Helping Develop a Visitor-Centered Museum

By Rod Cofield
Acting Director, Historic London Town and Gardens

On a late September morning in 2011 I learned that I would be in charge of a 3-year project consisting of 4 workshops per year for front-line museum volunteers and staff.  This project, called Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum, was graciously funded through the IMLS 21st Century Museum Professionals grant program and is a collaboration between my museum, Historic London Town and Gardens, the Maryland Association of History Museums, and the Maryland Historical Trust.

The purpose of this workshop series is to pull together the volunteers and staff from regional museums to give them the opportunity and time to develop skills and knowledge that directly translates into improving the visitor experience.  As someone who works at a small museum, I know first-hand how challenging it is for smaller organizations to find the time to develop appropriate training, let alone have enough people in the same room to have a good group dynamic.

Beth Maloney redefines visitor engagement.

Beth Maloney redefines visitor engagement.

We’ve already had five great workshops during the past twelve months.  At each workshop between 45 and 60 people, volunteers and staff, front-line and senior-level, new and veteran museum workers, learned different ideas and skills relating to the development of a visitor-centered museum.  The first workshop set the stage by giving participants the chance to work on their ‘presence’ (posture, voice, tone, etc.) to better engage their visitors.  Our second workshop focused on how to connect visitors to collections.  A fun session for everyone, called ‘Don’t Touch That! Engagement in a Traditional Museum’ was led by Beth Maloney.  She encouraged participants to think about minds-on and group activities that created engagement with objects behind glass. Our third workshop made participants think about how basic necessities (seating, lighting, parking, bathrooms, etc.), or their lack, can greatly affect visitor comfort and enjoyment at a museum.  Our last workshop of 2012 focused on education.  We worked with the Anne Arundel County Public School system on a session that gave participants concrete tips and techniques to use when they worked with special needs visitors.

Our first workshop this year brought in another great partner, the Maryland Humanities Council. This partnership allowed us to bring together people from both libraries and museums for thought-provoking presentations.  Susie Wilkening (Reach Advisors) walked us through the current US demographics, what we should expect during the next 5-25 years, what we should do to adapt, and where we are doing poorly.

Reviewing our evaluations it appears that our workshops are actually helping people with their visitor-centric activities and duties.  More than 60% of participants have attended multiple workshops.  Their reactions to these workshops are positive and definitely indicate that this grant is helping to train the sometimes underserved personnel of small and medium-sized organizations.

Our next workshop is scheduled for Monday, June 3 and will focus on museum education, specifically how to improve the guided tour experience and how to develop guided tour alternatives.  Our September workshop travels to Western Maryland and our last workshop will return to the collections theme.  We hope to continue to offer thought-provoking and engaging workshops for volunteers and staff in the region.

If anyone has questions or ideas about this workshop series, feel free to contact Rod Cofield (

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3 Responses to Helping Develop a Visitor-Centered Museum

  1. Rod Cofield says:

    Thank you for your comments. I hope to put some more videos and other pertinent information on the website we created for this project [ ]. I haven’t had as much time as I’d hoped to maintain the web presence. If you want, you can definitely email me for session handouts (if they exist). – Rod

  2. Lee Wright says:

    Looks very interesting. Along the lines of Jamie’s question, how about putting up the slides on SlideShare and the handouts on Scirbd? Both are free, will take less than 5 minutes each, and will make them available to all. If the past is any indication, within a few months the number of people who discover your slides and handouts and read them online will be 10x and soon 100x the number that attended the live session.

    If you want to make the next event available to those who can’t attend, it could be livestreamed or clips put online (via YouTube or Vimeo).

  3. Jamie says:

    This looks great! Do you have plans to record these and make them available online at some point, or to pull together your materials and make them available as a template for other regional collaborations?