Taking the public’s expectations into account

Jérôme Delgado
Article on Le Devoir, 21 October 2017 (in French)

The Canadian Museum of History is working on renewing the visitor experience through its three creative development specialists. Photo: Marie-Andrée Blais

Jean-François Léger recognises this from the outset: he has a “special profession”, in view of the world in which he works, that of museums. Indeed, he presents himself as a “specialist in creative development”.
However, it is not surprising that he should become an example to follow, when the development – or “renewal” – of audiences remains an obsession in the cultural world.
His work focuses on the visitor experience or, as this man of communication expresses it in his pictorial language, his role is to be the “visitor’s spokesperson” to the museum team. He tries to tame the “beast” that is an exhibition, but also works on web projects and publications.
Working for the Canadian Museum of History since the time when it was still called the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Jean-François Léger seeks “to create unique, stimulating and innovative experiences. His hobby is not technological gadgets, but a theory based on “public preferences”. His four preferences, to be precise.

The IPOP model

This theory is known by the acronym IPOP and has been developed since 2010 by Andrew J. Pekarik of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. It is based on the premise that museum visitors are challenged along four axes: ideas, people (and their stories), objects, and somatic and sensory experiences (including interactive and immersive modules). The letters IPOP, not to be confused with hip-hop, stand for “idea”, “people”, “object” and “physical”.
“Originally, the idea of preferences was developed as a way of rethinking the diversity of audiences [and helping] exhibition designers to accept that their own preferences […] influence programmes designed for visitors,” summarise Andrew Pekarik’s IPOP presentation notes.
“We tend to think of our own reactions as those of the visitors. It’s not a bad thing for a museum curator to bring what he feels as a human being,” admits Jean-François Léger, but he believes that we need to be able to take better account of the public’s preferences.
This is the precept defended by the IPOP theory. The specialist from the Canadian Museum of History spoke about it at the most recent symposium of the Société des musées québécois (SMQ), held at the end of September.
Jean-François Léger does not claim, even though he is the voice of the public, that the public determines what is exhibited, and how it is exhibited.
We take the main idea of the exhibition, we develop the message, we think about the tour route, we propose a scenario,” explains Léger, who says he works with a whole team. We want to know how to introduce the subject, how to attract the public to the objects, how to surprise them. »
The texts in the rooms, he gives as an example, are among the things he and others evaluate. You have to think about who is speaking, you have to define the voice of the museum and those of the other participating parties. “When you put on an exhibition, you are interested in who speaks,” he says.

From one voice to another

In other words, just because we listen to the public does not mean that we do not pay attention to what the designers of an exhibition want to express.
Anyone who has looked at a wide variety of subjects, from religion to voodoo to Inuit drawings, acknowledges that he or she does not control the public’s choices. “Not at all,” he insists. He was surprised by the surprising responses from children at the exhibition on religion – God(s), instructions for use (2011-2012) – while the comments from adults seemed stereotypical to him. Later, during the Vodou exhibition (2012-2014), he saw how the video testimony of an animist priest demystified the object on display next door. Jean-François Léger says he has learned a lot from these past experiences. He assures that knowing what attracts people helps to think better afterwards about how the whole thing will be put together. But that, from one time to the next, the exercise needs to be repeated.
So an exhibition will not be better because it has all the treasures of the world, believes Jean-François Léger, nor because it completely meets the public’s expectations. You have to be attentive to what the visitor is looking for, but you also have to make sure that he or she is surprised.
He also insists on the teamwork involved in creating an exhibition. The main challenge, he says, is to stimulate the creativity of all visitor experiences, whether cognitive, sensory or emotional.
While the model developed in Washington is enthusiastically adopted by Jean-François Léger, this is not necessarily the case for all his colleagues and fellow members. Including at the Canadian Museum of History, where three of them are specialists in creative development. A still rare profession whose approach has yet to be implemented.

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