Museums as Social Experiences

(N.B. The following is a section rescued from the cutting room floor of my literature review – I thought I might as well put it to some use . . . )

The Social Visitor Experience

Museum visiting is fundamentally social activity – the co-presence of others is an integral part of the experience, even among visitors in different social groups. As we experience museums, we see and are seen by others, creating a sense of mutual or ‘public visibility’ (Choi, 1999; Jansen, 2008; Macdonald, 2007; Zamani & Peponis, 2010).

The social aspect of museum visiting is a principal motivator for a significant subset of visitors (Falk, Moussouri, & Coulson, 1998; Packer & Ballantyne, 2002), and can be considered a “fundamental source of satisfaction in museum visiting” (McManus, 1988, p. 43). There also appears to be qualitative differences in the learning experiences of social groups as compared to those of lone visitors (Packer & Ballantyne, 2005).

The social context can have an impact on the strategies used for moving through exhibition areas. Social visiting groups such as couples and families periodically separate and reform, guiding one another to areas of interest. In this way visitors participate in a collaborative learning experience (Phipps, 2010). In the case of family groups, McManus likened the family to “a collective hunter-gatherer team actively foraging in the museum . . . their behaviour is practical and economical since the exploration and information-gathering is shared out between family members” (McManus, 1994, p. 91).

Through observations of visitors to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a site of “labyrinthine layout and bewildering exhibits”, Jansen (2008)  identified five navigational techniques used by groups: tour guiding (where one member of the party takes the role of leading others), conjoining experiences (using physical intimacy to merge perspectives while using exhibits, in particular by couples); leapfrogging (where visitors stay within general proximity but are viewing exhibits separately, occasionally interacting in brief exchanges); scouting (where one visitor strikes ahead to preview upcoming exhibits before returning and reporting to the main group) and flagging (where visitors move in a seemingly uncoordinated way, but will highlight exhibits of particular interest to other members of their party to ensure they do not miss them).

In light of the importance of the social dimension, some researchers have criticised the tendency of curators, designers and researchers to conceive exhibits and the visitor-exhibit relationship in terms of an idealised individual visitor, rather than studying the social dynamics of multiple visitors interacting with exhibits together and influencing each other’s experiences (Heath & vom Lehn, 2004; Macdonald, 2007). Studying social interactions beyond overtly observable behaviours is inherently complex, as a full understanding requires analysis of both behaviour and conversations (and other social interactions) between visitors. It requires detailed and rich data, and thus necessitates the use of either audio or video recording of visitor behaviour (Allen, 2002; Heath & vom Lehn, 2004, 2008; Sanford, 2010). Given the ethical, logistical and practical complexities that the use of recording equipment presents, there are relatively few studies which have used recording data (Allen, 2002; Yalowitz & Bronnenkant, 2009).

However, the use of recording equipment allows the study of the complexity of behaviour and social interactions, the nuances of which are difficult to document by other means. For instance, in a landmark study, McManus used audio recordings taken at exhibits in the British Museum (Natural History) to demonstrate that visitors read exhibit labels to a greater extent than is evident from direct observation – manifesting itself in a phenomenon known as text echo (McManus, 1989).  In a more recent study, the conversations of visitor pairs were studied as they moved through an exhibition at the Exploratorium, using audio recording supported by visitor tracking. The results revealed that learning-related talk took place at 83% of the exhibit elements at which either person stopped. Coding of the conversations into five different categories: perceptual, affective, conceptual, connecting and strategic, revealed that the most common categories of learning talk were perceptual, affective and conceptual (Allen, 2002).

Video recording has also been used to record the visitor-visitor and visitor-exhibit interactions at exhibits incorporating multimedia as well as traditional object displays (Heath & vom Lehn, 2004, 2008). These studies have demonstrated how visitors play an important role in directing and mediating each other’s exhibit experience. However, given the inherent limitations in video data collection in a museum setting (described in Yalowitz & Bronnenkant, 2009), these studies document only small and fleeting aspects of the visitor experience, for instance what happens at a single exhibit interface.


Allen, S. (2002). Looking for learning in visitor talk. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 259-303). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Choi, Y. (1999). The morphology of exploration and encounter in museum layouts. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 26, 241-250.

