Museums appraise family appeal

Rebecca Atkinson, Issue 110/06, p6, 01.06.2010
Midlands museums send mystery shoppers to assess facilities
Six local authorities in the West Midlands have teamed up to carry out a mystery-shopping exercise and appraise each others’ museums from the perspective of a visiting family.

The pilot, which was funded by Renaissance in the Regions, involved staff from 36 museums assessing each other on issues relating to family visitors, from signage and staff knowledge to toilet and cafe facilities.

Shropshire council led the exercise, in partnership with Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Wolverhampton.

Nigel McDonald, founder of No Nonsense Interpretation, which developed the project with Shropshire council, said: “Families are an important part of a museum’s audience with needs that are easily overlooked, but inexpensively met.

"They are also high on the political agenda, so this pilot aimed to encourage staff to look at the place where they work from the perspective of a visiting family.”

Using the Kids in Museums 2009 manifesto as a basis, No Nonsense developed a toolkit to help the mystery shoppers fairly assess museums. They looked at the whole process of visiting a museum, from planning a visit online and making direct enquiries to the exhibitions and interpretation.

“An interesting finding was that many museums downplayed how family friendly they were,” said McDonald. “For example, those without cafes didn’t tell the mystery shoppers if there was one nearby.”

Lisa Moore, visitor services team leader at Warwickshire County Council, who took part in the mystery-shopping exercise, said interpretation was a problem at many of the museums she visited.

“Some labels were too wordy for adults, let alone children, and there was little information at a child-friendly height,” she said.

Warwickshire used the feedback to develop services at the recently renovated Market Hall Museum.

“We have improved our interpretation and introduced family-learning trolleys,” said Moore. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, it’s just a question of putting more thought into the experience for children.”