Inclusive Practice: Broadening the Field by Welcoming New Perspectives

Virtual, 2023

As the Visitor Studies Association reflects on the pressing need for inclusivity, transparency, and service to communities, we must examine our focus on the academic notion of rigor that has often come at the expense of the breadth of insights and perspectives gained. It is essential to broaden the field of Visitor Studies, by recognizing those not regarded as “researchers” or “evaluators” within our organizations who can offer a valuable lens into our broader communities. Often, our institutions include staff who have frequent direct interactions with our visitors, and may even be seated within the communities we aim to serve. By collaborating with diverse stakeholders, we can elevate these unique viewpoints and benefit from new knowledge and perspectives. This year’s conference aims to welcome more voices to the table and work together to better understand and engage audiences.

At the 2023 virtual conference, new and returning attendees will need to confront exclusionary practices and discuss ways to broaden the field by examining evaluative insights from staff and volunteers not traditionally included in evaluation. By acknowledging and welcoming the experience, skill, and knowledge that all staff and individuals provide, we can gain rich and meaningful insights into our visitors and surrounding communities. In doing so, we can guide our organizations and leadership to best understand and benefit our broader communities, not just those we see as visitors. This requires us to examine our work and ask difficult questions such as:

  • How can we benefit from diverse perspectives, both in our organizations and communities at large?
  • Who can collect data, and what is considered good data?
  • What counts as evidence, and from whom?
  • How can we broaden the field to support more meaningful community engagement?

This year’s conference will require challenging conversations, elevating and welcoming new and emerging perspectives, as well as introspection on our roles in addressing these gaps in amplifying diverse voices. To accomplish this, VSA must acknowledge our own position in perpetuating exclusionary practices and embrace more ways of sharing power and authority in visitor studies, research, and evaluation. We must come together to identify areas of reform and consideration in order to elevate the perspectives and experiences of diverse groups, not limited to visitors.

Conference Session Abstracts

Creating Space and Coming Together

Omaha, Nebraska 2022

As visitor-serving organizations, museums and other informal learning environments are no strangers to adapting, shifting, and pivoting in response to change. Over the last several years, our organizations have had to quickly adjust and react to new realities and expectations from the communities we serve. In these moments of disruption, it is vital to create spaces for critical reflection and dialogue, developing welcoming and inclusive spaces where, together, we can reflect on the transformations that come from rapid change, and reimagine our work with a new lens. Throughout 2022, the Visitor Studies Association will create spaces to re-engage with and contemplate our work, taking insights from a time of expansive experimentation, and offering spaces to critically examine this work, our field, and ourselves so that together, we can be more powerful and effective advocates for our audiences.

Conference Session Abstracts

Reimagining and Rebuilding

Virtual, 2021

A global pandemic that has affected the lives of billions. Protests in over 30 countries that have called for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. As a result of these worldwide events, the informal learning field has seen an immense amount of change, including loss of jobs, taking on new or different roles, and helping institutions address complex questions around equity and racial justice. Now more than ever, society demands that cultural organizations support anti-racist practices that establish more equitable spaces that ultimately benefit the communities they serve. Researchers, evaluators, and all museum professionals have been faced with the question of how we can create more relevant and socially conscious organizations, but given extensive layoffs and institutional restructuring, how can this work happen with fewer resources and competing priorities? This year, the Visitor Studies Association will not only reflect on current crises in the informal learning field but also look to the future. How can we confront and dismantle oppressive structures in our field; recover from months of closures, extensive layoffs, and lost funding; and re-envision our organizations and the visitor studies field at large, ultimately rebuilding them for a better and more just society?

Conference Session Descriptions

Ways of Knowing

Detroit, Michigan 2019

How do we know what we know? The story of visitor studies is long and somewhat winding -- and it continues to grow and evolve. Over the years, visitor studies professionals have built a breadth and depth of knowledge around visitors and their experiences, and although our work is generally grounded in the social sciences, we have sought to find meaning in a variety of ways and through a wide range of approaches. From research to evaluation, to facilitation and everything in between, we are tasked with answering questions that are sometimes big and sometimes small. These questions may inform specific institutional strategies, and they may also inspire and inform our field and beyond. But how do we know what questions to explore, or what questions are worth exploring? Who is responsible for exploring these questions?

Conference Session Abstracts   Conference Program

Fostering Transparency, Strengthening Public Trust

Chicago, Illinois 2018

The informal learning field has long grappled with questions like “how do we remain relevant to our communities?” and “what is our value to society?”  As many organizations turn inward and seek to protect their interests, we are reminded that places of informal learning are perceived as offering more trustworthy information than most other entities, particularly in a climate of uncertainty and polarization. Meanwhile, our institutions are also well-positioned to offer experiences that not only engage people intellectually, but also promote empathy and understanding to help bridge the widening divides between us. Right now, there is a greater opportunity and need for informal learning institutions to strengthen our position of public trust. We can do this by finding ways to maintain transparency, foster dialogue with the communities we serve, and ensure that we respond to those communities authentically and responsibly. At the same time, our organizations must also interrogate the ways in which and the extent to which their choices about collection, interpretation, collaboration, and governance have earned--or jeopardized--the trust of many diverse publics.

