Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Visitor Evaluation in the Blackfoot Shirts Project Exhibition: Reflections, by Cherry Jackson

Map of visitor movements in the exhibition

Very soon, we'll start analysing the layers of data we have gathered from visitors to the Blackfoot Shirts Project exhibition at PRM. As you can see from this map, we've been interested to know how much information visitors take away with them, how much of the exhibition they experience, read and view, whether they watched Narcisse Blood's video (they did!), and what they thought when they left. Since we had over 35,000 visitors to the exhibition, we were able to work with a selection of these, of all ages and backgrounds. Thank you to Eliana Ritts, a student in the Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology degree, who designed the evaluation, and Cherry Jackson, an Archaeology and Anthropology undergraduate, who did most of the work with visitors. Student power!

I asked Cherry to reflect on her experiences. Here are her thoughts:

"Now that the exhibition has ended, it gives me the chance of providing an overview of my time doing visitor evaluation of the exhibition during August 2013. This involved me sitting just outside the exhibit on those long wooden benches, mapping the movements of those who dared to venture in, or mobbing whichever unlucky person I had decided I wanted to interview on the way out.

Apart from getting cold (that exhibition space is freezing, unlike the rest of the museum) I really enjoyed watching how people used the space and their reactions to what was in front of them. I weirdly managed to interview loads of North Americans with a great in depth knowledge of the Blackfoot people! You got some…erm…different reactions. Most went on about how cool the shirts were, but there was one man who said they were hideous. It was very hard not to say, “Well, I think you’re wrong!” Or words to that effect.

When I told my friends what I was doing, those who were on the same course as me didn’t bat an eyelid, but others found the mapping of movements a little creepy. And it kind of is, but at the same time it was really, REALLY revealing. It’s amazing to see how much objects control use of space to a few pathways. Although this is a generalisation, people either moved around the exhibition in a clockwise fashion, looking at the boards and ignoring the shirts, or zigzagged between the shirts and ignored the boards. It seemed weird not to look at both; how can understand what you see without reading the information, and how can you understand the information without seeing what you’re reading about? But nevermind!

Anyway, I also went to see a Native American exhibition in Manchester, and they used similar features to the PRM, with quotes on the walls and a video. However, you couldn’t see the coats from every angle in the Manchester Museum exhibition, and one coat was stretched out like a dead animal hide, not a living being. And they had way more interactive features. And it was bright orange.

I think the PRM did it better (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) because it had the Blackfoot people’s voices everywhere; it was more their exhibit than the curators’. And people really responded to that. How would I feel if I couldn’t access objects of great importance to my culture? Who owns what? What is ownership? Are museums outposts of colonialism and voyeurism?

These questions swam through my mind and I really don’t know the answers quite yet. If you visited the exhibition, I hoped you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t you can read about it on this blog and on the PRM’s website."

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