The Visitor Experience

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.

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6 Responses to The Visitor Experience

  1. kiewma93 says:

    I completely agree. I think seeing how each CGP student interpreted different museums on our fieldtrip, really drove this point home. We are a diverse group and we will all see things differently.

  2. emily_pfeil says:

    I really like that Old Sturbridge Village uses ongoing evaluation to better understand the visitor experience at their museum. As you said, it is essential to meet the needs of the visitor, and evaluations are a way to clearly determine these needs. I think it would be very difficult to decide on which changes to make, because I’m sure there are quite a variety of suggestions. Riding this line of staying true to the museum’s mission and engaging the visitor is more challenging than one might think.

  3. scalje70 says:

    With the paradigm shift that is occurring in museums, it is wonderful that more and more institutions are focusing on connecting with the individual rather than simply displaying objects. I think it has continuously proved to be difficult to connect with each individual, considering we all connect in different ways. New interactive exhibits, or living history museums such as Old Sturbridge Village, are great ways to continue to attempt to connect. It’s refreshing to see museums put forth efforts such as this.

  4. lucega96 says:

    Awesome post! I didn’t know that OSV partnered with vocational schools to work on exhibits and object replicas. That is a great example of community engagement and visitor contribution to the museum.

  5. corwhe56 says:

    OSV is a wonderful example of a museum that is actively trying to fulfill the needs of the community and because of that is thriving as an organization. What is even more amazing is how only years ago OSV was hurting, as their low visitor attendance was not sustainable. They are a great case study for museums needing to understand their community better to turn their museum around.

  6. welceq51 says:

    I agree with your points but I also wonder about some comments in class from those who visited OSV in regards to certain revenue stream diversification concepts. How does a hotel fit within their mission, and to what extent does it really serve the community if it is just meant to bring visitors to OSV? This is just one example of course.

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