Conference Session Abstracts   Conference Program

New Pathways in Visitor Studies

Columbus, Ohio 2017

In visitor studies, we are challenged to respond to a rapidly changing world in order to maintain a current understanding of our visitors and their needs, as well as the field of visitor studies itself. We pursue new pathways in part because of changes within the communities we serve, as demographic shifts and technological advances (among others) require us to think differently about the work we do.  We also look for innovative approaches to fostering change within our field, such as becoming more inclusive of other voices or finding ways to leverage our collective impact. New insights and innovations from outside our field can also offer novel ways of looking at learning and learners to support mission-driven institutions like museums, zoos and aquariums. To gain fresh perspectives on our work, attendees looked both within and beyond our field for new ways to think about learning, as well as promising approaches to solving current problems. The 2017 Conference, entitled “New Pathways in Visitor Studies”, sought to advance the field by challenging conference speakers and attendees to work creatively and collaboratively to deliver reliable new insights about the experiences of our visitors. 

Conference Session Abstracts   Conference Program

The Data Revolution

Boston 2016

The 2016 conference focused on data use, access, and our understanding of it. Data has always been at the heart of what we do. However, as our world becomes more connected than ever before, a massive amount of information is being generated, collected and studied as we enter a new era of Big Data. Along with the promise of this Data Revolution come challenges - collecting and make meaning of large amounts of data with limited resources; identifying the best strategies for communicating data to our stakeholders; pooling data, to offer insights into visitor experiences; and more. across our institutions? IThe 2016 conference considered these, and other, questions about the present and future implications of collecting, interpreting, and communicating data in our field.

Conference Session Abstracts   Conference Program

Taking Action for Improvement, Growth, and Social Change

Indianapolis 2015

The 2015 conference emphasized the ways in which we can take action through our work. To take action, we need to develop ourselves as creative and dynamic leaders, as individuals and within institutions and organizations dedicated to supporting informal learning opportunities; this is the key to fulfilling our potential for public service. 

Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

Building Capacity for Evaluation: Individuals, Institutions, the Field

Albuquerque 2014

The informal learning community created a conference program that pushed the field forward by addressing the increasing interest in evaluation and growing demand for evidence. Together, we thought strategically about how to continually build capacity for evaluation, which can happen at many levels, from the development of individual skills, to fostering culture and stakeholder knowledge at the institutional or geographic level, to increasing consistency within the field.

Museum Evaluation: A Vehicle for Social Betterment  Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

Where Innovation Meets Rigor: Shaping the Next Decade of Visitor Studies

Milwaukee 2013

In Milwaukee we were exposed to the latest trends in visitor research. From data visualization in the visitor context to discussions of new ways to look at individualized learning, the 2013 conference brought together emerging work from the field in an exciting and lively format.

Conference Session Abstracts

Knowing Our Past, Shaping Our Future: What's Next for Visitor Studies?

Raleigh 2012

We had a blast at our Silver Conference Anniversary in Raleigh! We reflected on our past, our achievements, and our vision of the future of visitor studies, cultural institutions, and the informal learning community.

Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

Sustaining a Community of Learners

Chicago 2011

To expand upon this community of learners, VSA's 24th Annual Conference took place concurrently with the Association of Midwest Museums (AMM) and the Illinois Association of Museums (IAM) annual conference. The joint meeting was a fantastic place where members from the various associations discussed and debated issues, shared experiences, and grew together.

Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

Building Shared Agendas: Conversations on the Public Value of Visitor Studies

Phoenix 2010

Identifying and measuring the value of museums for their publics has become one of the most critical issues facing the visitor studies field. What is the essential role that visitor studies can play in achieving a museum's mission? How do visitor studies make a difference in the ways museums operate? What is the value of visitor studies across museum departments and management? The 2010 VSA Conference developed on the conversations of public value from the 2009 Conference.

Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

For What it's Worth: Wrestling with Relevance, Public Value and Impact

St. Louis 2009

The 2009 conference sparked a number of engaging conversations on how to show and share what we know our organizations mean to communities, how the experiences we create relate to visitor needs, and how a program or an exhibit can bring about a change. With the impressive Gateway Arch as a backdrop, a small but lively group of 150 considered the importance of strategies and methods for defining and measuring public value.

Conference Session Abstracts  Conference Program

Theory, Practice & Conversations

Houston 2008

As promised, the 2008 conference was all about meaningful dialogue. There were conversations in the hallways, in the plenaries, at the evening events. And there was dancing and limericks and lasso-ing, too. More than 200 people from across the US and eight other countries gathered in Houston, Texas to learn about cutting edge research, to share ideas about how to apply what is known about visitors to creating quality visitor experiences, and to discuss big questions.

Conference Program