(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