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The Truth about Learning and Visitor Experience

“The elephant in the room is that: the vast majority of our visitors do not use technology during their museum visit.”

In 2008 Peter Samis of SFMOMA said this during a presentation on multimedia guides  (slide 65):

He was right: after more than 10 years, only a tiny percentage of users choose to pay a fee, no matter how small, to get a multimedia device from the museum (British Museum put this figure at around 3%).

Even when audio guides are provided  for free, many visitors either choose not to use them or abandon them halfway through the visit. his is true even for other digital applications: only a minority of users download apps, use chatbots or SMS-based apps (see for example Sara Devine’s contribution to the book Museums and Digital Culture ).

The majority of people do not visit a museum to learn

We would say that the elephant in the room is even bigger: it is a mammoth in the room. People don’t read text panels, only sometimes have a look at captions or take guided tours, even when they are free.

So we would rephrase Peter’s sentence like this: “The elephant in the room is that: the vast majority of our visitors do not visit a museum to learn”. They go to museums to live a pleasant and fulfilling experience. As the saying goes,

you don’t expose art to people, you expose people to art.

People go to an art museum to experience art, go to a historical museum to experience history, not to learn art or history. And the same happens with natural history museums and so on. 

Even us, the ones who are professionally involved in museums, should recognise the fact that sometimes we “skip” the learning just to enjoy the museum visit.

So the dilemma is: if the majority  of people do not really want to make an effort to learn, but they simply  want to enjoy the museum experience, how can museums try to “enforce” some learning on them, in order to make their visit more meaningful and enriching?

10 Tips to make people learn at the museum even if they don't want to

1) Dioramas and environment reconstructions are powerful ways of transmitting relations between objects and their context to every visitor, even the more distracted, while offering a powerful and fulfilling experience

Copyright: © American Museum of Natural History
Copyright: © American Museum of Natural History - Diorama

2) The act of placing objects one near the other automatically suggests to visitors that they are somehow related.

Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode-Museum
Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode-Museum

3) Very short sentences written with very big font on the wall become part of the experience. For example check out this blog post by Brighton Museums

4) Videos are powerful in attracting attention, as Nina Simon recently noticed especially if they are short, in loop and positioned between the artefacts in the galleries and not in separated places. There are some ideas also from the Howard Conservation you can check out.

Imperial War Museums - London
Imperial War Museums - London

5) Objects that you can experience through your senses, like for example the incredibly heavy oar you can raw at the Navigation Museum in Genoa. It teaches you about the life on a galley more than a thousand words.

Navigation Museum in Genoa
Navigation Museum in Genoa

6) Music and sound backgrounds reach every visitor, provided they are not audio-impaired, so they should be carefully designed.

The Met - New York
The Met Museum - New York

7) Photographs are taken by most visitors, because they are part of the experience of “saving” and expressing interest – rarely  these photos are shared with others or watched again after the visit. Keeping this in mind could be useful – for example to draw attention to specific details or artefacts.

The Met Museum - New York
The Met Museum - New York

8) Museum shops tend to be quickly browsed by everyone going out, not only because you are forced by most museums to pass through it, but because most visitors like to have a quick glance at what is “on offer” – a window shopping experience, This means that the shop can be a powerful educational tool in itself also in its set-up.

Shop at Museo Egizio - Turin
Shop at Museo Egizio - Turin

9) A significant proportion of visitors choose to use accessory services like the museum cafe or the restrooms. Both could try to be educational, like we discussed  in our “museum toilets” article.

Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang (Laos) -   (photo Kristy Best)
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang (Laos) - (photo Kristy Best)

10) The museum building in itself is an educational tool. Every architectural feature such as furniture, lighting, what you see outside the windows, what you experience walking on different floors tells you something that can be exploited to teach.

Natural History Museum London
Natural History Museum - London

In conclusion

These are only a few examples of interpretation tools that become part of the experience for the overwhelming majority of visitors. We are not advocating the abandonment of traditional interpretation tools, like audio guides or text panels – we are only saying that if you want to reach 90% of your visitors with a learning outcome, then probably you should focus on the museum experience rather than the interpretation tools. 




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