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May 19, 2010



Maybe I'm not understanding something. What's the difference between being "on our own" and "viewing objects and object-based exhibits"? If you're on your own, aren't you doing something? I think the implication of "with text panels and/or brochures" is that you're viewing an exhibition (of some variety) with interpretation. If they want interpretation with no objects, then aren't they looking for a library?

It seems to me that there are two different categories here. Items such as tours (guided and audio) and being on your own are the ways individuals choose to consume content. Items such as exhibitions, programs, movies, podcasts and theater are the ways in which the museum presents content. It makes sense that when you ask "How do you prefer to experience museums and historic sites?", people are first going to think about the choices they make, not the choices they all too often never see being made.

Ken Bubp


Good observation. One way I thought about the difference between "on our own" and "viewing objects and object-based exhibits" was reflecting on a recent trip to a children's museum. Lots and lots of moms (and some dads) appeared were on their own interacting with the exhibits, but the objects in the exhibits (what few there were in this particular exhibit) were not at all central parts of the experience for those moms and their kids. They were comfortable being "left alone" and exploring on their own.

This seems a little harder to explain when it comes to art or history-based museums, especially since "on our own" and "by talking with staff" were preferred to the same degree. Still, it seems plausible that people here (as well as at children's museums) want self-curated/self-guided/on my own experiences to play a significant role.

One last thought: Because people could select multiple options when answering this question, the gap between "viewing objects" and "on our own"--as well as the other options--tells us something about their conscious, stated preferences. They might appear inconsistent as you point out (What are they doing, then, while they are on their own??), but these are their stated preferences. Thanks for starting the conversation trying to unpack what seems a bit out of order at first blush.


I think the way the category of viewing art/exhibitions is worded might be part of the reason for the low results it got in the survey. The word "object" and especially "object-based" is museum jargon. When ordinary visitors talk about seeing art or historic artifacts, they don't use the word "objects" - they say words like "antique" or "painting." While the category is somewhat explained ("like a piece of art, historic artifact, or diorama"), I think the word "object" is off-putting and vague. I wonder if a category like "visiting special exhibitions" or "viewing works of art and artifacts" would garner the same results.

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Thanks for the comments.

When we design surveys, we always try to second-guess ourselves to make sure we are asking things the right way. Robert, your comment on two different categories is something we were quite conscious of. But we also know that while, within the field, we see those different categories, we also know from previous testing of this question with museum-goers that they do not perceive it the same way. That is, this list, for the vast majority of museum goers, is one cohesive group of different things they may experience at a museum. And since this is a survey of museum goers, we have to work within their framework, not an internal one.

A few more thoughts on perceptions by museum goers of what "on our own" means.

1 - Many exhibits, like Ken pointed out, are not object-based. He covered this very well, so I won't!

2 - Many things we consider exhibits and objects are not perceived the same way by visitors. In particular, outdoor spaces are not perceived to be exhibits of objects by many visitors, affecting how botanical gardens, arboretums, zoos, and historic sites are perceived. That visitors may be seeing loads of objects, but they don't think of them as objects, and in this case, indicating visiting on own, but not marking objects as a preferred experience, is not at all inconsistent to many visitors.

3 - The social aspect of visits is also key. That is, groups of friends, family groups, etc., may want to visit on their own as a social outing, and again objects are not the focus. And they also want to indicate a minimum of facilitation by staff, as that may affect the social nature of a visit (think guided tour, audio tour, etc.). We'll be exploring these motivations in more detail in the coming months.

Amelia - I like the way you worded "viewing works of art or artifacts." When we designed this question, we looked back at previous versions of the question we have utilized and/or tested, and we also looked at the words respondents to museum surveys in the past used when entering in written-in comments. The word "objects" was very much used by museum respondents in the past, indicating to us that it is not museum jargon at all. (Another word commonly used is . . . "stuff." Really. We also see "things" a lot.) We never see the word "collections," so that is the true jargon term.

That being said, that doesn't mean that the way we worded it is the best. Our surveys are continually evolving over time, as we refine, test, analyze, refine, and test. It is quite likely that next time we test a survey we'll borrow your phrase and list "viewing works of art, historic artifacts, dioramas, or other objects" as an option.

Thanks again for the comments!

Lisa Falk

All very interesting. Recently I got a grant for a museum outreach program to K-12 schools. In the proposal I called the program "Object Stories." Reviewer comments highly recommended a change in names saying this didn't sound exciting and engaging. So there's another take on the term "objects."

The stated differences between those who go to science centers and children's museums and those who visit art and history museums is also generational as you noted in a previous post (with grandparents being the bridge to all). If you are an art or history museum and want to reach out to new audiences, then some of the techniques (hands-on/programs etc) will help draw those folks to your museums (which they may assume is stuffy or high brow). I did an evaluation study of our family (intergenerational programs--some attendees come without children) programs and found that they attract a lot of new visitors, who say they will later come back to see the exhibits, and repeat visitors who have seen the exhibits but came back for the programs. And for minority visitors, the programs were often their first introduction to the museum. Nearly all respondents stated as a result of their visit to the museum (for the program) that they were mere likely to visit other museums and come back. The study is available on the Eric database if you're interested. Search under my name: Lisa Falk.


