A Perspective On Museum-goers

I picked up this book in my home office: The Museum Experience Revisited, by John H Falk and Lynn D. Dierking. It was good reading it again after being out of an arts administrator role for almost a year.

book available here

I love working in galleries and museums. I enjoy sharing the story behind the artwork, seeing how the design of the exhibit aids in visitor comfort, and the best is seeing someone start to read art on their own after initially struggling. They light up and see the world in a new way.

Gif from Amelie. Image source

Unfortunately, those awesome moments are infrequent. I've spent way too many hours of my life alone in a lovely white cube gallery with artwork. With tiny budgets and minimal staff, It's hard for small and mid sized organizations to attract and retain new visitors. I like this book because it offers a different perspective on audience as well as practical and inexpensive ways to reach them. 

One of the authors John H. Falk is a professor of Free Choice Learning and his research focuses around a visitor-centered form of museum management. 

In this video he briefly describes his philosophy.

The book suggests museums change the way they look at visitors. Do not ask WHO visits exhibitions but instead WHY they visit. It lays out (pg62) seven reasons why people visit museums.

  1. Explorers: curious
  2. Facilitators: group leaders, visit to aid someone else
  3. Professionals/Hobbyist: the themes and objects relate directly to work they do
  4. Experience Seekers: want to cross the museum off their list of places to see
  5. Rechargers: see exhibitions as a space for reflection
  6. Respectful Pilgrims: attend out of obligation
  7. Affinity Seekers: looking for material that connects with their personal identity

The book suggests museums not change their exhibitions to reach the different motivations of visitors but instead aim to fulfill the different motivations.

To clarify the authors point out three areas that museums can focus on in order to best meet visitor needs. 

  1. Sociocultural: actions and needs of different types of visitors, e.g. groups, school groups, lone visitors, families
  2. Personal: The book makes a case that museum visitors attend to confirm information they know, not to learn something new. This can have a huge impact on how museums communicate and share information to the visitors.
  3. Physical: a consideration for the visitor experience in it's entirety, e.g. signage, parking lot, exhibition information provided before and during the visit, sensory maps, spaces to accommodate young families and how staff interact with guests.

Time is one of the biggest hurdles for museums, so I appreciate that the authors have written the book more like a toolkit than a scholarly text on theory. A practical and helpful text for anyone concerned about exhibition visitors.