THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE IN MUSEUMS AND ZOOS

BY RAY PAWLEY

Although the title of John H. Falk’s book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience [Left Coast Press, 2009: full bibliographical details below, p. 351] specifically identifies its subject as museums, I read this book in hopes that the author’s definition of ‘museums’ would also include zoos and aquariums. In fact, it does. Interestingly, while the primary focus of the book is on museums there are many pages devoted to data and analysis of material gathered at aquariums. Although, in the list of 247 citations, only seven (2.8%) refer specifically to studies in zoos and aquariums, the individuals listed in the acknowledgements who are associated with the zoo/aquarium field number six out of 30 (20%). Clearly, and this is evidenced in the book, zoos and aquariums figure more substantially than the title indicates. Following the Preface, the book is divided into two parts. Part I describes the theoretical conclusions the author has arrived at after 30-plus years of work and research, and Part II details his effort to convert theory into practice. The fact that this author was so bold as to offer the museum, aquarium and zoo communities practical suggestions derived from his data-based theories was compelling, and certainly triggered my curiosity. Although it was not my intention, I read the book twice. The first read was based on my heightened expectations of learning how museum visitation theory could be applied in ways that would boost visitor attendance. Because I found myself (a) intrigued by the author’s creation of specific visitor identities on which to base his suggestions and (b) somewhat frustrated with the book’s outcome, I embarked on a second read. I wanted to (a) more clearly understand the author’s premises, (b) review the material critically and (c) compare/contrast the author’s and my own quite different experiences in this fascinating field.

I wish to digress from the review at this point to characterize the backgrounds of myself (the reviewer) and the author of the book being reviewed. While I was reading the book it became clear to me that Falk is very passionate about his subject, the museum. He wants to know what motivates people to patronize them, and how museums can capitalize on the information contained in the book to heighten public attendance. In turn, because my own enthusiasm regarding the zoo visitor attendance phenomenon is in no way less than my zeal for animal management, I wanted to determine how different – or how similar – our conclusions were, since we approach the subject from two completely different perspectives:

– John Falk has academic credentials that include a joint doctorate in Biology and Education. While I have three-plus years’ education – mostly at Michigan State University in a short-lived experimental curriculum identified as ‘Zoo Administration’ – I have no formal degree. On the other hand I held a curatorial position for 30+ years at the Chicago Zoological Park (Brookfield Zoo), where a doctorate was strongly emphasized and at times required.
– Whereas Falk has apparently not been gainfully employed in a museum, my career began and ended in the zoological park field.
– Falk approaches the museum visitation phenomenon from a data-analysis perspective and has drawn certain conclusions based on his more than 30 years of information-gathering. His is the perspective of an inquiring, outside observer. My involvement with zoo visitors, on the other hand, has been fully participatory. My career began in 1952 as an Assistant Curator and Guide/lecturer at the Reptile Gardens in South Dakota’s Black Hills and included three seasons of owning my own herp facility at St Ignace, Michigan. Both of the foregoing were business-based, depending entirely on admission-paying visitors for survival. Later my prior experience with visitors in the business sector would be put to work at Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoos as I continued to grow and learn in this critically important field.
– While Falk’s focus was inter-institutional, mine was intra-institutional in practice, based on direct feedback from visitors in whichever facility I owned or was curating at the time. Nevertheless, I opportunistically consulted the literature and discussed this topic with professionals in both the business and academic fields.
– Falk relies on data he and others have gathered through post-visitation interviews on which he bases his visitor identities. Although I once conducted a visitor satisfaction survey very early in my career, my approach has been results-driven. My visitor construct was based on information gleaned and interpreted through direct observations, listening to visitor comments between each other, and then manipulating exhibits for comparative or enhanced outcomes.

