Why do we go to museums?
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Why do we go to museums?

Photo by Gene Pittman
Photo by Gene Pittman

Why do we go to museums?

I ask this question of myself and of the general public, and to anyone who has ever gone to a museum. In particular, I am interested in why people attend art museums. What compels us? What do we hope to see? Do we aim to learn while we are there?  What is a good museum experience?

I am an artist, active supporter of the Twin Cities art community and part of the educational staff at the Walker Art Center.  I know why I attend museums as an interested artist and advocate for the arts, but I ask the question again as someone within the museum. Why do people come through our doors? For the art? For the programs? Why do they come back?

Between my assorted projects at the Walker Art Center, I have been conducting research with the aim of not only bolstering group visits, but also planning for content-driven visitor experiences. In other words, I have been interested in how we get the word out about our offerings and how we fashion these offerings so that the visitor’s experience is successful. As it turns out, this is an up-and-coming area of research, one that expands traditional marketing and audience development strategies by incorporating aspects of psychology. As wild as that sounds, it seems appropriate to dig into the cognition that occurs when people make decisions rather than putting effort into appeals, persuasions, or coercions. To get people in the doors, let’s to stop telling them why they should come and start asking them why they do.

I’d like to share the position of Dr. John H. Falk, author and leading researcher on museum visitor studies, who recently appeared as a guest speaker for the webinar ‘Identity and the Museum Experience,’ hosted by experienceology.com. Falk researches the factors that compel visitors to attend museums. He posits the notion that museum-going is a leisure experience; it’s something we choose to do outside of work and an activity that we take part in outside our domestic essentials. Calling museum-going a leisure activity, Falk seeks to define what brings people to museums over other leisure activities, or if not over, what need does museum-going fulfill.  Knowing this ‘need,’ perhaps museum professionals could tailor museum experiences to create more successful visitor experiences — guided by an understanding of what expectations we are to meet.

How would this perceptual study take place? What sort of data would support this research? Traditional strategies analyze an existing audience by identifying ‘types of visitors’ using attributes such as age, income, region, family/individual, frequent/infrequent, etc.  This sort of fixed data is often collected for audience break-downs, assessing diversity goals, or to inform marketing efforts. However, it  does not point to predictable factors that might reveal the reasons people visit and why they might come back. Falk is more interested in the ephemeral data, as in What motivates people to come to museums? What are people’s relationships to museums? “What brought you here this day, this time,” or “why and how do people like to spend their leisure time and money?”

‘Who you are’ and ‘why you do what you do’ Falk acknowledges are both a part of your identity and he systematizes these into ‘big’ and ‘little’ identity attributes. ‘Big’ traits tend to be stable, such as your ethnicity and income, and while this info may be helpful, it doesn’t necessarily predict why you go places, or why you may have enjoyed your experience. Falk calls your interests your ‘little’ identity traits, i.e. you like to snowboard or enjoy jazz music. These ‘little’ identities, Falk believes, determine why people go to museums and therefore it’s these ‘motivating identities’ that seem most pertinent to study.

To collect information Falk initiated cued and un-cued visitor surveys to collect qualitative data. Abandoning the traditional approach which sorts visitors into types (age, income, region, etc.), Falk examined the data for patterns and discerned five new categories that correspond to visitors’ ‘little’ or ‘motivating’ identities.   While visitors’ reasons for coming were not the same every time, they tended to exhibit a dominant motivation.

The following lists each motivational identity and characterization as a visitor:

Explorers—Explorers come because attending museums interests them and appeals to their curiosity. If you asked them if they like art they would say ‘yes;’ if you asked them if they came for something in particular, they would probably say ‘no,’ they ‘just like art and know what they like when they see it.’ They do not have concrete learning goals, like ‘I’m going to go to the MIA to learn everything I can about Expressionism,’ but they like to know new things. [I imagine this to be the type to read didactics and labels, but might not know names and contextual references.] This type could really be anyone. Exlporers’ goal is to satisfy a curiosity. They may or may not know how to use the space.

Facilitator—Facilitators come because of someone else. They are perhaps bringing a friend or a group of people—possibly youth or students—because they think that the visit would benefit the other party or parties, not because of a personal need. Their personal need is to make a good experience for others.

Experience Seeker—An experience seeker is a person who is checking off a list of things to do, whether personal or as a tourist. They want to see the thing that is iconic of that place, they want to do ‘what you’re supposed to do in that city or area.’  They may need to see the museum’s highlights to feel satisfied.

Professional/Hobbiest—This category includes teachers, educators, museum professionals, artists, and people in related fields.  Their goals may range by their particular role as a professional or hobbiest; a photographer may attend with the goal in mind to take pictures or to learn about photography through exhibits.  An art educator may be interested in the art as in their field of interest, or they may be planning a lesson, etc.

Rechargers—Rechargers find the museum a place to ‘get away from it all,’ to decompress, and their visit is almost a spiritual one. They tend to avoid crowds or sensations and are fairly self-sufficient. A successful visit for them will leave them with the feeling that they have gotten away.

Falk continues, noting that our identities are expressed and satisfied though these activities and therefore we can infer that visitors come to museums motivated by reasons to satisfy this aspect of their identity. The studies that he composed were not IF-THEN (if I like ‘X’, then I go to museums for these reasons). Instead Falk investigates the  intrinsic potential in a person’s interests, how they compel a person to spend time in certain ways to satisfy aspects of their identity. If an institution is aware of this then they can play a better role supporting these needs and interests. By inferring why the visitor is there, a museum professional can better support the visitor experience and satisfy that person.

I would hope that opening institutions to the discussion of ‘what motivates visitors’ may help attract new audiences by creating experiences that fulfill visitor needs and marketing with these motivations in mind.  These practices would encourage return visits and facilitate a stronger relationship between visitors and the museum. By finding out why visitors are coming in we can better predict how they will continue to use institutions for their needs and how they can have positive experiences in that space.

I’m not accepting Falk’s findings as the definitive word in understanding why visitors spend their leisure time in museums, but I do feel that it is a fresh stance which reverses older practices that surmised ‘why you should come’ as opposed to ‘why you do come.’  Falk’s motivational categories feel very relevant and I found myself thinking about why I do what I do in my leisure time.  When I attend an art opening I am a Professional/Hobbiest; when I browse at a thrift store that’s my time to recharge; when I saw comedian Gallagher play with Metallagher last month I was an Experience Seeker—had to see what that was all about!

How do these categories resonate with you as museum-goers? Do they feel accurate or off-base? Do you see yourself fitting into one or more categories when you go to the art museum? What about in your other activities?

I’d love to hear from you—not only your response to Falk’s ideas on identity motivation, but more importantly: Why do you go to the museum?

Contributor Bio:

Jehra Patrick works as Program Assistant to Tour Programs at the Walker Art Center where she develops and implements strategies to increase sales of group tour programs and oversees the volunteer Information Guide program, which enhances visitor experiences through creating a customized, welcoming environment.

In addition to her role with Tour Programs, Jehra also works as Program Assistant to the McKnight Fellowship for Photographers and is an active studio artist.

Links to:

Dr. John H. Falk CV http://oregonstate.edu/dept/sci_mth_education/people/faculty/john.php

Books by Dr. John H. Falk http://www.amazon.com/John-H.-Falk/e/B001IOBG5U

Experienceology.com http://www.experienceology.com/

Learn.walkerart.org http://learn.walkerart.org/tour.wac

Mnartists.org http://www.mnartists.org/

Mnartists.org/McKnight Fellowship for Photographers http://www.mcknightphoto.org/

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