Co-creating a new museum with the community: an interview with Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum
One of the joys in running this blog is meeting with museum and cultural heritage professionals from around the world who are applying human-centered design methods to their work.
I recently connected with Laura Musgrave, the Community Engagement Officer of Coventry Transport Museum in Coventry, England. The Museum houses the largest publicly owned collection of British motor vehicles in the world, and tells the story of Coventry, its people, and its transport history.
The Museum recently underwent a massive redevelopment effort, with a focus on making the exhibitions more human-centered. I spoke with Musgrave about how staff at the Museum conducted rapid cycles of user research throughout the redevelopment process, leading up to the grand relaunch in June 2015. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Tell me about your role at Coventry Transport Museum.
A: My job as Community Engagement Officer is to ensure the voice and involvement of the community. However, this is a relatively new approach (for the institution). Previously, exhibition development was done in a more traditional way. But for the redevelopment of the Museum, we wanted to focus on telling the story of Coventry’s transport industry and the people who have lived and worked here. This was not about us telling their stories for them. We wanted to start from where our visitors are and work from there.
We had 18 months to research, design, and build the expanded Museum. And it’s not a small museum—it’s around the size of three soccer fields combined! During an intense 18 months, we conducted interviews, surveys, observations, and prototyping sessions, gathering regular and frequent input from audiences.
Q: Tell me more about how you involved the Coventry community in your process.
A: The first thing we did was to make contacts out in the community. For example, we went to the library, an after-school caregiver program, and a senior home. We met with people all over the city. This was important to do justice to Coventry’s history. From the very beginning of the Museum’s redevelopment, this was about meeting people and getting to know our audiences, their experiences, and their motivations.
Q: What were some of the surprises you encountered?
A: It surprised me how many women had stories to tell that hadn’t been told before. Many of the women I spoke with didn’t think their experiences were that interesting, and they would tell me about a relative or a friend, but then I would discover that they had their own stories to tell.
There was one woman in particular whose story was quite interesting. We met a woman, Irene, who had married into a well-known funeral directors’ family in Coventry.
Irene’s family would take their Daimler cars (which included hearses) out for rides in the countryside! There were no funerals on Sundays, so the family would go to church, and then take the cars out. The windows would be opened one-quarter inch to get some air, but no more, so as not to get too much dust inside the Daimlers. Irene told me that you could go fast in a Daimler, without disturbing your hair!
This may sound strange, but we wanted to understand how these vehicles were seen through the eyes of the people who worked with them every day. Most of us have limited interactions with vehicles like hearses, but for her, it was a different association.
For our Workdays and Holidays gallery, we incorporated Irene’s story into a display of hearses manufactured here in Coventry. This was very exciting, to feel that we were representing more of the people who lived and worked here and incorporating their stories into the revamped Museum.
Q: What is something that surprised you or challenged your assumptions?
A: Well, the object labels are another example. A lot of our staff were happy with the object labels and couldn’t see why we would change them (for the reopening of the Museum). They had been the same design for a long time.
So we took out object labels into the community. We asked questions like, what do you notice? What do you like? What might you change? I assumed that what we would hear was that people wanted less text. But what really surprised Museum staff was how people wanted to see pictures on the wall labels.
Our big question was, Why? You’re next to the object, and it’s probably something huge, like a motorbike or a car or a bus! Why do you want to see a picture of it?
But what we kept hearing was that visitors wanted visual cues. They would say, “How do I know which 1900 bicycle is the one being referred to here?” or “Which motorbike is that?” And this didn’t just come from one section of our community. We heard this from almost everyone we interviewed.
Q: What did you do next as part of your process?
A: We’d come back to the office and look at the feedback we gathered and the questions that arose, and then we would brainstorm the best ways to address questions.
For example, for the object labels, we created five different prototypes for new labels and took them out for testing. Then we would do things like ask people to prioritize and sort the different versions of labels.
We spent a lot of time unpacking what we learned. We categorized feedback according to groupings like “Big Unanswered Questions” and “Written Interpretation.” Once we had a more manageable set of information, it was easier to make sense of it, and see what worked and what didn’t. We would then go through the feedback with the designers, and refine and revise ideas.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: It was really important that we were out doing this work instead of relying on our own assumptions. The local community had a part in decision-making for all aspects of the galleries, including content and access needs, graphics style, layout—even the little things like font sizes. Visitors can now come in and see their part in the designs. The final result is something that not only better reflects Coventry’s history, but also its current story.
All images courtesy of Coventry Transport Museum.