Making it the VISITORS’ way– custom culturals


Customization. It’s almost implied these days. My go-to example is the cellphone/smartphone. You can choose the color, the case, the wallpaper, the ringtone. It’s not that you have a unique phone– anyone can buy one (at a price). It’s that it’s customized– by you. It’s uniquely, personally, and perfectly yours.

The “design-your-own” trend over the past few years, has taken off in all directions– from Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars to skin creme; from beef jerky to hotel amenities and ear phones. It seems there’s no limit to the range and scope of customization. We like to make things our own. And then we like to show them off.

How can we allow– even encourage– customization in our museums?

If visitors customize, what could it look like– and how could they share it?

At first my mind went to the maybe-obvious…
Museum visitors could use a website or app to input their interests and get customized recommendations for what to see and do (i like… museums-style, or like the cool stuff they’re doing at the Eiffel Tower). Or museums could use the concierge model (which several do) and point visitors to exhibits or paths of interest based on visitor motivation typology or self-identified personality traits.

We’ve seen great examples of customization happening through consumer-curation and crowd-sourcing, both in the cultural sector as well as the commercial. (I really like Morgans Hotel Group with their free, location-specific music downloads, Wizard Istanbul’s up-to-the-minute city guide, Gogobot‘s travel advice and Storify’s social media storyboarding.) But to me there’s always a “so now what” moment that comes toward the end– even in the coolest, best-intentioned community and participatory projects…

It’s like, “I made something/did something/took part in something. It was cool. It was meaningful. It was part of something bigger than just me. You made something/did something/took part in something too. It was cool. It was meaningful….” Blah blah blah. So now what?!

This week, I think I found the “now what.”

Springwise recently covered the UK’s Kaiser Chiefs‘ innovative version of fan-sourcing. The indie rock band’s fans can visit their website and create their own mix of the band’s latest album– from selecting the order of the songs to mashing up the available artwork into a customized album cover. When they’re done, users can register and pay GBP 7.50 for their custom album. They also get a fan page so others can learn about and purchase the version they created. For each copy sold, the creator earns GBP 1.

This pushes ‘have it your way’ customization to the next level– to a social platform where fans truly co-create and co-curate. Not only does this generate buzz, it shows that the traditional ‘experts’ (in this example,  the Kaiser Chiefs and/or the producers and label) value their fans’ perspectives, expertise, and abilities. They give the fans a platform… then get out of the way.

It’s a risk. The band is giving away control they’d usually take for granted. It’s a cost/benefit trade off many wouldn’t take. In doing so a really powerful thing happens… there’s this equitable, shared space where ‘us’ and ‘them’ coexist. Springwise seems to get this at some level. They write: ‘In not so very long, it may just become unthinkable for a band to create a new album without the involvement of its biggest fans.’

Who are your biggest fans and how do you involve them to create?

What could customization look like in your space?

How might you balance what’s personal with what can be shared?

Are you willing to take the risk?


A few post scripts:

1. I feel absolutely ok using the word ‘curate‘ in ways that reach beyond the museum field. In fact, I like it.

2. For related musings, check out Nina Simon’s June 22, 2011 post. Perhaps customization is the antidote to the sometimes-unauthentic “You Can Be a (fill in the blank).”

3. For more on using assumed identities to customize in museums, check out this Nina Simon blog post from about a year or so ago… Who Am I? Internal vs. External Role-Playing in Museums, along with an excellent counter-point in the comments from Beverly Serrell.)


22 Responses to “Making it the VISITORS’ way– custom culturals”

  1. Gretchen Jennings

    Hi, I relly like the whole idea of your blog. Thanks for doing this, and for posing the interesting questions that you do. I especially like that you link to other people thinking about visitor participation.

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      My pleasure, Gretchen. Absolutely. Thanks for the kind words. And hey– while I have your attention…. what one simple question would you ask visitors?

  2. Carey

    I think there may be a useful here to dig deeply into the word “customize.” It implies having some consistent shape or form so that visitors have clear choices about the range of decisions they can make and how these decisions will connect to their needs and interest. Here’s are a few experiences I’ve had with this idea that inform my thinking about this topic.

    First, I worked in a community college system where ten years earlier there had been a big bruhaha (love that word) about allowing all students to enroll in any course they wanted with no requirements. This was defended as “open access” and “the right to fail.” After experience with this approach, even it’s supporters recognized that the cost was far too high for the students and for the teachers in the system. Wide ranges of literacy in some advanced classes made for chaotic situations for everyone. Initial failure sometimes prevented long-term success. Lesson learned: some boundaries for choice can be beneficial.

