Consider the visitor, not the object: #throwbackthursday

Natural History Museum Berlin

Natural History Museum Berlin

Another Thursday, another classic. This time from the folks at the Science Museum, London who have a long history of conducting innovative and excellent audience research. This paper, Bicknell, S, and Mann, P. (1993). A Picture of Visitors for Exhibition Developers. Visitor Studies, 5(1), 88-98, is another looking at data around visitor behaviour in exhibitions and how museum exhibit designers should respond. Much of the literature they summarise is already on my blog post Audience Research: Visitor behaviour, but there are a couple of ideas in here that captured my attention.

A model of behaviour?

  • Visitors appreciate a comprehensible structure even if they don’t follow it
  • Few, if any visitors will have the time, concentration, determination, or interest to look at everything in the exhibition, let alone read everything
  • Most people spend short time at most exhibits they come across
  • Visitors browse through an exhibit looking for cues to encourage them to stop and invest their limited time

Suggested guidelines for exhibition layout:

  • Understandable logic to exhibit arrangement
  • Where there are groups of exhibits physical and conceptual boundaries must be clear, as should relationships between groups
  • Links between exhibits within a group should be clear
  • Each group needs a bold title readable from at least five metres
  • Labels should have the same structure throughout
  • Visitors need to be able to comprehend the information: “… it is then up to the visitor to decide whether he or she wants to learn or to forget the information which they have been presented” (p.91)
  • There are advantages to stage setting and coherent structures

Overall, one point that has really made me think is that even trying encourage 50% of visitors to read a label may be physically impossible in a large museum, for example in the Science Museum at that time:

“… the Land Transport gallery has 126 cases, 122 free-standing objects and 1,158 object labels. Even if the labels were only 50 words long, visitors would have to spend some four hours just reading the words. … There are twenty further, equivalent gallery spaces in the Science Museum – some three and a half days’ worth of continuous reading” !!!

And one final gem: “In reality, exhibit developers should consider the characteristics of the visitor, and not the objects.” (p.94, emphasis added).

There are many other aspects of this paper that I will draw on in future posts, so if you are keen I encourage you to read it. As before, it can be downloaded via the Visitor Studies Association Archive (search for Bicknell and Mann).

Happy Thursday!


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