What if… every museum ticket was an opportunity to personalize?

Perhaps five or ten years ago, personalization was, even arguably, a novel idea. Today, we can’t open a news article without seeing an ad for the hammocks we were looking at on Amazon or the new dress we scoped out on ModCloth.

But personalization caught on for a reason, and it’s not just a digital phenomenon. In museums, visitors who connect with content on a personal, affective level are far more likely to absorb and retain the information they read. But with thousands or millions of museum visitors to contend with, how can we personalize?

The Old State House in Boston is way ahead of the game. Each admission “ticket” is actually a card, hung around the visitor’s neck. It carries the name, picture, and basic biographical information of a Revolutionary Bostonian. These cards define characters by their name, social status, occupation, political views, and even social network. Almost every piece of historical information is tied to a relatable experience: pregnancy, marriage, moving house, and so forth.

OSH2What these cards do is create a personal, affective, emotional connection based on a common experience. As Nina Jensen notes in her book, The Educational Role of the Museum,

“To children experience is external, something that happens to them; to adults personal experience has defined their individual identity. Because adults have a richer foundation of experience than children, new material they learn takes on heightened meaning as it relates to past experiences… They seek learning experiences related to their changing roles as workers, parents, spouses, and leisure time users.”

The cards are a point of entry into the Revolutionary Boston. What makes them cards work, though, is how the museum kept using them.  On tours, which are almost impossible to avoid in the museum’s small space, educators call them out. They start with easy questions, “Who would have been in the Middling Sort [a class distinction]?” Later, they were used to personalize stories and anecdotes, speaking directly to individual visitors. The visitors responded. They answered questions, nodding and smiling when their character or class was referred to. Adults referred to their characters as “I” or “me,” both in one-on-one side conversations and by calling out into the group.

The Old State House is a museum that has embraced their cards wholeheartedly. But how could they work on their own. Today, classmates and I floated the notion of creating some for the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, MA. They might feature patron or name-day saints, personalizing based on birthday.

In this context, without an educator’s guidance, they might do nothing more than serve as an admission ticket. They might do more. They could prompt a scavenger hunt, looking for one’s patron saint in the hundreds on display. Within groups, each member has been made a mini-expert simply with the card around their neck, subverting the authoritarian voice of the museum and encouraging conversation between family groups. Within our own group, it prompted a discussion of patron saints in various cultures and traditions: Germany, Italy, and Greece.

What is it about personalization that enables this?

Honestly, I think it’s two things. First: the quantity of information has become manageable. You have a portable anchor, a reliable resource that you can refer back to throughout your visit. Second: the experience has become about you, not about the museum’s content. Just that gesture… that’s such a leap.

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