Volume 16 (2) 

Reflections on Staff-Mediated Learning in Museums: A Social Interaction Perspective conducted and edited by James Kisiel, with Dr. Chuck Kopczak and Lori Perkins

Welcome to another installment of the VSA feature, Reflections on Evaluation and Research, where we invite professionals in the museum and leisure fields to share their thoughts, ideas, and questions, spurred by a recently published article in Visitor Studies.  For this Reflection, we take a closer look at a common educational strategy used in countless cultural institutions—the staff-mediated interaction.  Scott Pattison and Lynn Dierking tackle this surprisingly under-researched phenomenon in their exploratory study of staff-visitor interactions at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry titled Staff-Mediated Learning in Museums: A Social Interaction Perspective.

Check out the article here.

For this reflection, Dr. Chuck Kopczak, Curator of Ecology at the California Science Center, and Lori Perkins, Interpretation Manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific, provide their perspectives on the staff-guest interaction, the question of authority, and the importance of greeting.

Jim: Thanks for taking a look at the Pattison and Dierking article, Staff-Mediated Learning in Museums: A Social Interactions Perspective. To get things started, I wondered if you might talk about some of the aspects of this research that were most compelling to you.

Chuck: I think the paper provides an important and interesting view into the nature of social interactions between visitors and staff during unstructured engagements in a science museum. I’ve been particularly interested in the topic of visitor and staff interactions, and this paper fits in very nicely as a piece of the puzzle.  My interest in the dynamics of visitor and staff interactions stems from a desire to improve the means available to interpretive staff for engaging the public with science. For me, one of the new ideas mentioned by the authors was the concept of the museum educator as an “expert service provider” and the problems of establishing identities and negotiating roles that are attendant with that.

Jim: The use of staff members or volunteers as interpreters or museum guides is a long-standing tradition.  I do like how the authors take a closer look at this tradition and drill down into just what these interactions look like.  Lori, how about you?

Lori: First off, I could definitely identify with pretty much of all of the situations that were described in the paper.  Facilitating family interactions can be quite tricky because you definitely want to respect the role of the adult and allow them to have that role while supporting them as best you can.  I definitely agree that there are times when there is a tension in who is taking the "authority" role in some conversations.  This tension is heightened especially when the adult's information is quasi correct or flat out wrong—sometimes you relinquish control of the conversation even when the information being delivered to the child is not 100% correct.

I think there were only two interactions [in the study] where adults let the staff member take over the interaction and did not participate.  I would have to say that exchanges with little to no adult interaction happen here more often.  We have an incredibly diverse cultural audience—we often times also have language barriers that put the responsibility to engage on the staff member.   Many times I have parents deferring to me as the authority.

The other thing that stood out to me was the physical context.  This made me think of different areas [at the Aquarium] where guests have access to animals that they can touch, feed, or interact with in some way.  Generally, Shark Lagoon (shark and ray touch pools) is staffed with one person on microphone while others roam the area to help and support.  In this setting I feel that roles are somewhat clearly defined mainly because you have a staff member mic'd and giving instruction on how to touch as well as content information.  The Touch Lab in the Northern Pacific Exhibition is a different setting, however, where intertidal animals—primarily invertebrates—are sitting in small pools with staff seated behind the pools. I feel that this area provides similar engagement scenarios as those described in the article.  You will see adults taking the lead and encouraging the child as well as facilitating the conversation between the group/child and the staff member working the lab.  Lorikeet Forest I feel is its own beast, mainly because guests and staff cannot control exactly what happens.  In the Lorikeet Forest setting guests can feed the birds.  Many of the people coming through have very little experience with birds—unlike the Physics Lab at OMSI, people know what glasses and water are. Most of the time guests understand immediately that the role of the staff member is to help them have this experience and rely on them to help them through finding birds, feeding birds, overcoming the apprehension of having an unfamiliar live animal sit on them, as well as learning about these birds and their seemingly fickle behavior.  So I agree with the authors of the paper about setting—it is very important in determining role.

Jim: I really liked this example of the Lorikeet Forest exhibit—it would seem that roles of staff and adults may indeed be predefined, even if this is only a hypothesis at this point.  I’m wondering if there are other places or situations at your sites, or in other informal learning settings, where role negotiation between staff and visitors is less prominent?  Can either of you think of other instances where roles of staff and visitors seems predefined?

Lori: There are times when we have the resources to allow staff to interpret anywhere in the Aquarium.  These staff can usually be found in front of their favorite exhibit, sometimes holding a biofact and sometimes not.  These are the situations where role negotiation might become awkward for both parties.  I know from my own experience and from listening to other interpreters there is a fear of being intrusive to a guest’s experience.  Negotiating these situations from a guest perspective can also be challenging in that if the staff person doesn’t even initiate a conversation with even the most basic “Hello” then the guest/adult may not know that the staffer is here to help with their experience.  In my mind, in order for gallery interpretation to be successful, the simplest and basic greeting goes miles in establishing a connection.  I think it can make both parties feel more at ease and helps set the stage for an educational experience.

