Worcester Art Museum: Executive Summary

Project Overview Executive Summary Final Report and Video

Engaging the Visitor with Digital Technology in the Arms and Armor Collection


Museums today are increasingly focused on visitor education and engagement (Hein, 1998) in addition to their traditional roles of collection, conservation, and research (Lord & Piacente, 2014; Alexander, 1979). The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) wishes to seize the opportunity of acquiring the arms and armor collection from the Higgins Armory Museum (Higgins) in 2013 to better engage and educate their visitors, and simultaneously accomplish their 2020 goal of 200,000 visitors (Worcester Art Museum, 2014). According to the curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art, the Higgins collection primarily targets families (J. Forgeng, personal communication, February 10, 2016).

The WAM wants to proceed by increasing interactivity by including digital media in the upcoming Meyer Idea Lab, a temporary exhibit opening May 28, 2016 (“Jeppson Idea Lab: The Art of Combat”, n.d.) and the Medieval Gallery, a permanent exhibit opening in December 2016 (J. Forgeng, personal communication, February 10, 2016). However, our sponsor wa nted additional research on the various information media implemented in other museums and greater analysis of the digital technology already implemented in the Knights! exhibit (J. Forgeng, personal communication, February 10, 2016). For these reasons, the WAM engaged a team of student researchers from WPI to research the use of digital media, primarily iPads, in the museum. Thus, we focused on researching and finding the best way to implement digital technology. We also researched other methods of engagement not limited to digital technology.


The Worcester Art Museum’s Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art, Jeffrey Forgeng, requested that we research the effectiveness of different media in engaging family v audiences and also create the iPad implementation for the Meyer Idea Lab, in addition to posing recommendations for both the Idea Lab and the Medieval Gallery. We achieved our goal using the following six objectives:

  1. Evaluate the current state of the Worcester Art Museum, particularly its arms and armor collection and its current implementation of iPads and other educational media.
  2. Identify museums with engaging exhibits, especially those using iPads, and consult their staff on implementation strategies.
  3. Analyze and evaluate success of engagement techniques from Objectives 1 and 2.
  4. Design and develop a personal promotional video of arms and armor at the WAM.
  5. Design and develop a digital media implementation for the iPads.
  6. Provide recommendations for the Meyer Idea Lab and Medieval Gallery.

We realized our goals by using a variety of methods. To better understand the educational media available at the WAM and how it was being used, we analyzed survey data, conducted participant observation in the Knights! exhibit and Remastered, conducted oral surveys of visitor experience with the iPads, and interviewed guards. We also interviewed eight WAM staff, including educators, the arms and armor curator, and the director of audience engagement to better understand the vision for the arms and armor collection.

We conducted online research to identify museums with similar target demographic, collection, size, or location to the WAM. We interviewed museum staff at nineteen other museums and visited the Worcester Historical Museum, the EcoTarium in Worcester, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Museum of Russian Icons to explore different methods of visitor engagement and observe how visitors experienced these methods. We assessed the effectiveness vi of the exhibit design and engagement techniques using the following criteria: accessibility, sustainability, learning style, and visitor appeal. We found these criteria very important for the WAM to appeal to a wide demographic of families, to cater to various levels of knowledge using a variety of educational methods, and to surpass Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards while being realistic for extended use in the permanent galleries.


From our research at twenty museums, we concluded many things about improving family visitor engagement. First, we found that museum curators, educators, gallery attendants, and visitors have differing views on the role of the art museum. Next we were surprised to learn that contrary to previous beliefs, overall attendance rates at New England museums are increasing. However, in the WAM and other New England Museums, the people showing up do not always correspond to the demographic targeted. When we looked at the effect of technology, we found that depending on how it is used, technology can be beneficial, detrimental, or simply inconsequential in engaging a family audience. We also found out that most museums have similar ways of designing and implementing their technology. Although not originally part of target research, we found that layout of exhibits play a key role in audience engagement. Finally, observations and surveys at the WAM showed that the trends we examined at other museums hold true here as well.


We created two multimedia deliverables for the WAM. The first was a video about the life and writings of Joachim Meyer, the author of the Art of Combat fencing manual produced in the sixteenth century. The light-hearted video featured descriptions of fencing techniques and weapons, swordplay demonstrations, and trivia. The second was an iPad interactive for the vii Meyer Idea Lab opening at the WAM in May 2016. Our findings influenced the six features, including detailed slideshows on sword fighting and the works of Meyer, exploration of one of the woodcut illustrations found in the Art of Combat, a video demonstration of some of the swordplay techniques found in the fencing manual, and an interactive fencing game created by a previous research team working with the arms and armor collection. Finally, we implemented a visitor tracking system on the app to record how long visitors interacted with different features.


From our findings, we created a list of recommendations for technology implementation at the WAM in both the Medieval Gallery and future exhibits. We based these recommendations on a desire to provide a multisensory experience that targets a family audience. This includes using a variety of low-tech solutions with a focus on visual learning strategies and an avoidance of technological distractions. We deemed labels, audio stations, ambient music, video, magnifying glasses, printed guides, books, and arts and crafts to be appropriate for family audiences at the WAM. We also found that multisided exhibits are particularly important to allow access by a group or family. Additionally, we stressed the importance of providing rest areas with seating, and recommended designing nonlinear exhibits for free choice exploration.


The Worcester Art Museum has already made great strides towards better engaging family audiences. Exhibits such as Knights! have already implemented many of the recommendations that we formed from our findings. We believe that the iPad application we developed will help to address the low usage rates of tablets in the past, and that the visitor tracking software will improve the iteration process for WAM tablet application design. We also believe that the video we created will help draw attention to the Meyer Idea Lab and swordplay viii workshops. Finally, by implementing our recommendations, we are confident that the WAM can better provide families with a personalized and self-guided museum visit that incorporates sight, sound, and touch for a more immersive and engaging experience.