Ahh, the days of describing the person who came to your institution as simply a visitor seem so sweet – a simple word to encompass all. But as Erik points out in his prompt for this issue, visitor is a word as stuffed with complexities and connotations as most museum storage cabinets. And yet, for all of its semantic baggage, visitor doesn’t tell you much about well…your visitor. Who are they? What motivates them? What excites them? Why do they visit? What do they want to learn? How do they want to learn? How do they prefer to engage on that day in that place?
Before you even get to the term visitor, we need to take step back to “number,” as in a person greeted with, “What is your zip code?” upon entering a museum. Here a visitor is literally a 5-digit number that does not give the museum any information about how to better serve them or craft a more enjoyable visit.
Some museums refer to visitors as audience members, much like a theater or musical venue would. And yet, in practice, the two are interchangeable in that neither word gives you any additional information about your visitors.
Then there is the market-driven characterization of visitors as customers or clients. However, it is the customer who seeks out a specific experience and then hopes that her/his money buys what s/he wanted; the museum does not change its offering to match each customer.
Counteracting the semantic capitalism is the more “homey” idea of visitors as guests. In this case museums would theoretically treat their visitors as they would guests in their own home, but it still rings hollow in relation to a visitor-driven institution, one that enhances experiences in informal settings through research, evaluation, and dialogue with their visitors and community.
But beyond the semantic game of choosing the right word, why does it really matter? I would offer that the word you choose to mean “person who comes to my institution” defines how you interact with and create experiences for visitors: it is the manifestation of a theory that reveals what you know about your visitors, how you approach their needs and wants, their perception of learning and enjoyment, their level of engagement, and how you respond to a changing community. And visitor, audience, customer, user, stakeholder, participant, patron, guest, etc. all lack a theoretical framework that contributes to the development of a deeper and more meaningful experience for and with your visitors. None of them are based on evaluation research and none of them tell you more about your visitor – they only tell you about how you view your visitor.
An entire subset of the larger world of evaluation is dedicated to visitor studies. The field has grappled with the seemingly simple questions of “Who is our visitor?” and “What does s/he want?” The studies and resulting theories often lead to a name for a visitor – a forager or recharger, for example. But beyond the name is a way of thinking about that person and how to provide the best experience for them: how to develop, craft, and deliver programs, content, exhibitions and access with the hope of creating an opportunity for change, for engagement, for wonder, for impact and perhaps for a return visitor. So, let’s explore just some of the names associated with theories and studies, which on the surface seem synonymous with “visitor” but really reveal much more.
There are visitors who adhere to the optimal foraging theory; I have to admit I love the image of visitors as foragers, picking through our exhibits and programs, looking for a tasty morsel. Developed by Jay Rounds, the visitor in this instance is a “curiosity-driven visitor.” [i] Foragers engage in “shallow but wide learning,” a type of leaning often derided by museums, who believe that if visitors don’t see everything than they missed out. But recognizing that a visitor engages in their own model of learning can lead to more responsive thinking, to more visitor-centric thinking, about exhibitions, signage, programming, and content development.
Or perhaps you follow the research of Zahava Doering and Andrew Pekarik, and you want to greet your visitors by saying, “Good Morning, Novice” (that always sounded very Star Trek-y to me); others might hear the greeting, “Good Morning, Expert.” [ii] In this conceptualization of a visitor, their knowledge on a particular subject embodies who they are and is fluid as they enter different types of institutions and exhibitions. Defining your visitor as an Expert or Novice might mean that, as an institution, you work to meet the pre-existing learning narratives of your visitors and then thoughtfully, intentionally challenge them to engage and question.
You could categorize your visitors as “frequent” or “occasional” as defined by research conducted by Marilyn Hood. [iii] Defining your visitor as frequent means that you know they attend museums three or more times a year and that when they do visit, they seek out opportunities to learn and to be challenged. Meanwhile, your occasional visitors want to be with people, participate actively and feel at ease in their surroundings. When labeling your visitors as occasional visitors, you also know that they are more likely to visit special exhibitions, come to family events, or bring out of town friends and family.
Jan Packer and Roy Ballentyne did not come up with any clever names that roll of the tongue, but they did identify five reasons people come to museums: 1) learning and discovery; 2) passive enjoyment; 3) restoration; 4) social interaction; and 5) self-fulfillment.[iv] The researchers found that visitors come for both learning and enjoyment. Today that might not seem like groundbreaking research, but many museums still focus only on content learning as the ultimate goal; this thinking demonstrates museum-centered focus. Moving beyond the one word – visitor – encourages museums to recognize and program for, and with, different motivations in mind.
Building off of a lot of the research already mentioned, John Falk describes visitors in terms of their motivations and desires, which are fluid within and between institutions.[v] Falk makes the case that by understanding the underlying motivations that drive a visitor, a museum can create an experience that reflects a person’s identity and therefore satisfies their motivation for visiting. According to Falk, this level of personal connection increases meaningfulness to the visit and develops and sustains a community of learners. Falk introduced five new ways to say visitor:
Explorers are curiosity-driven and expect to find something that will grab their attention and fuel their learning.
Facilitators are socially motivated; they enable the experience and learning of others in their accompanying social group.
Professional/hobbyists feel a close tie between the museum content; their visits are typically motivated by a desire to satisfy a specific content related objective.
Experience Seekers are motivated to visit because they perceive the museum as an important destination.
Rechargers are primarily seeking to have a contemplative, spiritual and/or restorative experience; they use the museum as a refuge from the work-a-day world.
Museums spend a lot of time and money creating exhibitions and programs for the public. Curators, collections managers, educators and designers dive into research, talk to other experts, seek to understand all aspects of their collection; they strive to know everything about their topic. And yet, when thinking about visitors, institutions do not apply the same level of research – evaluation – to learn about the people who come to those exhibitions and programs. Moving beyond the word “visitor” to a more defined, nuanced understanding of your public demonstrates that an institution has begun to apply the same level of research and study to their visitors as they do to their collections. The corollary to this is that conducting the evaluation necessary to understand visitors at this level allows institutions to be more responsive to the community and funders and create informed dialogue at the societal and policy level. By exploring visitor research and conducting evaluation, you not only learn how you want to define your visitor, you also gain insight into how your visitor derives value and benefits from attending your institution.
Denver-based consultant Laureen Trainer has 17 years of experience in the museum and informal learning field. Ms. Trainer started Trainer Evaluation in 2012 to build evaluation capacity in museum, libraries and non-profits. Previously Ms. Trainer was Manager of Audience Insights at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Director of Education at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, and Acting Curator of Education at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. She received her MS in Museum Studies from the University of Colorado and her MA in Art History from the University of Arizona. Ms. Trainer is Adjunct Faculty at the University of Denver and Guest Co-Edited the Spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education, Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate.
[i] Rounds, J. “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor.” Curator: The Museum Journal, 47:4, 2004, p. 389–412.
[ii] Doering, Zahava D. and Andrew J. Pekarik. “Questioning the Entrance Narrative.” The Journal of Museum Education 21:3, 1996, p. 20-23.
[iii] Hood, Marilyn. “Staying Away: Why People Choose Not to Visit Museum.” Edited by Gail Anderson. Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Walnut Creek, CA, AltaMira Press, 2004. p.150-157.
[iv] Packer, Jan and Roy Ballantyne. “Motivational Factors the Visitor Experience: A Comparison of Three Sites.” Curator: The Museum Journal, 45:3, 2004, p. 183-198.
[v] Falk, John H. Identity and Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2009.