MIT Museum 2014

Ethnography – Data Visualization

I conducted extensive ethnographic and contextual inquiry over summer 2014 at the MIT Museum, in Cambridge, Mass.

My research for the Visitor Services and Exhibition Department was an opportunity to evaluate the museum patron experience. The Exhibitions Department hoped to present MIT’s historical collection to the public by providing meaningful and user-centered activities. This internship focused on the usability of the physical environment, and the usability and interactivity of exhibit installation. Additionally, my research and data collection was focused on a user (museum patron) interaction, engagement, orientation, navigation, and etc. of the physical and environmental space within the museum and individual exhibits.

Overall Research Goals

  • Study the usability of gallery installations.
  • Understand how patrons interpret data in gallery and exhibitions.
  • Study of how patrons use the gallery spaces

“The Timing Study”

My role was observational, to conduct ethnographic research and gather data on the Museum’s 6 galleries and to calculate the percentage of visitors that visited the exhibit; present data. Use of this data would be used to make improvements on the design of future exhibitions.

The “5000 Moving Parts” Exhibition has a fairly healthy survival curve, in that visitors linger and trail off oveMittimingStudy_piechartr a length of time. A healthy curve has a soft arc, showing that all visitors leave over time, while an unhealthy curve is an immediate and sharp fall, showing that all visitors leave quickly. As seen here, visitors are engaging and not rushing out the door.


  • Longest patron visit in exhibit: 30 minutes
  • Shortest patron visit in exhibit: 21 seconds




Observational Data Points

  • Focus person (adult): gender
  • Group composition: total #, gender,  (# of men, women, boys, girls)
  • The entry point, either via the Kurtz Gallery or the Student Exhibition.
  • Duration (minutes/second):  within gallery space, inside the gallery (through the closed doors), and sitting on benches.
  • Behavioral notes: level of engagement, visible confusion, interaction with installation, and reading wall text.