The Whole Picture: Rethinking “Non-content” in Museums

As museum professionals, we often get caught up in the things that matter most to us: collections, exhibits, educational programs, archives, research, etc. But what about the things that matter most to our visitors? In their book, The Museum Experience Revisited, Falk and Dierking urge us to consider “the museum as gestalt.” That is, to think about the entire experience of visiting the museum, including the parts that are traditionally considered “non-content.” This includes things like cafés, gift shops, restrooms, accessibility, and front-of-line staff. Falk and Dierking want museums to consider how these aspects play into visitor experience and how they might be used to advance the mission and encourage education.

In addition to improving the overall experience, successful “non-content” can make museums more inviting to new audiences. In my interview with Patty Edmonson, Interpretation Specialist at the Cleveland Museum of Art, we discussed how good amenities and staff can make museums feel more comfortable and welcoming. Patty mentioned she “think[s] that museums that have a combination guard/gallery guide can be a really successful model versus someone who is just yelling at you.” Falk and Dierking also suggest rethinking job descriptions of front-of-house staff to include a more education-based focus. That way, in addition to keeping an eye on the collections, staff can engage visitors in conversation and activities.

So how do museums go about rethinking “non-content?” Whose job is it to see that the mission is carried out in every aspect of the museum?

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12 Responses to The Whole Picture: Rethinking “Non-content” in Museums

  1. varljt75 says:

    That’s a good perspective to have. More museums need to train their front-liners like that.

  2. at01lang says:

    I found this idea of the “non-content” of the museum serving to forward its interpretive and mission aims a very interesting idea, something so many (myself included) have overlooked. In particular, those of us working in curatorial and exhibit areas can become so caught up in the ideas and themes we attempt to convey, and the myriad of objects and collections used to that end, that we can forget the basic interactions and experiences visitors will have outside this context.

    The need for a front-end staff person who can serve as a guide in the exhibits is a ready-improvement that can easily be implemented. What I find as interesting, and in my estimation more challenging, is trying to integrate the traditionally-seen amenities into the mission of the museum. How can the gift shop, food services, and even the restrooms, become not just pleasant for visitors, but something that forwards the mission. Naturally there are the themed items (books/keepsakes) in the gift store that, if affordable, provide a nice memento for guests, or themed food in the restaurant. But are there other ways that museums can take these ancillary services and make them more reflective of content and mission? I find it a very interesting area to consider in looking at the overall visitor experience.

    • I agree. I think it’s also worth considering how cafes and gift stores can engage different senses (taste, touch, smell, etc.) than the rest of the museum and how this might be used to expand on existing content.

  3. juliafell17 says:

    I really like the idea of the guard/gallery guide. I’ve had not-so-pleasant experiences with guards yelling at me for crossing invisible lines and offering no other words, and really nice experiences with guards who have noticed me looking at an object and offer a few fun facts! This past summer at the Met, a guard challenged me to “spot the differences” between the two giant Lamassu statues in the middle eastern art galleries. It was fun and got me to look closer at them than I would have before! Plus it’s very nice as a visitor to see an employee who is excited to share what they know and interact with a curious guest.

    • That’s great, Julia! Many of the guards I’ve talked with have told me that their jobs are pretty boring. I think training them to talk with and engage visitors would benefit not only the guests, but the guards as well.

  4. thankyouluke says:

    I really love the idea of thinking about “non-content” I just read an article on the evolution of the American economy from service to experience and I think this fits in perfectly! More and more people, especially our generation, have begun to enjoy the experience of a visit rather than the service or objects exclusively! Great blog.

  5. pnorman02 says:

    I really like the idea of making the cafe more inviting and part of the overall experience. Whether the cafe includes foods that highlight the current exhibit or the overall mission of the museum is another great way to provide an experience to guests. That being said, cafes need to consider keeping food prices reasonable, because if you can’t afford to feed your family, people aren’t going to feel welcome.

  6. emerbr84 says:

    Too many times have I entered museums to cold docents that offer little more than a judgmental look. I think it is a great concept to further educate front of the house staff to be engaging with the patrons.

  7. saraumland says:

    On the idea of how “non-content” provides an experience in museums I can see the perspective on how that cafes, gift shops, restroom and just overall accessibility are what make people want to come back to museums. People do not necessarily remember the art hung on the wall or the panels describing a historical idea, but the feeling that they held while in the museum. Sitting in a large open room with sunlight streaming in while enjoying a glass of wine and eating cheesecake at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston is more memorable to some than the new exhibit on Dutch Art during the time of Rembrandt at the same location.

  8. karissa430 says:

    I really think this idea of thinking of visitor services staff and guards as education staff. Many times, visitors look to these front line staff for information, but it could deepen the visitor experience if front line staff were able to play an integral role in education. With more training, I believe museum front line staff could be incorporated in docenting or other educational aspects of museums.

  9. kwebberj says:

    Great summary of “non-content,” and example of a current museum professional prioritizing it in her own institution. I think this is a good perspective to have and a healthy balance to the critiques that face museums for “selling out” with cafes, gift shops, and “sensationalism.” If a museum critic considers catering to a visitor’s needs and desires as an act of selling out, they clearly have a low opinion of the average visitor.

  10. mickcr says:

    This is a great question, almost everyone involved in a museum is responsible for making sure a visitor is satisfied with their experience. Non-content brings it too a more difficult place because it doesn’t necessarily follow the mission. I think it is difficult to discern how to make sure non content stays true to the mission, but it’s important to consider.

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