At Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, we receive a lot of visitor feedback via email, comment cards, letters, and phone calls. Visitors often tell us their house tour felt “too rushed.” From that feedback, we presumed that overall tour length or time in each room was the issue—right?
Maybe not so much. A recent visitor study shows feeling “too rushed” doesn’t have much to do with time at all.
- It’s easy to misinterpret something, even when visitors tell us in their own words.
- Digging deeper for information with visitors can really pay off in the long run. We can learn why they’ve said things and understand the real meaning.
As part of a larger project to understand visitor engagement on tours, we briefly interviewed visitors. We asked about tour logistics (not content) in this phase of the study. To find out more about visitor perceptions of time, we asked how strongly folks agreed with the statement: “My tour felt rushed.” About 14% agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.
- Unsolicited feedback visitors share usually comes from folks called “outliers” in evaluator-speak. They are people who really, really enjoyed their visit or those who really, really didn’t. Based on opinions expressed solely from our outliers, we could easily have guessed that the percentage who felt rushed was more like 40 or 50%.
- Doing visitor studies, such as surveys and brief visitor interviews, enables us to hear from folks who might not seek out contact with Monticello after they visit. This way, we fill in the blanks between our outliers and hear more from the folks in the middle. The result is a more complete and accurate understanding of our visitors’ perceptions of their experience.
The good news for us at Monticello: fewer people said they felt rushed than we had expected. In the interviews, we followed-up with people who felt rushed and asked them to pick the reasons why from a list. This chart illustrates what people chose:
- Just exploring ways to increase time spent in each room or on the tour in general may not meet visitors’ needs and resolve this issue of feeling rushed.
- Internal methods to cue other guides to move along affect our visitors’ ability to engage.
Next Steps at Monticello:
- We plan to observe visitors during tours and interview them afterwards to investigate if and why they feel rushed. Of course, we’ll ask about other aspects of the tour, too.
- Instead of instituting changes to all our tours right away, we plan to test some new techniques on a limited basis and measure how effectively they decrease our visitors’ sense of feeling rushed. For example, we may give visitors 30 seconds to enter each room, move around, and look at objects of interest before the guide speaks.
- Based on additional visitor studies and the results of the tests, we may choose to make changes to our tour format(s) to best serve our mission and meet our visitors’ needs.
Current research shows roughly half of historic house museum visitors prefer guided tours, and half like unguided experiences. In historic house museums, the “one-tour-fits-all” strategy may soon need to change.
Kristie Smeltzer is the manager of visitor evaluation and correspondence at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. She enjoys listening to visitors in various ways and using their feedback to help inform decision-making at Monticello. Kristie is an active member of the Visitor Studies Association and co-chair of AASLH’s Visitor Voices Affinity Group.