Riddle Me This: Why do People Visit Museums?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience?

Our audiences have a variety of motivations in visiting museums. How can we embrace these motivations as part of their experience? Photo taken from: http://www.pbase.com/jlkemper3/image/30074351

“Visitors may not be sure why they are there and we don’t give them a clue.” John Falk made this statement during the AAM, Annual Meeting session on Identity-Related Visit Motivations: Tools for Supporting the Museum Experience.

It’s true….consider your last visit to a museum. Actually, rather than put you on the spot, I will share my last experience at a museum which was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York on a recent Friday evening.

5:30 pm: Read an interesting article from Time Out New York indicating that a couple of comedians were going to take a tour of the MET and offer some humor. That was my hook. I’ve been to the museum before, but not terribly recently and not on a Friday night AND not to listen to a couple of comedians….humorize art.

7:30 pm: Met up with my husband on the steps of the MET. The tour was to begin at 8 pm so we went through ticketing and decided to do some independent exploration.

7:45 pm: We were both a bit tired and walked around different gallery spaces talking about everything but what we were looking at. Given the time of day for our visit, we were more interested in food options at the museum than anything else so we passed the café a couple of times, contemplating our dining options. I found a bench and sat for a spell (highlight of my visit). The museum was pretty crowded, a bit too crowded for me and I was a bit tired at the end of the day.

7:55 pm: Feeling a bit more rested, we left the museum. We saw a large group forming outside of the museum and assumed this must be the tour with the comedians. We decided that food was more important at that moment, reasoning that we can “actually visit the museum another day” and left the museum.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent under a half hour in a museum before! Our motivations for visiting the museum were unique; we were curious about dining at the café, about an experience involving comedians as tour guides, but in the end, too tired to do either- recharging our batteries was the most successful part of this visit.

Essentially people visit museums for a variety of reasons, some which may overlap and be of interest to the visitor simultaneously. As such, expectations for experiences are also likely to vary with each visit. Considering this, we have the opportunity to re-consider visitor motivations in order to ultimately impact and improve visitor experiences. John Falk offered a new vocabulary which complements his recent research (you can read about his findings in his new book) to highlight identity-related motivations:

  • The Explorer: motivated by personal curiosity.
  • The Facilitator: motivated by/because of another person (such as a parent bringing a child to the museum).
  • The Experience Seeker: motivated to see and experience places. (such as a tourist visiting a new city).
  • The Professional Hobbyist: motivated by specific knowledge-related goals.
  • The Recharger: motivated by contemplative/restorative experience.

Research supports the claim that the majority of museum visitors can be categorized as visiting for one or some combination of these five related reasons. Some museums are already building on these ideas and reflecting these considerations in their layout, exhibits, programs, and staff training.

For instance, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California Jim Covel, Manager, Guest Experience Training & Interpretation  worked with his staff to present different types of visitor motivations and a series of responses including activities and exhibits that relate to the visitor’s intentions. The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada incorporated these types of motivations into their exhibit design and building layout with ambient music in spaces for rechargers, lectures for professional hobbyists, and a café area in the middle of one of their galleries intended for the experience seekers on-the-go (this area, which includes huge windows that overlook the city has become a favorite dwelling place for many visitors).

It is important to keep in mind that the same visitor may have very different motivations on a given day or may have multiple reasons for wanting to visit a museum. Although it may seem obvious, it is also important to note that there is no hierarchy of motivations. In my example, my visit started out with intentions, however these motivations changed during the visit.

Here are my two cents:

For museum visitors: You can come to museums for any reason! It’s okay to want to relax, to want to feel absorbed by artifacts, to have a social outing….come, come often and enjoy!

For museums: Embrace these varying motivations and challenge yourself to incorporate opportunities of interest with these different motivations in mind- be creative with it and have fun!

For me: Eat and rest before going to the museum! I consider myself passionate about museums and even I have my limits!


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