Falk, J. H., Moussouri, T., & Coulson, D. (1998). The Effect of Visitors’ Agendas on Museum Learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 41(2), 106-120.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43-65. doi:10.1177/0263276404047415

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring “Interactivity”: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63-91. doi:10.1177/0306312707084152

Jansen, R. S. (2008). Jurassic technology? Sustaining presumptions of intersubjectivity in a disruptive environment. Theory and Society, 37(2), 127-159. doi:10.1007/s11186-007-9054-9

Macdonald, S. (2007). Interconnecting: museum visiting and exhibition design. CoDesign, 3(1), 149-162. doi:10.1080/15710880701311502

McManus, P. (1988). Good companions: More on the social determination of learning-related behaviour in a science museum. Museum Management and Curatorship, 7(1), 37-44. doi:10.1080/09647778809515102

McManus, P. (1989). Oh, yes they do: How museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator: The Museum Journal, 32(3), 174-189.

McManus, P. (1994). Families in museums. In R. Miles & L. Zavala (Eds.), Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives. London.

Packer, J., & Ballantyne, R. (2002). Motivational Factors and the Visitor Experience: A Comparison of Three Sites. Curator: The Museum Journal, 45(3), 183-198.

Packer, J., & Ballantyne, R. (2005). Solitary vs. Shared: Exploring the Social Dimension of Museum Learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 48(2), 177-192. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2005.tb00165.x

Phipps, M. (2010). Research Trends and Findings From a Decade (1997-2007) of Research on Informal Science Education and Free-Choice Science Learning. Visitor Studies, 13(1), 3-22. doi:10.1080/10645571003618717

Sanford, C. (2010). Evaluating Family Interactions to Inform Exhibit Design: Comparing Three Different Learning Behaviors in a Museum Setting. Visitor Studies, 13(1), 67-89. doi:10.1080/10645571003618782

Yalowitz, S., & Bronnenkant, K. (2009). Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior. Visitor Studies, 12(1), 47-64. doi:10.1080/10645570902769134

Zamani, P., & Peponis, J. (2010). Co-visibility and pedagogy: innovation and challenge at the High Museum of Art. The Journal of Architecture, 15(6), 853-879. doi:10.1080/13602365.2011.533550


Theatre Review: Sepia

I recently went to see Sepia – the play at the RiAus Science Exchange. Ostensibly, it’s a play about Whyalla’s cuttlefish. But Sepia uses this as a springboard to offer us a window into the tensions and compromises facing many of the communities that are dependent on resources wealth.

It is a play in three parts, told in reverse chronology. As a prelude to the first scene, we are surrounded by the gurgling sound effects of an undersea environment, accompanied by projected images of frolicking cuttlefish. Through the darkness we see a lone figure sitting in a wetsuit, looking wistfully into the distance. . . 

Read the rest of this review on the RiAus blog.


Theatre Review: Raoul

I have very little knowledge of theatre, and feel hideously underqualified to review it. But what the heck, I’m going to do it anyway.

But first a little background – particularly for those of you who are not in Australia. We’re currently slap bang in the middle of what Adelaideans call “Mad March” – the time where the city takes advantage of the pleasant Autumn weather and crams in as many activities as physically possible. Most of these events are held under the banner of the Adelaide Festival or the Adelaide Fringe, both huge arts festivals that together manage to take over (what feels like) the entire city for a few weeks each year.

For the past few days I’ve been volunteering as a live tweeter at Artists’ Week and Writers’ Week, which are both part of the Adelaide Festival (more on this in a future post). One of the perks of being a Festival volunteer is being able to pick up heavily discounted tickets for the coming evening’s shows.

During Mad March, choice paralysis is a real problem: there is so much on that it can be hard to decide what to go and see – especially if you don’t feel all that knowledgeable about the performing arts (and I don’t). It’s actually a good insight into barriers to visitiation, but I digress . . . 

This year, the buzz about town seemed to be about the show Raoul – I was hearing people saying it was one of the best things they had ever seen. That kind of endorsement, combined with the fact that I was able to get a very cheap ticket indeed, meant that going to see it was a no-brainer.

A Publicity Shot of "Raoul"

Raoul is a one-man show by French/Swiss performer James Theirree. In the production notes it says that Thierree has worked as a circus performer since the age of 4, which is clear from his acrobatic prowess, precision of movement and sense of comic timing.

The storyline of this almost dialogue-free performance is a little harder to distill – I saw one review that described it as a “philosophical exploration of one’s existence“, but I’d be lying if I said that I read anything that deep into it. For me it was more of a Dali-esque flight of fantasy, a journey into a slightly comic and absurd world filled with improbable creatures and everyday objects that had somehow acquired minds of their own. And then there is Raoul. Or should I say Raouls?

