Categorising Visitors?? #TBT

classifying imageFor this #throwbackthursday post I’m re-visiting an article I published on the Australian Museum blog in August 2009 about classifying museum visitors. The reasons behind this will become clearer over the next few weeks and will be one of my 2015 obsessions methinks, particularly around “classifying” visitors via their use of digital technologies which I have started to research in more depth.


I have been asked how (and why) researchers categorise visitors. Well, here’s some of the ways they do that (and a little speculation as to why they do that)!

George Hein in his book, Learning in the Museum, reports on the different ways visitors have been categorised throughout the history of visitor studies.

Higgins (1884):

  • Students
  • Observers
  • Loungers
  • Emigrants

Wolf and Tymitz (1978):

  • The commuter – use the hall to get from one entry point to the exit
  • The nomad – casual visitor
  • The cafeteria type – interested visitor who treats museum like a cafeteria as they search for objects or exhibitions of interest
  • The VIP – very interested person

Falk (1982):

  • Serious shoppers – come with a clear predetermined notion of what want to see
  • Window shoppers – come ‘to do’ the museum
  • Impulse shoppers – discover one or more exhibits that are interesting and become more engaged than first planned

Bicknell and Mann (1993):

  • ‘buffs’ – experts who know intimate details of objects and exhibits
  • ‘it’s for the children’ – families that are explicitly or implicitly a ‘learning unit’
  • ‘I’m museuming’ – usually couples, often tourist, often older. Culture vultures who know the international museum ‘code’
  • School visits

Veron and Lavasseur (1989):

  • Ants – move methodically from object to object
  • Butterflies – move back & forth, alight on some displays
  • Grasshoppers – chose specific objects and hop from one to the other
  • Fish – glide in and out of exhibitions with few stops

I always remember George MacDonald (formerly of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation and Museum Victoria) who called visitors streakers, strollers and students which I quite like as it explains different visiting patterns really well I think.

John Falk, in his 2006 Curator article An Identity-Centred Approach to Understanding Museum Learning classified visitors as follows.


  • Visit because of curiosity and/or general interest in discovering more about content area of institution
  • Described themselves as curious people


  • Satisfying needs and desires of someone they cared about (other than themselves)


  • Strong knowledge and interest in content areas
  • Specific agendas for visit

Experience seeker:

  • Collect an experience to say they’ve ‘been there done that’

Spiritual pilgrim:

  • Visit to reflect, rejuvenate, just ‘bask in the wonder of the place’

In my own doctoral work (Kelly, 2007) I found that there were three roles played by visitors during a visit:

  • visit manager by directing and organising
  • “museum expert” in explaining, clarifying and correcting;
  • learning-facilitator through questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering.

I also found that these roles were interchangeable, occurred simultaneously and were dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.

So, my view is that we like categorising visitors because it makes our lives easier and also that is the nature of museum work – to classify and explain. However, we need to remember that these are only an indication of the nature of visitors and that human nature is ever-changing and ever-fluid (and often inexplicable).


Watch this space for further reflections on this theme…



2 thoughts on “Categorising Visitors?? #TBT

  1. Conny Graft Research and Evaluation says:

    Great post here! I have used George McDonald’s categories in workshops and museum staff find it very appealing…but I changed it a bit into streakers , strollers and supporters which I have found more accurately describes the level of interest and commitment visitors have to a museum. I also use this to remind interpreters that the streakers they see racing through the museum might become strollers and supporters if they have an experience that is relevant, compelling and meaningful. I believe the description of these categories was based on a research project conducted in Canada by a professor at a business school in Canada who talked about this at a VSA conference many years ago. I have tried to locate that research but have not found it yet.

    • lyndakelly61 says:

      Thanks for your response Connie – I do like the idea of supporters, although the notion of students (being those knowledge-seeker types who get deeply engaged in a topic/exhibition) resonates also. Another post I did about people seemingly “racing through” a museum in an “unfocussed” way suggested this is actually a deliberate strategy that underlies the behaviour of curiosity-driven visitors. I’ll try and hunt the Macdonald stuff down too – seems like it could be a gem!

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