Chuck: I agree. It seems to me that it is only in places like a touch tank, Lorikeet Forest, at a cart, or other location in which staff is obviously situated in an observable position that suggests authority that there is no need for the negotiation of roles. But as the authors of the paper made clear, they were specifically focusing on those unstructured interactions where the staff role is not so clear.  It didn't seem to me that the authors made the case that negotiated roles are the norm in all staff-visitor interactions; so while no negotiation may be necessary where the staff is made to appear to be in a position of authority—on an elevated platform, behind a table, holding a live animal—it seems to be critical in those impromptu, unstructured events that may be more numerous than the former kind. From my personal experience as both a visitor and a staff member in such situations, some sort of strain seems to be the norm. As a visitor with family members, I often find myself deferring to a staff member who is attempting to facilitate the situation. This can lead to odd situations in which family members, because of my academic background, look to me for the information that the staff member is trying to provide, sometimes ignoring the staff member. On the other side of the situation, I usually try hard not to insert myself into the interaction of a group unless they clearly ask me to become involved. Clearly, there is much we can learn about how to successfully navigate situations like these that occur all of the time in institutions of informal science education.

Jim: Chuck, I would agree that the situation that they are describing at OMSI is specific to that space, a space where the roles may not be particularly clear.  But where does that ambiguity come from?  It seems to me that the staff described in the article could have taken that “authority role” you speak of and turn those spaces into miniature classrooms.  But they didn't—instead the authors describe a continuum of negotiated roles.  It seems like there may be some underlying philosophy or status quo that even allows for the possibility of negotiation in the first place.

Chuck: But I think the nature of the space at OMSI, based solely on the description in the paper, functions more like general gallery space. Given that the staff in the space seemed to roam around between groups, rather than being stationed in one particular location, they seem to act much more like general floor staff that roam a gallery. I agree that the staff there could have turned parts of the space into a mini classroom, but to make that happen I would argue that they would have to station themselves at one interactive and be present there when a family arrived. Perhaps it is an issue of timing, but it could be that a family, or other group, approaching an unstaffed exhibit sort of establishes a sense of ownership over that space. At that point, anyone approaching that space would have to negotiate permission to enter. On the other hand, when a group walks up to a touch tank with a staff member on an elevated platform, it clearly reads that they [the staff] are "in charge" and that by entering into that area the group agrees to that as part of the situation.  I wonder if the interaction between two visitors at an interactive exhibit may be similar to the negotiation that goes on between staff and visitors described in this paper. One visitor has claimed the interactive, and anyone else wanting to use it must either simply wait their turn or come up with some way to gain access. 

We've certainly seen groups at touch tanks that totally ignore the staff member on the platform and choose to do their own thing. And equally clearly, some people or groups welcome assistance from staff in more open gallery settings.

So perhaps the ambiguity lies in how staff relate to the activities, the exhibit, or the animals.

Jim: Good point.  I do wonder whether it’s a question of intentional or unintentional ownership of the space and subsequent interaction.  And perhaps the context—activities, exhibit, etc.—contributes to that ownership or even lack of ownership.  The authors even suggest that exhibition design may help clarify staff-guest interactions and reduce ambiguity. Clearly more analysis is warranted! 

But we can’t always modify the physical context of the museum or aquarium site.  What then?  Lori, you mentioned that you were intrigued by the small number of staff in the OMSI study who began their interactions with a greeting.   And yes, this was surprising to me as well—wouldn’t a simple greeting be an easy entry (or attempted entry) into the world of the visitor?  Or is it that something like “How are you doing today?” is just a little too generic or a little too polite or a little too much like a Walmart greeter?

Lori: I’ve been thinking about the greeting a lot lately, thanks to this discussion.  I notice that our staff does very little of it, and I’ve also noticed when it doesn’t happen, guests don’t seem to be as responsive to other questions or suggestions like “Touch a sea star” or “Do you want to touch?”  It makes me think about agendas—staff agendas versus guest agendas.  So my thought is that when we take the time to say “Hello” or “How’s everyone doing today?” those greetings allow staff to connect with guests on a personal level.  Most of the time when I start an interaction with a greeting or general “How are you doing?” people smile, they make eye contact, and they respond.  From there I can let them know I’m here to help with questions or if I’m working a touch lab I invite them to touch an animal.  Most importantly, however, I feel that the guest now knows that I’m there to support them in their aquarium experience and that I’m there to respect their agenda.  I also think that there are those guests who may not have any initial interest in the animals on exhibit, but when a staff member greets the guests in a friendly manner, there seems to be, at least from my experience, a higher chance that the guest will stick around and listen to what you have to say.

Jim: It does seem to come back to creating a relationship with the guest, in a very, very short time.

Chuck: Yes.  It’s not unlike that initial moment during which a visitor chooses to stop at an exhibit or not; the study suggests that the initial moments of the contact between visitors and staff can have profound implications for the rest of the interaction.

Lori: And jumping into an educational experience without going through the interpersonal initiation can be off-putting to some visitors.  It is easy to do and it should be easy to train all staff to do it.  Of course, it would take a bit more work and time to integrate it into the culture of the institution.  But it’s certainly not impossible.


Dr. Chuck Kopczak is Curator of Ecology at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Lori Perkins is Interpretation Manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA.

Jim Kisiel is Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach.