Jennifer Foley Q&A: The Power of Digital Technology to Engage Museum Visitors

Jennifer Foley is a museum expert who holds a PhD in art history from Cornell University. As the director of interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Foley and her team focus on connecting visitors to works of art through audio and multimedia tours, exhibition interactives and digital content within apps. She brings a wealth of experience related to visitor engagement, storytelling and the intersection of digital technology and interpretation.

QuickTapSurvey is thrilled to feature Foley through our Q&A series. We hope you find her forward-thinking views on museums as interesting as we do.

Related: Silvia Filippini-Fantoni talks about the importance of visitor feedback

Jennifer Foley

Q: What changes have you noticed in the way museums approach their relationship to the visitor?

There has been a shift towards incorporating visitor research into future programs and trying to understand visitor needs. Some museums have done this for a while, but not a lot of museums have done it extensively. Many museums want to be more responsive to the world around them at the local level, yet it’s not always obvious how that works.

Q: Why is incorporating digital and social media into museum programming important?

Because of the widespread use of digital media, museum visitors have specific expectations. They don’t say to themselves, “Well I’m visiting a non-profit museum so I should expect a different experience then when I check-in for a flight on my phone or purchase something on Amazon.” The reality is that most people have access to digital technology. Research shows access to mobile devices spans all sorts of demographic barriers, including age and income level. For some visitors, using a mobile device may be their only means to access the internet.

Related: Adam Rozan discusses changes at the Worcester Art Museum

Q: Can you provide an example of a time you used digital media to reach new audiences?

I’m wary of thinking about digital media to reach new audiences, rather it’s about using digital media to reaching audiences in new ways. One of the things we learned when we launched the ArtLens app at the Cleveland Museum of Art was that many of our visitors have their own mobile technology. The ArtLens app allows visitors to explore art works both at the museum and from home. We purchased 65-70 iPads in 2012 thinking that our average visitor, particularly the older ones, wouldn’t have their own smartphone or tablet while visiting the museum. But we quickly realized that we were wrong. So that’s where my hesitation comes from in talking about reaching new audiences with digital.

museum visitors
Visitors at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Q: What types of audience research does the Cleveland Museum of Art conduct and how is the research used?

There are visitor surveys to keep track of who’s coming to visit us which gives us a general research profile. But the museum also does research and evaluations in connection with specific exhibitions and projects. This includes frontend research, surveys, exit interviews and then a summative evaluation. Both visitor surveys and exit interviews are crucial to research and evaluation projects. You need both to get the depth and breadth of research required to make key decisions.

Q: Have you ever incorporated digital elements into an exhibition as a direct result of visitor survey data? If so, can you explain?

For our Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa exhibition we created an app that incorporated a multimedia tour. The idea for that app came out of frontend research. It became clear that people would need additional layers of information to process the exhibition and our app attempted to address that need.

Shereen Dindar
Shereen Dindar was a Content Manager at QuickTapSurvey in 2015 and 2016. Have a story idea? Email us at marketing@quicktapsurvey.com