How important are our behaviours for museums?
A lot. As a museum is closely connected to its audience. The objects are displayed in the rooms, and visitors are the guests of honour. How much do we know about the studies involving us as visitors?
In this article, you will find out which visitor you might be once you walk through the door of any kind of museum or art gallery. To know the visitor who is inside you and who you never knew you were.
My 8 types of Museum visitors
Thanks to my experiences in different museums, my observations on visitors’ behaviours I have outlined 8 museum visitor profiles. As flexible and unpredictable as we are when visiting museums.
We can start from the principle that the visitor behaviours in museums are studied as much as the consumers behaviours. One of the purpose of museums is to make the visit to their permanent or temporary collection as experiential as possible according to the intitutional mission. Not an easy undertaking, but world’s leading museums have reached great levels of Visitor Experience focusing on their audience an not only on the collection they preserve.
Visiting a museum is an experience.
Whether it’s a view during a vacation or a passion for the weekend, the basic elements are the same. One space, many things to see and mostly limited time to do so.
But what kind of visitors are we? how do we react to the museum space and the things on display? Why are we at the museum? What expectations do we have? Is it all left to chance? not exactly. Who we are and what we want from the visit determines how we see things, although there is always room for unpredictability.
If behavioural psychology is combined with the frequentation of places of culture, a useful tool is created for institutions such as museums to get to know their visitors thoroughly, and why not, get to know ourselves better at the museum. The approach is similar in the market of consumer behaviour. However, the cultural world is apart, as the cultural consumers or museum navigator are experiential visitors.
If we see museums as places that preserve the changes in world culture, places of memory but also experimentation with the new; if we experience them as a meeting place where we go to explore and entertain ourselves in many different ways. Then we must also know our role in it.
And the visitor? A bit of theory
Since the beginning of modern museology, the visitor has become the centre of interest to which attention is directed. Observations on visitors show that behaviours and experiences are anything but predictable. In 2009, John Falk (American museum scholar) identified 5 categories of museum-type visitors with certain characteristics that identified the public in the way they visit museums:
Falk’s visitors’ categories Sources: Adapted from (Falk, J. 2004)
Far from being static typologies, these macro Falk typologies were thought to be flexible and modular. Considering that our attitudes are extremely complex, the way we visit museums is also variable. (For further information Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John H. Falk, 2016).
But why all this? The museum wants to know our experiences in depth to make them unique and memorable. Museums want to know what drives us to enter, how we move in the rooms, how we interact and with what, what meaning we give to what we see and what attracts us (what we hoped for?). The result applies to the proposal of exhibitions and events and the consequential profit.
The interesting part is that our behaviours in museum spaces are innumerable and unpredictable.
And you, what visitor are you?
More than 10 years have passed and Falk’s theories have continued to evolve. The largest national museums, with thousands of visitors and a reputation that precedes them, turn to specialized external agencies, such as The Audience Agency, the Morris Hargraves McIntyre, to name two famous in the sector, which are involved in studying and developing profiles of visitors to put them at the service of the institutions. Like? through surveys and “market” researches designed specifically for the museum and its offer.
Starting from the fact that each museum has its own identity and target audience determined by its collection (and many other factors such as where it is located in the city); I was able to identify types of visitors who have common characteristics while visiting an art museum rather than a natural science one. Although the variables are innumerable and unpredictable, we see typical figures in which we can reflect ourselves.
(My) 8 typical visitors
I state that the 8 types of visitors are drawn from models designed specifically for a London national museum, the Science Museum by the Morris Hargraves McIntyre in 2014, and then adapted with my interpretation, experience and graphics.
Here are the guidelines to understand what visitor you are and how to optimize your visit without losing the “compass”. Let’s begin!
Before diving into the typical profiles, it is good to point out which variables were considered in these categories. The social and entertainment reasons, the intellectual part of our interests, the vast field of emotions, and also the spiritual part that guides us to discovery.
How to proceed: Identify your visit scenario
What are your challenges during a visit:
Now that you’ve visualized your typical scenario, which of course can always change and reciprocate, here are 3 questions that might help you visualize your museum experience before and during your visit.
I launched these questions in a social media survey to get answers from friends, acquaintances and anyone who came in contact with them. The answers were very interesting because they expanded my point of view as a regular visitor to museums and as a professional, relating it to those who experience the museum differently.
What is the biggest challenge when visiting a museum? This includes all the various difficulties that a museum visit entails. You are in a sometimes unknown place (first visit), more or less large with many directions to take, with other visitors (pre-pandemic), and with a limited time that is always the number one enemy.
