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Art history graduate student hopes to reimagine museum experience

Charlotte Torrence, wearing white pants and a red shirt, stands in front of a sign reading "Sunken Cities," holding a clipboard

As an art history graduate student interested in museum education, Charlotte Torrence doesn’t just pay attention the artwork and objects in a museum exhibition. As she wanders from room to room, she notices who reads and who listens, who moves quickly and who lingers, who quietly stands back and who participates in a lively discussion.

Each interaction is a clue to understanding how and what visitors learn while visiting a museum, and how museums might better reach people with a variety of learning styles.

After interning and volunteering with museums in the U.S. and in Australia, and reading books like The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon, Torrence noticed that she learns best by engaging and participatory activities—an approach she says isn’t always present in art museums.

“I feel like art museums are the most reserved,” she says. “They’re very traditional and quiet—a temple full of objects where you have to keep your hands to yourself and not talk too loudly. But when you go to the science museum, they have kids running back and forth and touching things.

“Why is science fun and crazy and art has to be quiet and serious?”

Torrence is advocating for a shift. In her master’s degree qualifying paper—which is still in its early stages—she hopes to explore museum talkback methods and reimagine how museums can engage with visitors. She wants to study different ways of learning that go against the quiet, more traditional model.

Take sticky notes, for example. Museums frequently have a display with a prompt or question, and a stack of sticky notes where visitors can write their response and add it to the wall. It’s a method that checks a lot of boxes, she says. It’s constructivist and engaging. It’s visible, and allows visitors to see a spectrum of thoughts and opinions.

But, she argues, the approach might not actually accomplish their goals. The notes are disposable, and once they’re on the wall, the creator walks away without having a real conversation.

Instead, Torrence is turning to methods she’s used as an instructor in the early childhood education department at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which are often community-based and participatory.

However, she acknowledges that not every visitor is looking for an interactive experience. Just as she learns best through engaging activities, others need quiet space to take in the work and understand its meaning.

That’s where visitor research comes in.

In addition to her qualifying paper, Torrence has a graduate assistantship position at the VMFA, supported by the Shawky-Whitfield Fund. She’s working with Ta Thongnopnua in the museum’s education department to collect, manage, and interpret visitor data related to the Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities exhibition. Then, they interpret the data to try to understand what people are interested in, what they’re learning, their level of engagement, and more.

Torrence says everyone wants something difference from an exhibition, which can be hard to plan for. Some people are quiet and reserved, and take in the work from a distance. Some visitors rely on audio guides, while others read every placard. Some come with a group and might spend more time discussing an object.

“I’m all for being a little louder and more engaged in a museum,” Torrence says. “[Those groups] tend to have better learning outcomes, in my opinion.”  

All of these data points contribute to Torrence’s understanding of how people experience a museum—and will, one day, help her reimagine it.

“Researching visitors—how they learn, what their learning outcomes are, what they want, and how they move through things—is really illuminating,” she says, “to try and make programs that are going to work.”