#MuseumMemories and the Visitor Experience

ImageWhile we often think of memories as fleeting, visits to museums are often remembered in terms of both the social interactions and the learning that occurred, seen through the lens of life experiences while making connections with their own lives. Research I have conducted over my long career at the Australian Museum, Sydney, and now the Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, has consistently found that a successful museum visit is talked about later, with visitors reporting that looking at the world in a different way and noticing more about the world around them are key indicators of this.

Museums also have objects which can strongly resonate with a person’s experiences and memories which can contribute to both forming and affirming a visitor’s identity and construction of the self. Identity can be shaped by visitors’ interactions with museum objects: ‘… visitors recall meaningful objects during museum visits that elicit feelings relevant to their own personal identities’ (Paris and Mercer, 2002, p.418).

John Falk, in a 2010 talk titled Who is the Public?, noted that visitor experiences are not tangible and immutable but rather part of an ephemeral and protracted relationship with a museum. He concluded that we need to think about a visit in terms of being a piece in a person’s life, with the visitor experience extending beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the museum.

Studies of children’s visits to a variety of museums and galleries found that children were able to strongly recall their visit, and that these recollections were ’… diverse, highly individualistic, and idiosyncratic (Anderson, et al., 2002). Research with family audiences to Australian museums found that some visits can impact on visitors’ lives for decades (Kelly, et al., 2004). Parents who remembered enjoyable and interesting experiences in museums, either in childhood or adulthood, were keen to foster similar positive experiences for their children, with these experiences transferring quite readily from one museum to another. Many other studies have reported enduring memories of museum visits (see for example, Falk and Dierking, 1992, 2000; Hein, 1998; Kelly, 2007; McManus, 1993; Pitman, 1999).

Parent participants in a 2013 research study for a new exhibition at the Maritime Museum described a great day out as when their kids are happy, tired and go away with something to remember – so #MuseumMemories have a critical role to play in the visitor experience both at the time of their visit and (often a long way) later on, leading them on to become lifelong museum visitors and advocates.

(PS. If you’re wondering why this post it’s #MuseumWeek on Twitter – the theme for today is #MuseumMemories – enjoy!)


Anderson, D., Piscitelli, B., Weier, B., Everett, M. and Tayler, C. (2002). Children’s Museum Experiences: identifying powerful mediators of learning. Curator, 45(3), pp.213-231.

Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (1992). The Museum Experience. Washington, D.C.: Whalesback Books.

Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (2000). Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Hein, G. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.

Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and Learners: Adult Museum Visitors’ Learning Identities. PhD thesis, University of Technology, Sydney.

Kelly, L., Savage, G., Griffin, J., and Tonkin, S. (2004). Knowledge Quest: Australian families visit museums. Sydney: Australian Museum.

McManus, P. (1993). Memories as Indicators of the Impact of Museum Visits. Museum Management and Curatorship, 12, pp.367-380.

Paris, S. and Mercer, M. (2002). Finding Self in Objects: Identity Exploration in Museums. In G. Leinhardt & K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 401-423). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pitman, B. (Ed.) (1999). Presence of Mind: Museums and the Spirit of Learning. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.


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