    Second, early in my evaluation career I did a series of gallery evaluations where the designers had interpreted “free choice learning” to mean that they should not build-in any prime pathways through exhibition experiences. They did not want to infringe on visitor choice. In the evaluation studies, I found that visitors could not make choices in some galleries because they could not recognize what options for choice they had or even what the topic of the experience might be. Lesson learned: for people to make good choices they have to be able to recognize what the alternatives are and have information about them.

    Third, just a few years ago I evaluated a program which aimed to “customize” a range of resources for several different sites. The sites had real difficulty identifying what resources were available and exactly what customization meant. I think the underlying intent was allow them to adapt to local state school standards, but people were really confused. Lesson relearned: for people to make real choices they have to be able to recognize what the alternatives are and have information about them.

    I think customization is a great trend. Yet finding ways to communicate the choices and the possible implication of those choices for museum visits is challenging. Right now I have a client that is trying to do just that! It’s exciting and I hope we can apply some of those previous experiences.


    Carey Tisdal
    Tisdal Consulting

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Carey- fantastic points, all of them!
      And great examples.

      You made a really important distinction about customization.
      Typically when we “customize”, the base product (be it an iPhone, a pair of shoes, a pizza– or a museum or exhibition) remains unchanged– solid, reliable, consistent. It’s the outer layers that are flexible, maleable, personal, changeable– customized. That creates the kind of boundary conditions you reference which may increase the likelihood of both success and satisfaction.

      Anyone else have some real-life examples?
      Thoughts on how to keep an amazing, tasty crust while leaving tons of room for creativity in the toppings?!

      Thanks again, Carey!

  3. Lynda Kelly

    Nice post and I like your detailed responses Carey.

    My strong belief is that customisation is very closely tied to identity – how we project ourselves via our Facebook pages, what we like and support and what we tweet about say as much about our identity as anything else.

    An example – my 15 year old son spends as much time setting up his avatar on a game as he does actually playing it. What he wears and how he looks are key elements of the whole experience beyond the actual tasks performed. This is because he’s projecting his identity to his friends, and they to him (and yes, he always has a goatee!).

    Keep up the great work Kate.

    • Kathleen Tinworth


      Bringing up the ties between customization (sorry, “…sation” for you! ha!) and identity has been really illuminating. It made me think not only about how we as individuals– and visitors– project our identities and incorporate our individualities into our everyday, but also how (or if) museums display, project, embrace, or hide their identities. Do places have “identity?” I think they do. I also think that, like people, there’s room for customization.

      It also made me think about how we all customize differently in different situations. For example, your son’s avatar may work well for gaming but he may have others way he customizes offline (with teachers, romantic interests, etc.). Do museums also have these morphing identities? Absolutely.

      I have always found that for me personally the most rewarding customization comes from where I can blend my own identity and interest with anothers’… for example, my partner loves cycling and I love city escapes and going out to nice restaurants, so every year we combine the two into a customize city cycling date where we stay downtown and cycle from one foodie paradise to the next.

      I think there’s something in this combination that museums can, and should, look for. How to blend the museum’s/cultural institution’s identity with the visitors’ unique identities for a truly customized (and I’d bet fun, memorable, AMAZING) experience.

      Thanks, as always, for your keen insight…

  4. Carey


    I have been trying to find some theoretical frameworks and methods to explore the public presentation of self and identity on professional sites. (But, these ideas also connect to visitor identity, I think. This is for an summative evaluation of ExhibitFiles) Here is one source I found.

    Here’s the first sentence:

    “Self-presentation is an exercise we are constantly engaged in every day, whether we are
    consciously aware of it or not. While each of us are, to a certain extent, autonomous beings, capable of choosing self-presentational strategies to perform for others, our performances are strongly influenced by the presence of others and the context we find ourselves in (Goffman, 1959; Branaman & Lemert, 1997).”

    I think that customization ties right into that! I know that Falk & Heimlich’s situated identity groups connect to these ideas, too.

    Any other good sources?


    • Kathleen Tinworth


      Great comment and quote! And I was wondering when someone would bring Falk into this! 🙂

      You got me thinking about what a cool community-based project this could be for a museum. Invite visitors or community to bring in one customized object (or photo of the object) and its story. Can you imagine how much we would learn– about the individuals as well as the affects of context?