VISITING is certainly a considerable challenge. Many of these problems are determined by the nature of the museum itself and its complexity. But personally, that’s the funniest part, we just have to pick up the museum map to outline an attack-visit plan.
Apparently “where to start” the visit is the dilemma of many. And how to blame us. A Museum visit may be tiring, profesionalls know it. The museum puts a lot of strain to help us with indication and visits route suggestions. Having a map (paper or digital) is certainly practical, but taking the time to understand what the museum offers is also advisable.
Orientation is another problem for big museums. Museum itineraries are not always linear and logical. Museum buildings can be real labyrinths of interlocking halls and corridors. Something could be left behind from the visit before the way out. On the maps or in the directions, the pictures of the mainstream objects can help visitors to orientate. Of course, pre-visit preparation would be ideal, but it is a commitment that no many want to embrace. The museum web pages and official social media have become very relevant for the immediacy of the information, and the Museum identy is changing in the way collections are reaching their audience.
What to see?
A dilemma that is linked to the motivation for the visit. For example, if you are at the Louvre museum you always look for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. But what else is there? and what do you expect from the visit? A quick search on the museum’s pre-visit website would help make a list of the most appealing objects. But how many are actually doing it? On site look at the banners displayed in the museum’s atrium which allows you to spot the Highlights at a glance, together with unmissable exhibits or the exhibitions in progress. Trivial but very useful.
And if you have no idea, just ask! Nobody knows the museum better than those who practically live in it! Linguistic problem aside, luckily museums, like all tourist sites, try to use a language of universal symbols that allows them to orient themselves by images.
NB. The cost of the visit was not relevant in the survey but it is a different point to discuss because here we are talking about the visit once you have crossed the entrance.
Going to the Museum: when? where and how?
These are factors that involve planning a visit. Particularly if you go to the museum for an exhibition or event, this requires the reservation of an entrance ticket. Others rely on guided groups etc. This is more related to tourist, but not only. For expereince, guiding or helping visiotrs to navigate a museum helps to to relax and focus on their expereince especially when there is so much to see.
A spontaneous visit, on the other hand, is more common among those who live near museums, with the possibility of returning visits or to events (for example late opening in the United Kingdom which offers a selection of National museums with free admission). Thus the museum is experienced as a meeting place for locals, an alternative space, a fixed appointment not only for museum enthusiasts.
With those who choose to share a visit to a museum, the experience changes.
Those who visit with family members and children will have different needs both for paths and in emotional participation.
Those who opt for a visit in company of friends etc. can use a musuem visit to discussing ideas or personal stories in front of the objects. And not only that, the museum results to be a favourite place for solo visits, for example for those moving to a new city. If a museum reflects our tastes and passions, it could become a familiar and affectionate place. Threfore, visiting a museum or an art gallery can be both a social and an inner experience, the choice is up to us.
Now I would say we are ready to find out which visitor we have been or would be on our next visit to a museum.
Here are the 8 typical visitor figures listed with their characteristics. Choose the one that inspires you and try to see if it matches your personality.
At the end of the article, you will find an example of a visitor profile.
Avid Cultural User
The members of this group have a marked spontaneity of thoughts because they can see culture as an essential part of their life, the spark that ignites them. Going to the museum could be therefore a choice of independent experience. They also love to visit the museum alone or with friends who are part of their cultural elite. But if visiting with others, they probably are thrilled to share their interests. They wish to satisfy their willingness to know a lot and they enrich themselves acutely. Mostly, they are attracted by the cultural value and/or beauty of the collection. They may like tailored events organized at the museum of which they feel to be an integral part. They frequently visit the exhibitions and the museum is probably a familiar, comfortable and enriching place for them. Age is not important, if you are greedy for the culture you will be forever.
Experience Sharers explore museums with fun together with friends or family. For them, sharing experience is essential. If they visit a museum it may be because they are curious about it, or they have a strong connection with the place. They would like to see the flagship pieces of the collection, famous paintings or remarkable objects. They are probably the enthusiasts at the front row for any activity, whether it’s dressing up as a dinosaur or trying out flight simulations. They are rather sociable and receptive to the museum and enjoy activities from which they learn something new with each visit. They may not be in their springtime on the outside, but they certainly are in their soul to get involved in the fun. They are probably not very risk-takers in their choice of visits. If they find something they enjoy they likely will do it again and again.