The plot, such as there is one, revolves around the battle for supremacy between different incarnations of Raoul. These different Raouls periodically challenge one another, their battles choreographed through a combination of theatrical effects, deft movements and a body double. There were audible gasps of amazement at the sudden appearance and disappearance of Raoul, and at times it really did seem like Thierree was managing to be in two places at once.

In between these battles-of-the-Raouls, each Raoul contends with recalcitrant props and the increasingly precarious state of his surroundings, combining acrobatics, dance, sound effects and physical comedy (sometimes executed with a knowing wink to the audience). He meets a flighty jellyfish, argues with a large fish, takes flight from a aggressive armoured bug, hangs out with a skeletal bird and cuddles up next to a ghostly elephant (all of these creatures realised through a combination of elaborate costume and puppetry).

The set design has a stripped down and deconstructed feel: the colour palette is muted and desaturated, comprising a backdrop of off-white sails and a central cage-like structure of metal poles. This rickety structure improbably support’s Raoul’s weight as he uses it as a climbing frame, even as it disintegrates before our eyes. By the end of the performance both structure and backdrop have disappeared, leaving a blank and black stage. At this point Raoul is lifted skyward to finish the show.

It is a testament to Thierree’s talent that this solo performance was able to keep an audience captivated for the best part of 100 minutes. And while during the show I periodically worried that there was some deeper ‘message’ that I was somehow failing to ‘get’, by the end of the show I was happy to simply enjoy the spectacle.

Surveillance inside the museum

NB: This article was commissioned by Artlink magazine and was first published in the Art and Surveillance issue (Vol 31 No. 3) in September 2011.

Think back to the last time you visited a museum or gallery. Think carefully – consider each step you took and every decision you made.  Which way did you turn? What did you see and what did you miss? Did you look at any labels? Did you move through some spaces quicker than others?

Answering these questions – what visitors do, why they do it, and how museum design can influence such behaviour – is fundamental to visitor research, and what better way to find out than by watching them?

Early research: drift in; drift right; drift out

The first systematic studies of museum visitor behaviour were conducted in the 1920s and 1930s. These publications[i] continue to be influential and are generally credited as the foundational works in museum visitor observation.

Armed with a stopwatch and notebook, early researchers discreetly followed lone visitors to (mostly) art museums, taking care to observe without themselves being noticed (and thus disrupting the behaviour they were trying to document).

These early studies built up some general patterns of visitor behaviour, and coined terms such as ‘attracting power’ – a measure of how many visitors stop at an exhibit – and ‘holding power’ – a measure of how long they stay – which are still studied today.

A commonly-observed pattern of movement was visitors entering a gallery, turning right, and closely following the wall until they reached the nearest exit. Thus art on the left or centre of the gallery went relatively unobserved. This ‘right turn’ bias is still studied, and while it is by no means universal it has been observed elsewhere (Paco Underhill, in his book Why we buy: the science of shopping, describes a similar rightwards drift in retail settings).

Observation also revealed that as a visit wore on, the pace picked up: visitors took their time to look at art early in their visit, but successively sped up until they were moving through galleries quite quickly, barely pausing to look at any works. This was one of the earliest observations of the ‘museum fatigue’ phenomenon, where visitors gradually run out of physical and / or cognitive ‘steam’, or simply had seen enough for one day.

Late 20th century: diligent or dilettante?

After the second world war, museological priorities shifted and one apparent casualty was visitor observation. The field was virtually neglected until the 1970s and 1980s, when visitor studies came to be recognised as a distinct discipline.

This renewed interest arose with a shift in the perceived role of public museums. Collections, in and of themselves, were no longer seen to be enough. Museums increasingly had to justify their presence (and their funding) as sites of public education and enrichment. The emergence of hands-on museums, with an explicit educational role and a funding-driven need to evaluate their exhibits and programs, also catalysed a shift to a more visitor-focused outlook across the museums sector as a whole.

Again, most of these later studies were done using a stopwatch, pencil and paper, marking where people went, where they stopped, what they looked at and how long they stayed. But the question remained – what can be generalised from these observations? Are they anecdotes or data?

In the late 1990s, through a meta-analysis of over 100 of these observations, some patterns did emerge, and the results might have been disappointing for the curators who had carefully selected objects, designed interactive exhibits and crafted interpretive labels. Most visitors breezed through their lovingly-produced creations in just a few minutes, passing most displays with barely a second glance. One metric of the study was the proportion of ‘diligent’ visitors, defined as those who stopped at over half of all exhibit elements. On average, only a quarter of visitors fell into this category, meaning the vast majority took in less than half what was on offer.

