Turning the Battleship: Pilots in the Holocaust Museum

Lightning Talk
Elissa Frankle, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States

In the summer of 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum embarked on an ambitious project to learn about its visitors through a series of small digital pilots added to the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition. These pilots, conducted via short URLs accessed on smartphones, experimented with ways to include more personal stories in the exhibition and to allow for the inclusion of different learning styles in a traditionally text-heavy space, including the creation of a five-stop audioguide and a guided close-looking exercise with a difficult photo. These activities were designed to be used with smartphones.

What made these pilots so interesting for the Museum was the working process the pilot team used. Traditionally, it takes at least three years to plan and build an exhibition; artifact rotations and new text panels are planned out a year in advance. This time, the team worked on a more nimble timeframe, taking no more than 4 weeks to create a pilot from conception to execution, leaving the pilot up for two weeks, then taking it down and moving on to the next one. This was a new conception of work for some team members: while digital-based colleagues may be accustomed to working on a compressed timeframe, partners in exhibition design and museum services learned to create with a quick turn-around without sacrificing quality of product.

More importantly, the piloting process shifted the focus for design and production from the Museum to its visitors. Constant surveying and user testing was done to refine language and experiences, and lessons learned from each pilot shaped the creation of subsequent pilots. Thinking has gone from “this is how we experience the Museum” to “this is how our visitors want to experience the Museum.”

This lightning talk will cover the who, what, how, and why of short, nimble pilots, as well as some lessons learned from the presenter’s experience in trying to change how the Holocaust Museum works and learns.