  5. Caren Oberg

    Hi Kate,

    The answer to the “so now what” is two fold: (1) How do you show others this experience is part of your identity and (2) The museum hopes you support the museum further through repeat attendance and philanthropy.

    The question is not only customization of ones own museum experience, but rather there isn’t yet a way to easily show that customization to anyone after you leave.

    Others can see the customization on your ipod, sneakers, and avatars (great post Lynda). As discussed above customization is linked to identity. Customization as related to identity works because the customizations (and the identities the customization supports) are recognized by others (I belong to your group, you belong to my group) or not recognized by others (I don’t belong to your group, You don’t belong to my group). Lynda’s son adds a goatee to his avatar because he knows that others, those in his social sphere and those without, will recognize the goatee’s symbolism and that symbolism supports how he sees himself, his identity. How do museum goers, as a group, show their museum-going-identity that is also a customization recognized by others?

    Why customize in the first place? Money. And I do not mean this in a snarky way. People will pay more for sneakers they have designed themselves because it allows them to shows identity. The person feels important. The person then continues to support the company by buying more items because the company makes them feel important.

    A customized museum visit can offer the same sense of recognition of importance. The visitor continues to support the museum through repeat attendance and philanthropy because the museum makes them feel recognized (important).

    • Kathleen Tinworth


      I love that you took this thread in a whole new direction. The idea of a share “museum-going-identity” symbol of sorts is fascinating to me. What would that look like? How could it be recognized by others? It reminds me of those fun tech-world-meets-real-world tracking projects, like Where’s George ( or the Karma Coins I blogged about a while back ( There’s a shared identity (or, more to your point, allegiance or loyalty) that gets branded and shared. What’s more, it’s trackable (which we love as evaluators)!

      I think I will take some of your ideas to our Museum floor and ask visitors what *they* think might be a museum-going-indentity symbol. How do THEY know other museum-goers when they see them? Stay tuned!

  6. Jeanne Vergeront

    Hi Kate,

    Your posting and the great comments it has invited have made me think about customization working on successive levels or scales, from personal expression on objects, to services, to experiences, to a relationship with, in this case, a museum. Self-identity is operating at each scale along with a progressively bigger and longer lasting “so what”. Would it be valuable to think about a pathway from customizing an object right up through customizing a long-time, enduring relationship with a museum where the “so what?” is mutually rewarding to and has greater impact for both the person and the museum?

    • Kathleen Tinworth


      I adore this idea of scaffolded customization! Any ideas about how it could work in the real world? I think about the typical “donor bricks” with engraved names and such, but what you’re hinting at has potential to be much more than that.

      What would YOU do?

  7. Anonymous


    In our institution, a tourist destination where travelers set strict time limits to their wayside visits, we find that allowing visitors to self-edit their trips is vital. Time, more than any other element, is a key factor in whether or not they choose to visit. So I am going to be blasphemous, ignore the concept of customized content, and remind folks about customized schedules.

    You know our Museum is small and all staff share job duties. The other day our janitor was working the front desk, taking phone calls and selling admissions. As I walked up I head a visitor ask a very common question “How long does this museum take?”

    Without blinking, the janitor replied “Well, you can customize the tour to suit your needs.”

    He went on to explain the various attractions and provided an estimate of the amount of time the average visitor spent in each. The visitor turned to his group and said “OK, so if we a, b, and d we’ll still have time for lunch before we move on ….”

    I felt like a proud momma!

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Your janitor is fantastic, B.
      (Yes, B, I know it’s you!)

      I wonder what other pearls of wisdom he has in terms of the visitor experience in your institution. Sounds like you have a pretty fantastic resource there.

      Have you ever heard of a museum having janitors do the tours? Very “Night at the Museum,” I know… but it loosely reminds me of a cool project in London where the city’s homeless give tours ( What’s cool is that not only do the tourists get a truly unique, insider’s perspective, but the company is empowering the tour guides in a tremendously impactful way and giving them job opportunities.

  8. Anonymous

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, but wanted to thank all who commented.

    I’ve learned a lot (but have much more to learn) about this new world of shared authority, participation beyond interactivity, and customization. I especially enjoyed exploring Peter Linett’s blog post.

    Well, now that I think about it, I do have a comment. Customization items, like the sneakers, seems to be an extension of the ‘souvenir’ of the past. Both function as a reminder of the experience and lengthens the link with whatever organization/place where that experience took place. Perhaps it doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything more than that. The extra impacts: increased skill, communicating with others in some way, reinforcement of identity, are bonus points perhaps outside of what we control.

