Why do we go to museums?

A visitor enjoys a quite moment at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A visitor enjoys a quite moment at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

What drives you to visit museums? For me it’s different things at different times. I sometimes go to see specific exhibitions; if I’m travelling I often pop into the local museum (like San Francisco MOMA above) to broaden my professional knowledge; if I’m taking the kids to the Yorkshire Museum it’s usually because I hope they are going to learn something about Romans even though I’m not very interested myself; and if I sneak into the galleries for five minutes when I’m working at Tate then it’s usually to simply enjoy the work on display and recharge my batteries.

John Falk is one of my favourite thinkers on museums (his book on business models is particularly brilliant) and his book Identity and the Visitor Experience which I’ve just finished reading offers food for thought for anyone involved in museums, particularly those of us interested in encouraging audiences.

Drawing on decades of experience in audience research in museums (including acknowledging important work done in this field by UK-based museum and arts marketing experts Morris Hargreaves McIntyre), Falk makes a compelling case for changing how we consider the visitor experience. He suggests that if we are to improve experiences for visitors instead of thinking about who comes and measuring whether they are satisfied, that we need to conceive of visitor experience in terms of a dynamic intersection of the expectations a visitor brings to museum and a consequence of what happens to them during their visit. He demonstrates that if we want to predict – and respond to – visitor needs then we must focus on the motivation of visitors, not their demographic profile (age, gender, ethnicity etc).

Falk defines 5 motivation-types among museum visitors:

  1. Explorer – seeks to satisfy intellectual curiosity in a challenging environment.
  2. Facilitator – looking for meaningful social experience for someone you care about in emotionally supportive environment – often, but not exclusively, children.
  3. Experience seeker - exposure to the best things and ideas, e.g. touists.
  4. Professional/hobbyist - desire to further specific needs with a subject matter focus.
  5. Recharger – physical, intellectual and emotional recharge in a beautiful/ refreshing environment.

As my own museum visiting demonstrates, the same person might fall into different categories on different days or different types of museums. So what makes me happy when I’m visiting an art museum on my own (unfettered access to beautiful artworks in quiet spaces with minimal interpretation and definitely no distracting school groups or interactives) is very different to what I’m looking for when I visit a natural history museum with my family (plenty of interpretation, good cafe and family facilities – buggy park, low-cost entry, friendly staff, inter active displays etc). Understanding motivation is the secret to ensuring visitors are attracted to visit, satisfied and likely to return. You can’t please everyone all the time because different visitors have different needs and expectations – therefore personalisation and differentiation become the name of the game.

Falk argues that under-pinnning the vast majority of museum experiences is a desire for learning – although this is more pronounced in some of these categories than others (Explorers and Professional/Hobbyists are consciously seeking to learn, Faciliators are focussed on their children’s learning in many cases).That we opt to visit museums, rather than are compelled to learn as we are in formal education settings, leads him to champion the role of museums as spaces for free-choice learning which – research suggests – is generally a more effective way to learn. Those seeking informal or free-choice learning are usually looking for different kinds of learning than you’d associate with statutory education:

‘Visitors [do] use museums in order to support their lifelong, free-choice learning, but the purpose of that learning is not to gain competence in a subject as in school or work-based context. Museum visitors are using learning as a vehicle for building personal identity,’ p.59

Interestingly, Falk goes on to link visitor motivation to a process of developing and affirming identify through museum visiting (and other leisure activity). He argues that:

‘…even before the visitor steps across the threshold of the museum, he or she has already consciously or for many visitors semi-consciously created a set of expectations for the visit. These expectations represent an amalgam of his or her identity-related leisure desires and needs and his or her socially and culturally constructed view of what the museum affords.’ P.81

In other words museum-visiting can be understood as part of en-acting our identities (which it’s generally accepted are multiple and dynamic). When I visit an art museum to ‘recharge’ my batteries it’s because I see myself as someone who values art, and the intellectual challenge it offers. When I take the kids I’m playing out my desire to be a good parent who spends their leisure time supporting their children’s learning (rather than letting them watch DVDs and et crisps all day – I only do that when it’s raining…). If the kids have a good time and seem to learn something then I’m a happy customer. But even if the museum has the best exhibition in the world, if I don’t consider my kids have been welcomed and enjoyed themselves then I’m likely to be unhappy. One way of looking at identity, Falk argues citing Wenger, is as a ‘lens’ through which we perceive and understand the world. I’m interested in how museums can shift these ‘lenses’.

Ultimately, Falk argues that if we consider visitor experience in this way then it would ‘dramatically change how museums define and measure their impact; bringing institutional missions, practices, and assessments more in-line with the actual public values and outcomes.’ (p.11.). No doubt that’s true – and could be very valuable – but I’m left wondering about the role of museums to challenge as well as affirm our understanding of the world – and our place in it? Falk reveals that most museums have very high levels of visitor satisfaction – primarily because people know what to expect. If satisfaction is just a measure of how well we meet expectations, if we are looking to challenge some assumptions about what a museum can be or the subjects we are presenting, then perhaps some signs of visitor dissatisfaction aren’t always a bad thing?

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