A Blog about You, "The Visitor"

By Morgan Little

President Lincoln’s Cottage has opened its doors to thousands of visitors over the past five months since opening.  We were worried you might not come since we’re off the beaten path; now that you’re here (get ready for the plug) we request an extra 10 minutes of your time, when you arrive, or when you leave, to share your thoughts.  We can chat about directions, other historic houses you’ve visited, your expectations for the Cottage tour, and, you can tell us how you really feel about antique furniture.

As a Collections Intern (GWU Museum Studies program), my typical day at President Lincoln’s Cottage (though there truly is no typical day) revolves around heavy interaction with inanimate collections objects.  Although those interactions can lead to powerful experiences, the past few weeks meeting with visitors at President Lincoln’s Cottage as part of a visitor evaluation project have been a welcome respite and truly re-shaped my thinking about historic houses and museums.

As part of a We the People project grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, President Lincoln’s Cottage contracted with People, Places & Design Research to assist with a customized evaluation of the core visitor experience at the site.  We’re seeking audience input to review what we’ve done and ensure a successful move into the next planning stage at the Cottage.

A few weeks ago I was steered through a crash course in visitor evaluations and began conducting entrance interviews.  Answers to a series of background questions provide valuable information about who you are and why you have come to visit, in addition to providing insight into our marketing effectiveness.  I’m fascinated by how many of our visitors heard about us from a friend, rather than from a website. With that feedback as a guide we can begin re-evaluating our online presence.

I’ve really enjoyed analyzing visitor experience after the tours via exit interviews.  Founded upon a series of short questions, in just a few minutes time I can discern, essentially, how effectively we reached you, the visitor, that day.  I absolutely love hearing what you have to say about your favorite rooms in the Cottage and what you expected to see as part of your tour that you didn’t.  We have received remarkably poignant, creative advice, criticism, and, compliments (mostly compliments I should say) that will help us make decisions for the future.

Textbook case-studies about “failed” museums and historic houses (it turns out, if you build it, they still might not come) have until now shaped what I’ve known about the importance of knowing your audience.  Such case studies have instilled in me, a museum studies graduate student, a sense of fear concerning the pitfalls of ignoring your audience.  The visitor research project at President Lincoln’s Cottage, a newly opened historic house so wildly popular reservations are “highly suggested,” has converted me into a true believer in the power of the audience evaluation not as a defense mechanism, but as a pro-active tool for improving an already successful visitor experience.

Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article or study do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Ms. Little is a 2008 Summer Intern at President Lincoln’s Cottage
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