Viewing objects rated low? I agree that this sounds like an artefact of your survey and not clearly related to the real world, espcially in art museums or history/heritage museums.

At the Australian War Memorial, the dioramas (old and finely crafted) are the most-loved exhibits. Art exhibitions are valued because they show the real thing, not reproductions.

Sure, visitors want to understand the relevance and hear the overall story, but art and history museums are expected to offer authentic objects in a taken-for-granted kind of way.

I have just visited Hong Kong and it was a bit disconcerting to see the number of illustrative objects in exhibitions that were labeled 'replica'. One or two would be OK, but this was 8 out of 10 in some sections.

I still remember the visitor who, in a focus group, came to tears describing how he felt when he saw genuine moon rock in an exhibition years before.

The power of the authentic object is pervasive. If your research is not capturing this, I'd suggest that you look at the way you are asking the question, or the way you are interpreting the responses.

Sometimes it feels like very large surveys reduce the data to a large, homogenised and meaningless lump.

The notion that one form of presentation is 'better' than another (i.e. "viewing objects does not seem that important to visitors) seems simplistic, when the best exhibitions are a blend of various approaches.

I'm not sure how strongly you stand behind your comment versus just throwing it out to be provocative. Sorry if I have taken you literally if you did not intend it that way.

Ken Bubp


Your comments are exactly why we wanted to share this data. It is interesting - surprising - shocking (?) even. And it is especially interesting to find these responses among people who could fit in the "Core Visitor" category--people who are predisposed to museums, enough so to sign up for a museum mailing list. Yes, it is provocative, but that was not my primary intention in writing it: I was trying to be faithful to the data. It does seem that other ways of experiencing museums are preferred when compared to viewing objects and object-based exhibits.

And your comment about a focus group participant talking about how important objects are in museum memories - yes, this is something this study also points to, and something we'll be unpacking here in a future post. Objects do seem to play a significant role in early museum memories. You have hit on something important there.

All of that said, I would reiterate what Susie said in a comment above about how the question was worded, which is based on previous survey responses. And that we did not ask people to say which interpretation methods were better/best, just the ones that represented how they preferred to experience museums. They could select multiple options from the list to create their own "menu" of preferences, so this provides us with a sense of the relative value placed on each of the interpretation methods. Like you, we were surprised when we found a much lower than expected percentage of respondents, especially at art and history-based museums, indicating their preference for viewing objects and object-based exhibits. Thanks for your comments reminding us of just how surprising this is. We're eager to continue "turning the kaleidoscope" to get different views as to what is happening here.

Karen L. Daly

I'd love to see the data for the other responses--those that didn't make it into the top 4. As a historic house museum director, I'm most interested in where the "guided tour" wound up among the historic site preferences.

I wonder, too, why we hold on so tightly to the guided tour model in the historic house museum field, if indeed our visitors prefer something else. Is it just because this is how we've always done it? Or are there compelling reasons why we retain this guided tour model, despite the visitor response? (Security pops to mind as one possibility.)

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Hi Karen -

The guided tour post is coming up - I promise! But yes, I do think that cost-effectiveness and security are reasons it has been retained . . . though I wonder if there is a vicious circle going on.

That is, we do guided tours because they are cheaper, but complain about people not coming, and people don't come because we do guided tours, so we have no money to do something else. And so on and so forth.

So stay tuned. That post will be coming . . .


I have to agree with previous posts about the way this poll approached the centrality of objects to the visitor experience. Many people choose to respond to survey options that stir their passions. They feel, this is MY chance to be heard about something important. I read these results not as a dismissal of objects, but as a loud cry of frustration over the guided tour experience. The results of this survey display a clear mandate to leave us alone unless we have a question, or a combination of "on our own" and "talking with staff." I do not interpret the low response rate to "Viewing objects" as a sign of dispassion toward an object based experience. Rather, going to museums to view objects is such an obvious concept that it failed to stir a passionate response. Equally obvious is that people do not go to museums to look at bare walls on their own while talking with staff. I suspect that if the question had been worded "What aspects of a museum are most crucial to your visitor experience?" objects would have ranked much higher.


I would like to know more about two aspects of your survey:

- do young adults -16 to 24 - go to museums. I am asking because in the UK they tend to be very much under represented as a group.

- what is the attitude towards watching video clips or movies and interacting with a computer or a handheld device? by age group? by gender?



Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Hi Francois -

Two things to keep in mind. First, our survey was of adults who were already engaged with the museum by virtue of being on the e-mail list. So the research is not of the general public (something we hope to move forward on pending funding). We do have samples of adults under 30, but they should be considered "Core Visitors" to museums, not the general public as well.

Second, younger adults in our sample are generally less likely to prefer to experience technology in the museum than older adults. We did a guest post on Paul Orselli's blog on this topic, http://blog.orselli.net/2010/06/screened-out-preferences-for-technology.html.

Thanks for the questions!

Gene Beverly

I was wondering if there was a difference by age groups particularly for senior citizens. The majority of our visitors seem to be senior citizens, they seem to indicate a preference for guided tours. Is this unusual for our site or does it apply across the board?

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