Museums in Transition: How to deliver a quality museum experience to different audiences in 2010

When Falk and Dierking wrote The Museum Experience in 1992 their ideas helped revolutionize the way we look at the museum visitor. Almost twenty years later this book continues to resound as a way to understand the visitor; however, it is time to check in with daily museum practices to understand how museums are using what they learned from Falk and Dierking.

I interviewed Kate Betz, Education Program Developer for adult programs at the Bob Burlock Texas State History Museum, to understand how museum theory affects daily programs at her museum.

The Story Driven Museum

The Texas State History Museum is not a collecting institution. The experience is based on the story. The audience is encouraged to explore the story and the myth of Texas. The museum integrates multiple stories and perspectives and allows the visitor to find where he or she fits into the story. The museum encourages a dialogue that allows the visitor to address the issues from his or her point of view. Furthermore, the museum allows both those from Texas and those from outside the state to find the Texan within them and connect with the part of the story that is most important to them. The Texas State History Museum accomplishes this through every aspect of the museum. The story is integrated into the programs, docent training, exhibitions, and the website, to name a few. By creating a story and allowing for every visitor to find the Texas within, the museum creates a personal connection that can be shared allowing this museum to fulfill the personal and social context of a museum experience in a way that Falk and Dierking may have not predicted. Story based museums can make the visitor feel like he or she belongs at the museum.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
When Falk and Dierking were interviewing museum visitors and conducting their research the economy was in a recession. In the years following, the Clinton campaign phrase, it’s the economy stupid, seemed to predict the effect of the economy on American’s lives. During the dotcom era museums did not have to contend with the economy like they do today. Even after the dotcom bubble burst the void was filled with the housing market. However, today we are faced with the long-term effects of a recession.
At the Texas State History Museum they are seeing firsthand how money has become central to the physical context of the Interactive Experience Model. Falk and Dierking found that the ease of access and availability to parking determine a visitor’s attendance as much as a museum’s exhibits. The Texas State History Museum charges for parking due to its location by the capital. Kate has found an increase in the number of visitors when the parking is free. Furthermore, free parking for those who attend public programs increases their number of participants. In light of the American economy and, more importantly, the new American views on the value of money, many of Falk and Dierking’s points resonate louder in 2010.

A special thanks to Kate Betz from the Bob Burlock Texas State History Museum, http://www.thestoryoftexas.com.

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2 Responses to Museums in Transition: How to deliver a quality museum experience to different audiences in 2010

  1. sbudlong says:

    Museums should never underestimate the importance of access. One of the museums where I used to work was in the middle of a downtown area and did not have room for a parking lot. The only parking was in a paid garage several blocks away or two hour on-street parking that was heavily monitored by police. I can’t tell you how many times people would leave the museum in a rush when their two hour time limit was up, cutting short their time viewing the exhibits and skipping the gift shop. Or, worse, leave the museum to find a parking ticket on their windshield. Unfortunately, there was nothing the museum could do about this situation. The city refused to extend the parking time limit or to ease up on ticketing. The parking situation negatively affected the museum in many ways. It cut down on the amount of time people spent in the museum, hurt gift shop revenue and led to many complaints from visitors.

    Museum professionals should always consider visitor’s needs and try to meet them. Free and convenient parking, clear signage and clean bathrooms help ease the visitor into a relaxed, ready-to-learn-something-new mood and make the visitor experience demonstrably better.

    • christinestokes says:

      This is another great example of how seemingly small things can have a big affect on the visitor’s experience. Your response brings up another important idea. How should the local government interact with a museum? In this case, city rules are changing the museum experience. In a way, these rules are not only creating a negative museum experience, but a negative tourist experience for the whole city. The goal of the museum should be to help the city understand the importance of the museum and its goals.

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