But was this necessarily a bad thing? Recent commentators have pointed out that low ‘diligence’ is an inevitable consequence of visitors following their own agendas. Visitors come to satisfy their own curiosity, which may be gratified long before the exhibition has finished ‘talking’ about a particular topic. From the point of view of the visitor, skimming an exhibition can be just as successful as carefully studying it.

Caught on tape: audio and video recording of visitors

Obviously, researchers cannot faithfully record everything visitors do, say and notice by pen-and-paper recording methods. Real life has no replay button to catch those things you missed the first time around. Thus in-depth study of specific exhibits calls for audio and video recording.

Video recording works best either for individual exhibits, or in small spaces which can be captured in a single camera’s field of view. Using this method, researchers have produced detailed and sometimes profound vignettes of visitor-exhibit exchanges. Audio recordings have caught visitors repeating snippets of label text in their conversations, proving that they are reading more text than first thought.

While audiovisual recording is a source of rich and detailed data, it does not scale well to studies of whole galleries. Trying to follow individual visitors through footage of multiple cameras presents a monumental data management task (and that’s assuming the camera angles catch what you’re looking for in the first place). Audio recordings can be hard to follow after the event, particularly if you don’t know where visitors were standing at any given point in time, and you can’t always distinguish who is speaking keeping the cheap, practical and flexible pencil-and-stopwatch method the standard, at least for the time being.

Where next?

Trackers, smartphones and the ‘O’

To borrow from Niels Bohr: prediction is difficult – especially about the future.

As electronic technology becomes a more ubiquitous presence in our lives, a reliable and cost-effective tracking tool may eventually supersede paper-based methods.

Like it or not, we already share a lot of information about our day-to-day lives through GPS-enabled smart phones, social media and internet use. For market researchers, this is raising the bar of expectation – if we can follow website visits click-by-click, what’s stopping us getting similarly rich data about real-life visits to malls and museums?

Radio Frequency Identifiers (RFIDs) are already widely used in the retail sector for supply chain management. In theory, RFID-tagged tickets or lanyards could be used to track people too – although such an approach can be expensive (not to mention feeling a tad intrusive).

Smartphones offer more promise[ii] as we are already used to carrying them. Data is based on the signals the phone is emitting anyway, and can be collected while maintaining visitor anonymity. Using visitors’ own phones also makes it feel like less of an imposition. This means that the tracking process is less likely to influence visitor behaviour.

Onsite receivers can be installed to make use of the TMSI – the electronic handshake that every mobile phone periodically makes with its nearest base station. Piggybacking on the TMSI signal can allow time-stamped locations to be taken with an accuracy of about 1-2 metres. Weaving together these snapshots can then give an overall visitor path. Drawing on phones’ inbuilt Bluetooth and Wi Fi capacity are also possibilities, but no solution on its own is a silver bullet.

So far, it appears that phone tracking has yet to cross over from retail to museums, although in Australia the Powerhouse Museum is currently trialling a phone-based system in their Lace exhibition, supported by the NSW Trade and Investment’s Collaborative Solutions Program.

Another possibility is to make tracking an intrinsic part of the visitor experience. This is what Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) has done with its “O”, an interpretive device that doubles as a visitor tracker.

MONA has taken the bold step of having no printed labels at all, just the O (an iPod Touch loaded with specialised software) which visitors are given on arrival as their tool for navigating the exhibition spaces. At the same time as providing interpretive material, the O is recording a visitor’s every move: where they stop; what they look at; how long they spend looking at it. “A dedicated sensor network in gallery ceilings and walls monitors the position of an RFID tracking tag attached to the mobile device. It is similar to how GPS works, but for indoors,” says Tony Holzner of Art Processors, a Mona venture created to commercialise the O. The O is thus quite different from website analytics tools, which are based on IP addresses.

Visitors to MONA can get the O to save a copy of their track through the museum and information about what they looked at to their own email addresses. Meanwhile the data accumulates, giving MONA a good sense of what visitors are doing on the gallery floor.

While MONA already has an enormous wealth of information to draw upon, this is still not the whole picture. Where are visitors coming from? What’s being said on the gallery floor? What else are visitors doing? MONA hopes to find out, but so far at least, they are beyond the capabilities of the O. As curator Nicole Durling acknowledges, ‘there are some things you still need to stand there with a clipboard for’.

[i] A more detailed review and bibliography can be found in Timing and Tracking: Unlocking Visitor Behavior by Steven Yalowitz and Kerry Bronnenkant (2009) Visitor Studies, Vol 12 no 1 pp47-64

[ii] For a more detailed overview of mobile phones as visitor tracking devices, see