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BellaOnline's Museums Editor

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Who Visits a Museum?


This is the third in a series of articles examining how and why people visit museums.

In their book The Museum Experience, John Howard Falk and Lynn Diane Dierking identify three categories that guide the decision-making process of how people choose to spend their leisure time:

• Cultural or Intellectual. These are people who enjoy concerts, theater, movies, pleasure reading, and traveling. These are the people who tend to also be MUSEUM GOERS.

• Organizational . These are people who enjoy being a member of a club or organization. Their activities tend to be insular and focused on group membership. They tend to not be museum goers.

• Participatory. These are people who enjoy activities such as sports (playing and watching), games, and dancing. They also tend to not be museum goers.

There are other ways to look at this decision making process. In another study, Marilyn Hood described six criteria for how people decide to use their leisure time:

• Being with people, social interaction

• Doing something worthwhile

• Feeling comfortable and at ease in one’s surroundings

• Having a challenge of new experiences

• Having an opportunity to learn

• Participating actively

Most people look for a combination of these criteria, but usually not all six. Museums are poised to address several of these points adequately to sway the potential visitor into becoming an actual visitor.

In a study conducted at the Toledo Museum of Art, Hood studied the criteria that contributed to the leisure-time decisions of three different groups:

• Frequent museum goers (3 or more visits per year)

• Those who did not visit museums

• Occasional museum visitors (once or twice per year)

She discovered that the top three reasons for frequent museum goers were the last three reasons for non-museum goers, and vice versa. Frequent museum goers listed their top reasons as an interest in learning, new challenges, and doing something worthwhile. They were not as interested in being around other people, participating actively, or feeling at ease, which were the top three reasons cited by non-museum visitors when choosing a leisure activity.

Those who do not visit museums perceived them as “environments that restricted activity and were socially and physically uncomfortable.” This group preferred to go to sporting events and shopping malls.

Occasional visitors represented 40% of Toledo’s population. They identified with most of the same activities as non-museum goers (physical activities, movies, shopping, etc.) BUT they also viewed museums as having some of the characteristics they prized in their decision-making process in determining leisure time activities. Although they did not attend frequently, they were more likely to attend a special exhibition, a family event, or at a special time, such as entertaining out of town visitors.

Hood concluded that most museum staff identify with the personality type of the frequent museum visitor, and therefore gear many of the exhibits, programs, and events toward a similar group. This is less appealing to the groups who occasionally or never visit museums. Hood suggests not “selling” the museum as an extension of school by emphasizing learning, but rather as a “good place for families to explore, discover, and enjoy each other in a relaxed setting.”

Whether or not someone visits a museum depends upon who the person is and what he/she is looking for in leisure activities. Factors include age, education, income, race, previous museum experiences, special interest in a topic covered by the museum (in a temporary or permanent exhibition), social factors (such as family or out of town guests), and general preferences in leisure activities.

While loyalty certainly exists among members and volunteers of a specific museum, other museums should not be viewed as competitors. As outlined above, many other factors contribute to who does and does not visit a museum.


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Content copyright © 2015 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.

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