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      You put it well when you wrote “participation beyond interactivity.” I liked that a lot!

      Also, your thinking about customization’s overlap with souvenirs is one I have been thinking about too. Having something tangible to link to a memory can be really powerful.

      Thanks for your comment!

  9. Carey

    @Jeanne–what a great insight about levels and types of customization.

    @anonymous 🙂 I love your story about the janitor at the front-desk. I am going to steal that line for a project I am working on. Time really is the biggie for many places. Or, picking and choosing a menu for the visit that day with frequent visitors.

  10. disciullo

    I’ve enjoyed the post and the replies – good food for thought! I just wanted to add that I agree with you on the word curate. =D (Example: “I need to curate my family’s Easter baskets with gifts!”)

  11. Kathleen Tinworth

    One of the most rewarding things about this blog for me (aside from the rock star comments you all add) is being able to talk to museum visitors about the topics.

    This week, we spoke to 48 visitors at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science about customization.

    First, we asked them what (if anything) they’d customized. Most had examples– anything from their business cards or computer desktop to personalized license plates and engagement rings. One visitor even had a purse that used to be her companion’s pants! They seemed to enjoy telling us about how they had personalized objects to make them truly unique and their own.

    Next we asked them what the Museum could do to customize their experience and make it really THEIRS. We encouraged them to think big, and reminded them nothing was off limits!

    Nine visitors (almost a fifth of our sample) specifically told us they didn’t want a customized museum experience. One said, “it already IS our museum,” while another told us, “there’s a certain charm in the lack of choices. I don’t want it to be customized. I only come once every five years and I like it the way it is.” This sentiment came up for several of these “customization dissenters.” In their minds, customization appeared to b synonymous with change. There were clear that they wanted the museum to stay “just the way it is.”

    Does customization have to mean institutional change? Or perhaps just a stream, path, or alternative for those who choose it?

    Of those 80 percent who did want a customized experience, suggestions ranged from simple modifications (“having more places for older people to sit”) to extreme and elaborate scenarios (“name it after me”).

    Most, however, were somewhere in the middle. For example, many cited wanting more in-depth information on topics that sparked their interest (“people scattered throughout… explaining and re-enacting”). Similarly, many talked about how great it would be to have a personalized itinerary, customized to their interests (“kiosk at the front that you type in what you like and it prints out your own personal tour; tells you what to see;” and “smart phone app that you download and get a guided tour of wherever you are”). Along the same lines were requests for themed tours, more hands-on activities for children, and schedules online and at the museum of all the day’s programs and events.

    Interestingly, very few visitors we spoke to made it “all about them.” Museums are shared social spaces, and we heard from our visitors that the greatest way to customize their experience may be through simply methods geared at helping them to understand and navigate what’s in front of them. This is exciting, since it’s what most of us in museums and culturals are in this business to do.

  12. Ed Rodley

    Great insights, Kate. There’s at least one paper or really interesting session in this topic. I especially love the fact that you can bring visitor voices into the conversation, so we’re not just talking to ourselves. Keep on keeping it real!

    Your visitors’ comments are similar to ones I’ve encountered in the past, both in the museum and the world at large. I vividly recall standing in a Starbucks years ago with a French friend who’d never been. He threw up his hands and very loudly proclaimed, “Ah, the tyranny of choice! I just want a cup of coffee!!” The proliferation of choice doesn’t make people happier, and in many ways leads to dissatisfaction, as sorting all those choices out is a cognitive drain.

    Your examples at the beginning of the post are illuminating because the base product or experience is what the people want. The customization takes place around the edges of the thing they are already interested in, I don’t think it drives the experience, which is where I see a lot talk about personalization getting it wrong. You can’t just add personalization to anything and make it better. It’s great to personalize your shoe, but the reason to personalize it is because it’s a Chuck Taylor, not just some shoe. So the question seems to me to be twofold; how do you make your museum experience iconic like a Chuck, and let then how do you let visitors customize that experience with the knowledge (and associated comfort) that they’re going to get something that will still be a Chuck?

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Ed… absolutely!

      Your points about customization “around the edges” is spot-on, and I think that’s exactly what many of our visitors were saying… especially when they asked for customization through deeper understanding of and/or clearer navigation of what we already offer.They wanted the same “base product,” they just wanted to make it fit their interests, lifestyle, time, and inclinations.

      The comments on this post have been incredible. I am up for a future paper or session with any/all of you above!


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