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Museum Visitor Research

Museum Visitor Research

Museum Audience Research / Museum Visitor Research is the study of visitor behavior, by overall museum market, geographic area or individual visitor behavior.

Museum Audience Research is the understanding of the overall museum market.  Museum visitor research is a subset of museum audience research or studying the entire group of visitors to a museum versus the individual visitor to the museum.

Museum visitor study, is the process to understand museum visitor behavior and outcomes.  Museum visitor behavior may include museum visitor satisfaction (or the lack of museum visitor satisfaction), museum visitor interests, and visitor previous knowledge.   The museum visitor outcome may include educational objectives, interest (or lack of interest in returning to museum) and reaction to the overall museum experience.  

Museum Visitor / Museum Audience Research:

  1. Museum Market Research – Understanding of the museum market as an entity.  Usually divided by larger geographic areas; United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Asia 
  2. Museum Market (Geographic Area) Research – Understanding the geographic area of the museum; usually divided by geographic areas within an hour drive of a museum.  
  3. Museum Audience Research – Understanding the entire visitorship of a museum as a group
  4. Museum Visitor Research – Understanding the individuals that visit a museum 

Four Phases of Museum Visitor Research:

  1. Front-end Evaluation
  2. Formative Evaluation
  3. Remedial Evaluation
  4. Summative Evaluation

Front-end Evaluation:

Provides background about the visitors’ prior knowledge and experience and gather  their expectations regarding a proposed exhibition.  The primary goal of front-end evaluation is to learn about the audience before an exhibition has been designed to better understand how visitors will respond to an exhibition. This information can help assure that the final product will meet visitor needs and project goals.

Formative Evaluation:

Provides information about how well a proposed exhibition communicates its intended messages. Formative evaluation occurs while a project is under development. The evaluator measures visitor responses to models, plans, or prototypes of the program or exhibit. A prototype is a working version of an interactive exhibit, label and it should closely resemble the final product, although it may be more roughly constructed.  The more developed the model or prototype, the more likely visitor reactions in the formative stage will anticipate their reactions to the final product.

The formative evaluation process is repeated until the exhibition developers are satisfied with the items being tested.  Information from formative evaluation is used to make changes to improve the design of a program or exhibit before it is implemented.

Remedial Evaluation:

Takes place once an exhibition is open to the public. It is useful in troubleshooting problems and informs museum staff and designers about improvements that can be made to maximize the visitor experience.  Remedial evaluation is useful for addressing problems that could not be foreseen during the development a program or exhibit, such as lighting, crowd flow and signage issues.

Summative Evaluation:

Tells about the impact of a project after it has completed. lt is conducted after the exhibit has opened to the public or after a program has been presented. Summative evaluation can be as simple as documenting who visits an exhibit or participates in a program, or it can be as complex as a study of what visitors learned. Generally, the results of summative evaluation will be used to improve future activities through an understanding of existing programs.  Summative evaluation uses a variety of methods at the conclusion of an exhibition or program to check whether it delivered the messages that were intended and what learning occurred; how satisfied people were with the program; as well as the performance of the marketing strategy. It is conducted on the finished exhibit or program and its components, using a combination of internal sources (Project Team, other staff) and external feedback (visitors, special interest groups, others).

The goal of Museum Audience Research is to better understand visitors emotional and intellectual reaction to their museum experience in order to create more fulfilling experiences for the visitor

 Addition Articles:

Museum Audience Research / Museum Visitor Research Resources:

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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4 comments

  1. I wonder if you have some experience on exhibition evaluation for children and parents:),would you please share something about exhibition evaluation about children museum? Thank you so much!

  2. Hi Yvette,
    Thank you for the message. I am currently providing Summative Evaluation for the Strong Museum in Rochester a children’s museum. The process of evaluation is the same regardless of museum “type”.
    Sample Summative Evaluation:
    Summative Evaluation of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s EatSleepPlay Exhibition
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1WMGaPUCwomPduOvCArrO-ypp2FqiBaHF/view?usp=sharing

    Best,
    – Mark

  3. If someone has an interesting collection that he believes can attract a large amount of people that would be willing to pay a admittance fee at the door, would your firm consider help bringing the exhibition to fruition? Very interesting content. Thank you

  4. Thank you for the message,
    This is a common question.
    Museums are part of civil society and museums “lose money”, one of the litmus tests of the IRS is does the non-profit need to fund raise for at least 1/3 of revenue. If the answer is “no” they are an attraction, and a for profit business.
    I only know of one for profit museum the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and I could make the argument that they are not a museum.

    – Mark

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