Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing? #throwbackthursday

As part of my #throwbackthursday challenge the next classic article I looked at is by Valerie Beer, Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing? published in Curator: The Museum Journal, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp. 206–215, September 1987. The premise of Beer’s article is that museum staff held beliefs about visitor behaviour that weren’t anywhere close to the reality of a museum visit. A simple but effective idea and one that still has resonance today.

The study comprised staff interviews coupled with observations and interviews with 1,686 visitors across ten museums in Los Angeles.

The major findings were that:

  • Museum staff overestimated the time spent by visitors in exhibitions – almost half of the displays were skipped entirely, with an 36% of visitors attending to displays for more than 30 seconds. We know the brevity of visitors at exhibitions (both Serrell, 1997 and Hein, 1998 reported on visitor behaviour in exhibitions which is summarised here).
  • Visitors attended to displays that had a combination of materials – so why continue with displays consisting of static objects plus text?
  • Audio visuals attracted visitors but they rarely stayed until the end – so why do we persist with including long videos in exhibitions?
  • Museum staff don’t expect that visitors will read labels – so why do curators, designers etc. persist with this approach?
  • Both staff and visitors have goals for the visit – but, visitors’ with learning goals skipped as many exhibits as those who didn’t (very interesting findings this!).
  • “… evaluation of displays or the knowledge gained from then was unimportant to both staff and visitors … museum staff have trouble evaluating displays because the personal nature of the museum experience precludes much agreement on the criteria for a ‘good visit’” (p.212) – this is a challenging idea…

Some implications of findings were that:

  • Shouldn’t just focus on the amount of time spent in an exhibition, but the percentage of displays skipped (and also the time rangespent across those sampled in my opinion).
  • “Text alone will not attract visitors, but the addition of any other type of material will increase visitor attention” (p.212), “Variety, not quantity appears to be key” (p.213).
  • Don’t ignore visitors who come without ‘knowledge goals’ – they still want to learn something.

Beer concludes by raising the point that visitor-centred experiences challenge our assumptions and ways of working and how we think about our messages and goals: “… before a decision is made that visitor behaviour needs to be changed, perhaps it would be wise to examine the assumption that visitor behaviour should be changed” (p.213, emphasis in original).

How many museum staff actively go on the floor (or online) to actually see how visitors behave? When did you last do this? Did it challenge any of your assumptions?

More next week.

References and further reading (in the spirit of #throwbackthursday these are mostly classics!)
• Bitgood, S. & Patterson, D. (1993). The Effects of Gallery Changes on Visitor Reading and Object Viewing Time. Environment and Behaviour, 25(6), 761-781. (other articles by Bitgood here)
• Hein, G. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge. (other writings by Hein here)
• Kelly, L. (2009). Audience Research: visitor behaviour Accessed 24 April, 2014.
• Screven, C. (1990). Uses of Evaluation Before, During and After Exhibit Design. ILVS Review, 1(2), 36-6.
• Serrell, B. (1997). Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors’ Time in Museum Exhibitions. Curator, 40(2), 108-125.


2 thoughts on “Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing? #throwbackthursday

  1. Amelia says:

    Completely agree with rethinking the long video content found in exhibitions. Video is not just a moving sound-enabled replication of static text, it needs to be compelling enough to stop and view – there is no skim or skip option as with reading text so make your content exceptional.

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