A (2015) rumination on wayfinding in museums

IMG_1028Wayfinding through museums can be a tricky and frustrating process for visitors (and staff too!). How do visitors move around a museum and what tools do they use to help them?

When asked about how they found their way around, interviews with 618 visitors to the Maritime Museum over the past 12 months found that:

  • 30% said they used signs
  • 29% “just wandered around”
  • 20% asked a staff member
  • 15% used our activity trail map (although some used this category for general maps)
  • 7% used the What’s on brochure

These results, and many other orientation studies, suggest that a wide range of tools need to be available for visitors to access – some like the physicality of a map and signs; others are content to wander and ask staff, with maps being of some use.

Now museums are increasingly using digital tools for wayfinding, most notably the O at the Museum of New Art in Tasmania (MONA) and The Pen at the Cooper-Hewitt that are re-inventing the rules for museum wayfinding. Having tried (and somewhat failed) with the Explorer app at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I‘m wondering how useful digital guides really are for visitors and whether location-based wayfinding is the answer? Based on my experiences with the Explorer app in particular, I have some requests for those considering and/or developing digital wayfinding tools.


  • Don’t assume that visitors will know the names of exhibitions spaces / halls or can even see the names of them when trying to find their way through the museum, this only ends in being lost and frustrated
  • Make my social plugins a seamless process
  • Allow me to search for items rather than just list them
  • Don’t list objects / showcases in random order – decreases my success in finding them
  • Use photos of the “must see” objects / displays that actually look like the display
  • Don’t tell me what (and what not) to do in a confusing way – make it clear what your expectations are (and say it in a positive way…)
  • Allow me to save my own favourites and pathways
  • Don’t ban the use of selfie sticks – does it really matter? Visitors will use them anyway

Ultimately however, and based on the research cited at the beginning of this post, I’m thinking that the joys of just wandering around for visitors, discovering unexpected delights, is what still makes a museum visit unique. How will this be factored into future digital (and other) wayfinding tools?

One thought on “A (2015) rumination on wayfinding in museums

  1. David says:

    I would like to fortify what you have mentioned here with what we have experienced in the field. What you are saying is not only true across all museum clients we’ve partnered with, but also city buildings, universities, and even hospitals. Museums can often draw a more international crowd, where their common symbols–even for bathrooms–do not align. While you cannot think of everything, to your point, if you can provide options for many different learners and users, you will likely hit most all needs. Here is some of our work on the subject: http://www.fourwindsinteractive.com/industries/museums-zoos-parks/

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