Understanding the Museum Visitor

An identity-based approach vs. demographics studies to understanding the Museum Visitor

Before we delve into the design of the museum, it is imperative to understand the psyche of the visitors. What drives a visitor to visit the museum? What do they retain from the visit? Most importantly, what will help them to form long-term memories from the visit?  From a qualitative analysis study from Dr. John H. Falk, recognised by the American Association of Museums as one of the 100 most influential museum professionals, he found that there are 10 categories of memories:

  1. Exhibits
  2. Social
  3. Personal
  4. Setting information
  5. Previous visits
  6. Feelings/Emotions
  7. Temporal agendas
  8. Interactive nature of the experience
  9. Interview participation
  10. Visiting the gift shop/cafe

In an analysis of 22 visitors, four factors seemed to influence the memories of all of them:

  • Things that supported their needs and interests as they enter.
  • Things that were novel.
  • Things that had high emotional content for the individual.
  • Things that were supported by later experiences.

Although learning and remembering may not be totally similar, they are very closely related. Memories are the visible part of what we learn. Therefore understanding what someone remembers from their visit is critical to understanding the entire museum visitor experience. These beg the question, what causes a visitor to retain his memories of a museum visit?

According to Dr. Falk, the prevalent and extensive research done so far on visitor demographics and psychographics are inaccurate in understanding visitor motivations and learning. Though these studies typecast visitors into certain categories, i.e. the museum visitor is better educated, older, or more urban-modern, it provides insufficient information because museum visitors are individuals, not averages.

“The museum visitor experience is much too ephemeral and dynamic; it is a uniquely constructed relationship that occurs each time a person visits a museum. And the same person can visit the same museum on two different days and be an entirely DIFFERENT visitor.”

From hundreds of in-depth interviews, Dr. Falk and his colleagues gleaned that what stands out is how consistently a visitor’s post-visit narrative links with his entering narrative. Visitors are likely to have an entering narrative (Doering, Pekarik). These narratives are usually self-reinforcing, and they direct learning, behaviour and perceptions of satisfaction. We can understand these motivations as designed to satisfy one or more personal identity related needs. Visitors utilise their pre-visit self-aspects to justify why they should visit the museum and then again retrospectively to judge if their visit had been worthwhile.

From most of these interviews, the visitors’ understanding of their visit is often self-referential. Their selves provide meaning to their museum visit. Some visit the museum to for a quiet, restorative experience. Some visitors use the visit to fulfill their roles; especially parents seeking to facilitate their children’s learning.  Then there is the curious viewer, who goes out of his way to discover unusual facts, who might seek out a history museum during his leisure time. People have invariably developed working models of what museums are and what the museum experience can offer.

Dr. John Falk gave an identity-based categorisation of the visitors, though these are by no means exhaustive.

  • Explorers – They are driven by curiosity with a generic interest in the museum content. They have expectations to find something to fuel their learning.
  • Facilitators – They are socially motivated. They focus primarily on helping others in their accompanying social group to learn. (e.g. Parents, Teachers)
  • Professional / Hobbyists – They feel a close tie with the museum content and their chosen hobbyist or professional pursuits. They are typically motivated by a strong desire to satisfy a specific expert content-related objective.
  • Experience Seekers – They perceive the museum as an important place to visit. They will be satisfied as long as they have “been there and done that”.
  • Rechargers – They seek to have a contemplative, spiritual or restorative experience. The museum, to them, is a refuge from the cold and practical world or a confirmation of their religious beliefs.

(Falk J.H.)

Parents often visit museums with the goal of being facilitators for their children’s learning.

Motivations for Learning

In a study by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi and Kim Hemanson from the University of Chicago, they asked the questions, “How do museums motivate viewers to learn? And how do museums present information in a meaningful way to deepen a person’s experience and promote further learning?”

Human action tends to be motivated by two kinds of rewards: extrinsic and intrinsic. When rewards are external, action is extrinsically motivated. In this case, performance is a means to an end – for praise, or to avoid punishment, to pass our exams or to gain approval from society. When a person deems something as worth doing for its own sake, he acts for intrinsic rewards, even if there are no extrinsic rewards. Most sports, games and artistic activities are intrinsically motivated as one gets no rewards from performing them beyond just enjoying the experience itself, unless you are paid for what you do.

What motivates one to learn in a museum setting?
Human action is motivated by both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. Intrinsic motivation is thus a good field to explore in the area of museum design, where one cannot simply impose external motivations such as prize or punishment.

Most of the time, learning is intrinsically motivated when it is spontaneous, as are children at play. Just try getting a child to sit down to a lecture for an hour, and compare with engaging them in play cum learning excursions outdoors. They may learn far more outdoors because children pay attention when they want to, when they find the information interesting by itself. When people are freely expressing themselves doing what they love, doing what interests them, they are usually intrinsically motivated. Intrinsically motivated students are described to have “learning goals”, while students who are extrinsically motivated have “performance goals”. (Dweck [1986], Nicholls, Patashnick, and Nolan [1985]; Hayman and Dweck [1992])

Studies showed that students who are intrinsically motivated have higher achievement scores (Hidi [1990]; Lepper and Cordova [1992]; Gottfried [1985], and they continue to develop their aptitude. Enjoyment of learning also appears to result in higher creativity. Whilst external rewards actually serve to undermine motivation and decrease performance. As museums do not have external means to “force” learning, they have to rely on intrinsic rewards.

