If you’re at all like me, you like to share your opinions—not just for the thrill of being heard but to change things that seem wrong or even awful. Part of my job as visitor services coordinator entails the utter thrill of reading people’s comments—both good and bad—once they make their way into the museum. Much of the time their thoughts are so unfiltered that it’s like reading people’s minds!
A sign outside the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition asks visitors for their feedback via Twitter.
In reading these comments as they come in, though, I am sheepishly reminded of some rather assertive comments that I myself have left at various businesses and museums. Over the time I’ve been in charge of reading comments it’s dawned on me that there are good ways to leave bad comments and bad ways to leave bad comments. “Good” bad comments can be critical but are thoughtful and include explanation. “Bad” bad comments are critical but tend toward ad hominem attacks and make little sense without context or elucidation.
So how does one write a “good” bad comment? Obviously, if you’re writing a negative comment, it’s going to be negative, but it’s infinitely easier for the reader to understand if the writer’s rationale is clear. I’ll use as an example an imaginary exhibition about whirligigs. If you hated the exhibition about whirligigs because we failed to include the very important development of whirligigs with two sets of wings, write that. This is much more helpful than writing that the exhibition was awful without explaining why it was awful. This helps us to better understand the reasoning behind your opinion and can assist us in crafting a more useful response to your comment. We might have no two-winged whirligigs on display because none exist in the national collections or they are too fragile to be exhibited.
If you hated the whirligig exhibition because we didn’t represent wooden whirligigs, please include that point rather than calling the exhibition, or us, stupid. If someone calls me names, I’m effectively unable to listen to whatever truth they might have to offer. In my previous life as a “bad” bad comment writer, I never realized just how much effort, scholarship, and reasoning go into planning exhibitions. There are many different opinions, and how curators and exhibition planners arrived at a decision is based on dozens of factors. Maybe the museum’s agreed-upon definition of “whirligig” means “metal or plastic lawn ornament,” so wooden ones would never be included.
I offer these suggestions not as a shield against invective. Again, I get an incredible kick out of the range of comments we receive—and we need to hear your “good” bad comments, your constructive criticism! In commenting well on one specific problem, you might actually be offering suggestions toward fixing a more universal problem in exhibitions that we aren’t aware of. New staff, new experiences, and collected wisdom all contribute to the museum’s growth and we will undoubtedly continue to change even without visitor input. But the millions of visitors who pass through yearly with eyes completely fresh to the experience offered here are a source of a completely different kind of wisdom.
So we hope that you do speak up–at the Welcome Center or information desk, via letter, email, through Twitter, on Facebook, and on this blog (see the comments section below!). But please help us to help you. If it’s a negative comment you want to share, make it a “good” bad comment! Of course, we can't solve every problem immediately or fulfill all wishes, but the museum takes all comments seriously. More than one staff person reads and reviews your feedback and we really do depend on visitor comments about what works and what doesn’t, what you do and don’t enjoy, and what you would like to see in the museum.
Jane Fandrey is Visitor Services Coordinator at the National Museum of American History.