The Elephant in the Museum: Learning and Visitor Experience

The Elephant in the Museum: 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 ).

We would say that the elephant in the room is even bigger. We would actually say that 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?

The way could be through the museum experience itself. Let’s see a few examples:

  1. Dioramas and environment reconstructions are powerful ways of transmitting relations and context to every visitors, even the more distracted, while offering a powerful and fulfilling experience
  2. The act of placing objects one near the other tends to create a dialogue between them that automatically suggests something to visitors (it suggests that  somehow there is are related ).
  3. Very short sentences written with very big font on the wall become part of the experience.
  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.
  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.
  6. Music and sound backgrounds reach every visitor, provided they are not audio-impaired, so they should be carefully designed.
  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. 
  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.
  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 
  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.

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 have a learning outcome you want to reach 90% of your visitors, then probably in order to get it you have to focus most of your efforts on the museum experience rather than the interpretation tools.