During this past year, Monticello undertook a three-stage visitor evaluation to better understand visitor engagement during house tours. One stage culminated in interviews with visitors. As an afterthought, we opted to record the interviews not only with a digital voice recorder but also using an iPad. Initially, we thought the iPad video would serve as a backup for the audio recording. However, once we saw the video, we were simply blown away.


Capturing our visitors’ intonation as well as their facial expressions and body language told a much fuller story. The video topped what we had from the audio alone and proved more effective than if the interviewer had feverishly scribbled notes or handed visitors a questionnaire. The video also yielded an easy, powerful way to analyze the interviews and report results.

After purchasing the iPad application called iMovie, we compiled footage about similar topics. Analysis of the interview feedback—when thought of in the context of information from the other stages of the evaluation, anecdotal perceptions, and other visitor surveys and comments—yielded several big picture trends about how our visitors perceive aspects of the house tour.

For example, we often hear from visitors that their tour felt too rushed and/or too crowded. Through the iPad project, we learned that frequently the real underlying issue is less about time and more about visitors’ ability to see things. In the interviews we were able to dig into the idea of what “seeing” meant from the visitor’s point of view, and not surprisingly, “seeing” is not “one-size-fits-all.” For some visitors, “seeing” meant being able to get close to items, such as being able to read book titles in Jefferson’s library or seeing all the faces in large engravings like John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence. It could also mean hearing more stories about objects or having time to look at more items. Suddenly the bare and enigmatic bones of “too rushed” and “too crowded” had some meat on them, and we could see and hear what those comments really meant to our visitors.

To report the project’s results, we created a PowerPoint that summed up those big-picture trends and then supported it with one or two embedded video clips of visitor interviews to provide context for what those big ideas really meant to individuals. So far, the presentation has been shared with those who manage our interpreters, our interpretive staff, and will later be shared well beyond. iPad 2 – $350, iMovie App – $5, seeing and hearing our visitors’ perspectives–priceless.

View a video clip of Sean Passan and Julie Holden as they participate in an outdoor interview at Monticello on a warm December day (shot on an iPad propped on my knee).

Technology can be a powerful way to not only increase the volume of your visitor feedback but also the quality and the ability to capture your visitors’ voices in ways that paper and pen cannot. Allowing your subjects to speak freely rather than write a response results in longer, more meaningful responses and allows you to get a sense of the emotion behind their comments. This can mean the difference between “My grandfather died in WWII—thank you for doing this exhibition” and “My grandfather died in WWII—thank you for doing this exhibition” (audible sniffle as subject chokes back tears).