Museums today can no longer get by with a top-down approach that sees its visitors as “empty vessels” waiting to be filled with knowledge. As institutions of public education, successful museums will be those that develop meaningful relationships with their communities. This means looking at audiences not purely in demographic terms, but as assemblages of individuals, each of which bring their unique backgrounds and knowledge with them into the museum. These contexts help determine the nature of the visitor experience. To engage with these individuals, museums must first understand their needs and expectations, and then provide an experience that meets these ends; they must find a way to effectively combine both the visitor and the museum agendas.
Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) in Sturbridge, Massachusetts is just one example of a museum that is in tune with the needs of their constituents. Through ongoing evaluation, they ensure that their visitors’ expectations meet the reality of their museum experience. Surveying their guests has allowed OSV to identify the types of programming their visitors hope to see so they can provide related experiential opportunities. OSV also uses organizational partnerships to help solidify their place in their community. For example, through a program with a vocational school, students gain skills through restoring exhibit buildings and creating object replicas to be used in educational outreach activities.
As museum professionals we need to remember that our visitors come to our institutions for personal reasons and they bring their own beliefs and values about both the objects and exhibitions within the museum, as well as about the institution itself. This means that the visitor experience begins before they even enter the museum doors and continues long after they leave. To be effective, museums must structure experiences to support the goals of all of those involved.