books can be very different, depending on what people are being asked to comment on. He draws a distinction between those that accompany temporary exhibitions and the ones that are just there for general comments on a visit.

“A lot of museums use them just as a sort of visitor book, and that’s something very different from ones for temporary exhibitions,” he says. “You notice it at historic house museums – there’s a different dynamic going on there. They often don’t say anything other than, ‘I’ve visited’.”

Some of the frustration that people have with comment books relates to their lack of a clear purpose and the fact that they are not a robust visitor research tool.

“While it’s brilliant to hear that visitors have had an enjoyable time, these broad comments don’t provide an explanation for why visitors have had a good time and what they’ve particularly enjoyed, or why they’ve not enjoyed their experience,” says Laura Crossley, a museum consultant. “In my view, a more focused visitor research method, such as asking visitors to respond to a specific question, can be more helpful.”

Crossley is also concerned by the fact that most museums don’t actually use comment books in any meaningful way.

“It can be difficult to find the time to rigorously go through visitor books and analyse every entry,” Crossley says. “If visitor books aren’t analysed and spend their days sitting in drawers gathering dust, they’re of no use to anyone.

“I’d always advise considering whether visitor books offer the best value for people’s time and resources,” Crossley continues. “If they are generating useful data, that’s great. But, if not, don’t be afraid to use alternative methods of visitor research.”

Despite all these concerns, there are examples of museum staff who have changed their approaches based on comments in visitor books.

Jude Holland is the project manager for Doncaster 1914-18, a programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund that includes exhibitions that are touring museums, libraries, faith centres and community centres across the borough. Holland has been using comment books to gather feedback from visitors.

“One of the first venues to host our Doncaster at War: 1915 exhibition was in Mexborough, a town with its own distinct identity to the west of Doncaster,” she says. “Although we’d included mention of historical events that took place in Mexborough during the first world war in the exhibition, and got some positive feedback in the book from local residents, others were less positive. One comment read: ‘Rubbish display. What’s this got to do with Mexborough?’”

This one comment was the catalyst for adopting a new approach to engagement in that particular area. Holland says it led to conversations with community groups that helped her team to understand Mexborough’s history and identity as a place that defines itself as separate from Doncaster. These conversations resulted in a display on Mexborough’s first world war history, two walking trails that featured sites associated with the town’s first world war heritage, and a film about the Battle of the Somme that toured community venues.

“Comment books can be a really useful tool to spark dialogue with your community about what approaches are working, and to indicate when you need to try a different approach,” Holland says.

At the Museum of London Docklands, comments from visitors about its Sugar & Slavery gallery, which opened in 2007 to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the British trade in enslaved Africans, were used to create a display that opened this year. More than two million people, including 250,000 schoolchildren, have visited the Sugar & Slavery gallery since it opened a decade ago, and London, Sugar & Slavery: 10 Years (16 June–29 October), showed a selection of the thousands of visitor comments that the exhibition has attracted.

The gallery’s co-curator, Kristy Warren, says the Sugar & Slavery: 10 Years display was designed to continue engaging the public as co-producers and keep alive the dialogue that was started in 2007.

Visitor comments, whether in books, on Post-It notes or elsewhere, will never become totally reliable and accurate tools for gauging how visitors experience what a museum offers. But this does not mean they don’t have an important role in capturing people’s views in a unique way that other audience research tools cannot replicate.

And one of the most appealing things about them for Geoffrey Marsh at the V&A is the heartfelt and passionate responses that they often contain.

“They’re emotional, which is an important point, and they are instantaneous,” Marsh says. “It’s the emotional side of it which I think a lot of curators have a problem with. They feel that, somehow, it’s outside their responsibilities as a curator, and it’s difficult to deal with. I think it’s the reason we’re here. Because if museums aren’t about engaging with human nature, what are they about?”
Comments on David Bowie is, 2013, V&A, London
“I don’t really know how to word my emotions after this exhibit. One thing I know is that my life will never really be the same as it was”

“Fabulous – a real experience. You should invite the British Museum over and show them how to do it”

“Is it too tragic to say that my whole life has been leading up to this exhibition? Don’t care”

“Oh wow – fantastic and totally tremendous. A wonderful show in all kinds of levels. Thank you V&A for creating a room full of dewy-eyed 50somethings, for not pinning stuff down, for playing around”

“The exhibition sent shivers down my spine. Probably the closest I will be to David Bowie – unfortunately”

“This is not an exhibition, it’s a life-changing experience”

“Absolutely fantastic. Iconic, legendary exhibition – amazing to see the glory of Bowie”

“Amazing, I loved it. I wished I could have been at the 83 concert. Too bad I wasn’t born”

“David – I want to run and make theatre. Why did I waste so much time thinking about it?”

“Thank you so much dear Martin Roth. It was wonderful”