In this current world, information is often overloaded. Attention is a scarce resource. Whilst surrounded by a bombardment of information, the amount we actually notice and remember may be significantly less than it was in the time of our cave dwelling ancestors. What information we choose to pay attention to and how intently is a crucial question about learning.

Curiosity and interest rank high on what make us pay attention to information. A curious person will devote more effort to find out things he does not know, or not supposed to know. All of us are curious to a certain degree. By appealing to this universal trait, museums can attract the energy of a visitor long enough to lead to a more engaging interaction. Interest refers to the likelihood to invest more energy in one set of stimuli than another. Say, for example, one is interested in dogs. He will be more compelled to talk about dogs, find out more information about them or to think about them. Interests are somewhat universal, and somewhat personal. Most people are interested in food, babies and pets etc, whilst some are interested in car engines, ancient Mesopotamia maps etc.

Curiosity and interest cause one to pay attention to information.

Museum visitors may take note of an exhibit because of interest and curiosity. But until the exhibit becomes intrinsically rewarding, the visitor may not pay attention long enough for intellectual and emotional changes to occur. What may motivate a visitor to consider an exhibit in exchange for no external rewards?

That brings us to our next point, Flow. 

What is Flow?

Chess players, musicians, dancers, painters and rock climbers describe the enjoyment of their activities in similar terms. They often stress that what keeps them involved in these demanding pursuits is the quality of experience. This experience is termed the flow experience by Csiksgentmihalyi. It is described as a state of mind that is almost automatic.

Sungha Jung, a guitar prodigy, is so proficient in his instrument that he plays it effortlessly and beautifully.

Activities that produce flow have clear goals and rules. For instance, in tennis or chess, one knows what one needs to accomplish every step of the way. The tennis professional concentrates on every shot to convert it into a winning point. A surgeon knows exactly his intentions during an operation. Flow activities also produce immediate and clear feedback. The tennis player knows immediately after a shot if he has hit a poor shot. A surgeon knows his mistake right away and a musician will cringe at a wrong note, though the lay spectator or audience may not notice.

Roger Federer, the tennis professional, in the “flow”, concentrating on his immediate goals.

The challenge of the activity must also match the skill level of the individual. Too easy, and he gets bored. Too tough, and anxiety ensues. People are natural learners and enjoy learning, but insecurities and negative cognitive conditioning interfere with the individuals’ desire to learn and grow. Self-consciousness, depression, loneliness and anxiety disrupt the flow experience.

When goals and feedback are clear and unambiguous, and challenges and skills well-matched, then one’s mind and body become completely immersed in the activity. People described having a sense of self-transcendence, just like when chess players feel their moves aligning to a universal field of forces. Flow activities lead to personal growth. To sustain the flow state, skills must increase in tandem with the challenges. One won’t enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for too long. Boredom frustrates us. The desire to enjoy oneself again will push one to stretch our skills.


What do these principles then mean for museum design and interpretive planning?

Firstly, museum goers are individuals, with very differentiated interests and idiosyncrasies. Therefore, they come with very broad range of interests and goals. Curiosity, though, as asserted in the previous argument, is universal. Intrinsically motivated learning suggests that the museum exhibit must capture the visitors’ curiosity. There must be something to hook the visitors. There is a reason why mummies and dinosaur exhibits perform consistently well. People are drawn by the mystical and unknown.

Secondly, after arousing curiosity, there must be enough engagement to sustain the interest to promote learning. To inspire intrinsic motivation, the exhibit must bridge the gap between the subject matter and the visitor’s life.

 “When art is removed as the province of professional artists, a dangerous gulf develops between the fine arts and everyday arts. The fine arts are elevated and set apart from life, becoming too precious and therefore irrelevant.” – Moore [1992]

Museums in general need to be relevant and inspire visitors to see the relationship between the exhibits and their own concerns and perhaps be stimulated to pursue art, science after the visit. When curating the exhibits, therefore, it is important to ask questions like these, “How does knowing about these rock formations link me to other people and times, the larger cosmos?”

Thirdly, emotional connections are involved as well as thoughts. We want to find out more about people in ancient times because we have the desire to feel emotionally connected as well. Exhibits containing diaries and personal effects often impact us because they connect us with another’s feelings.

It is not enough to attract attention. To be effective, museums must craft opportunities for deep absorption to promote learning. What are the conditions for flow then? Often, to an amateur museum goer, he does not know what to do when he enters a museum.  As noted earlier, the entering narrative is often an indicator of the exiting narrative. Helping visitors set manageable goals may be one way of helping the average museum goer.

It is not enough to attract a visitor’s curiosity. There must be interaction to sustain interest so as to promote learning.

The flow experience is optimal when the challenges are not too easy nor too hard. When individuals are assisted in tasks, they can learn at different levels. A primary 3 child may learn at primary 5 level with assistance. It is therefore good to ask, “How much assistance is available for visitors with different knowledge and ability? Are there provisions for developing skills at increasing levels of competence so as to prevent boredom?”

With these principles, hopefully one can have a more guided approach to museum design that speaks right directly to the visitors’ hearts.

  • Doering, Z.D., & Pekarik, A.: ‘Questioning the entrance arrative’. Journal of Museum Education, 21:3, 1996, pp20-25.
  • Falk J.H. Understanding Museum Visitors’ Motivations and Learnings.
  • Csiksgentmihalyi M., & Hemanson K. Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why does one want to learn?

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