The Safe apprentices would like to connect with the culture to enrich their background with ambition. They chase the best experience around, and if it matches their personality they are the first to try it. They enjoy learning but without leaving their comfort zone. Although they are busy, they like to be involved in worthwhile activities that define their quality time. So they would like to go in search of popular museums and activities for a rewarding but well-planned visit. They rather choose a museum as a place for self-improvement, but they may not be for exploring new, they would prefer well-known places and well-established experiences. Most likely they visit museums in the company, making the most of their time.
Lovers of more traditional museum experiences, the Cultural Nostalgics appreciate the history and social culture on display. They would pursue the beauty of the environments, the careful display of objects. They would visit exhibitions with well-known subjects and fully enjoy the experience without rushing. They have matured their tastes and appreciation over time. Mostly they are among the adults, but some younger may be fascinated by tradition as well. Cultured by nature, they read all the information unhurriedly and thoroughly. They tend to be nostalgic, and emotional experiences guide them. They are usually regular visitors to the museum, where they have memories they share with those who accompany them. They don’t venture on the new or unconventional, Cultural Nostalgics know what they like and pursue it.
The Cutting Edge types are trend-discovering visitors, active consumers of cultural trends. Usually, these visitors are at the head of the queue for contemporary interactive events, latest releases and exhibitions. They also strive to educate themselves with niche events. They probably know what’s in circulation and make sure they get the tickets first. They tend to enrich themselves with full immersive knowledge, active experience is the most important part for them. They would enjoy authentic moments in museums that they can personalize. They visit with others primarily to learn and share unique experiences online as well. They are returning visitors, and when they come back they tend to look for the latest exhibitions.
The Busy Ambitious appreciates museums, they are engrossed in the most captivating pieces of the visit. They love simple and practical things. Although they are very busy, they have enjoyed the museum on occasion, and tend to repeat the experience whenever possible. They rarely visit alone, it is more likely to find them on guided tours, preferably on weekends and with the family to combine business with pleasure. They prioritise, visiting the museums in a time that have been carved out for a specific experience and invest in something that completes the day. They are ambitious in the visit, which has been organised. They check the museum site to make sure there is what they want to optimise time. Their day at the museum is an effort, but complete and rewarding.
The Specialists are the most passionate and confident museum-goers but are rare. Whatever the field of interest, they could be true specialists. They are likely independent visitors, perfectly able to orientate themselves, the museums are their environment. They are returning visitors, often to see temporary exhibitions which increase their knowledge and interest. They focus on the purpose of the visit that could be also a slowlooking for specific objects or information. They may be less interested in other activities but they can be found at presentations and lectures organized by the museum. They are fully satisfied with a visit to museums, and if locals they tend to come back several times to visit alone or with passionate partners.
They tend to love everything popular and entertaining. Culture is among the many leisure activities that they follow. They seek out activities of evasion and immediate fulfilment. If they have to spend time in the museum, let it be fun. They could chase shows, events with a wow-effect, such as blockbuster exhibitions or epic collections. They generally do not visit niche small museums or galleries. But they may have a keen appetite for novelty and design museum buildings. They would like to abandon the traditional idea of boring and dusty museums enjoying the space with their enthusiasm. If not stimulated, they tend to lose enthusiasm during the visit. They are awed by super-specialized museums as are visiting museums for leisure, usually with families and friends most likely on weekends. Seekers never fail to pay a visit to the museum shop.
Let’s see an example of a visitor that includes two categories, to realize how multifaceted we can be and how our visit experience varies according to the situation.
Here is my father and his passion for Egypt while visiting the Museo Egizio di Torino in Turin (Italy), in December 2019.
My father is fond of ancient Egyptian history. He always read a lot about it. He passed on his passion for the ancient kingdom of the Pharaohs and one of the first museum visits I can remember is in the Egyptian Museum in Turin. We got back together more than 20 years later. This is the kind of visitors my father Mr D. was on that day. But he knows how to have fun at the museum …
Mr D., therefore, has the characteristics of two types of visitor, because he loves tradition and historical museums but without missing out on the fun.
Result: he is a Cultural nostalgia looking for Entertainment in a museum visit. And this is precisely the beauty of us visitors, our unpredictability who guide us within the museums by our interests, or even just for total evasion.
In the hope that this guide of mine may help you to better understand who you are while visiting a museum. Once back in the galleries among objects, be yourself. Don’t be intimidated by museums opulence, the vast knowledge they contain or the illegibility of certain art forms. Remember they are there for you.
“It is the human being, in his ontological essence, who is irremediably complicated and for this reason so curiously creative and noteworthy.” Philippe Daverio art history critic (1949-2020)