Although we approached the museum/zoo visitor phenomenon from very different perspectives, I was surprised by the number of convergences (and differences) of viewpoints we shared. We are very much in agreement about what message(s) visitors should depart with; how visitors interact with exhibits at that ‘magical’ moment; whether visitors are the best resource from which to learn what they want (they aren’t); the extent to which visitors undergo change from one visit to the next and how this affects exhibit planning; and the inconveniences a visitor will endure to assure a pleasurable visit.

Beginning with his data-gathering and analysis and supported by pertinent literature review, Falk creates a visitor identity framework on which he bases the practical suggestions derived from his findings. My visitor/attendance construct, on the other hand, depended on derived visitor behavior interpretations. In other words and over the years, we have worked in opposite directions in our efforts to satisfy the same target: visitor needs.

As a reviewer of this book and one who has strong opinions on the subject, I will do my best to set those biases aside. However, following a review of each chapter of the book I am taking the liberty of providing some responses in italics (keyed to capital letters in parenthesis) based on some of my own experiences.

Preface (5 pp.) – Here the author states his motivation for this book, which is an attempt to create a fully empirical model of the museum visitor experience. He admits that this effort falls just short of that dream. A stated goal by the author is ‘to help change the quality of how museums understand and support the public’s museum visitor experiences.’ Following are several paragraphs of credits and acknowledgements.

Part I – Theory

Introduction: Museums and their Visitors (21 pp.) – The author begins with his point that most museums exist in order to attract and serve as many visitors as possible and that museums need to know who their visitors are and why they come – or do not come. Along with education strategies, marketing and competition are major considerations (A). Two selected interviews compare and contrast visitor experiences in a study at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. These interviews are used to identify two ‘lenses’ of visitor experience. Lens 1 (It’s All about the Museum – Content and Exhibits) underscores the fascinating messages and experience that the interviewee left with, which were the stimulus for the visit in the first place. Lens 2 (It’s All about the Visitor-Demographics, Visitor Frequency, and Social Arrangement) points out that for many visitors it is life experience that is most important and the facility serves as a back-drop. Falk’s basic assertion is that the visitor experience is less about visitors or museums and their exhibitions, but more about that ephemeral moment when both become one and the same – visitors are the museum and the museum is the visitor (B). The foregoing is the basis for his visitor’s ‘identity-related visitor experience’ model.

Response. (A). True enough. Education alone will not a satisfied visitor make! Proper exhibit packaging may need a dose of entertainment, as one example of boosting visitation levels.

(B). Absolutely. That magical meld moment between the visitor and the exhibit when the rest of the world disappears will keep visitors returning to relive that exciting experience.

The Museum (26 pp.) – An introductory quote from Nelson Graburn exhorts museums to heed clientele demands for more stimulation. Entertainment and challenge are certainly appropriate. Exponentially-expanding technologies ever heighten the bar of competition. Leisure as a topic is characterized by its shifting role in the 21st century along with visitation value, individual needs, motivators, and why people say they go to museums. Some motivational lists are provided. The work of several researchers is explored here, starting with Molly Hood, a name familiar to many U.S. zoo/aquarium visitor relations departments. Free-choice learning is explored, followed by the author’s perception of identity as it pertains to learning and visit motivation. On the one hand the author tries to look at the Gestalt of visitor motivators as well as identifying the many components therein. It is here that Falk first introduces his perception of five role-playing visitor identities (without identifying them) that characterize museum visitors.

The Visitor (46 pp.) – An interview dialogue which begins this chapter was obviously selected because of the ability of the respondent to articulate and self-review in a remarkably clear manner. These interviews, deemed pertinent by the author for his case, seem to select for sophistication in both communication and introspective ability, and are clearly more meaningful than would be forthcoming from a major percentage of those visitors interviewed! (Note: perhaps the author’s careful selection of interview passages reflects his perception of the market that he hopes to reach for book sales as well.) Identity, for the purposes of this book and as characterized by the author, deals with self-perception, i.e. (1) how others perceive me and (2) how I perceive myself. Identity, in this context, is explored, including motivational behavior and how we act in the museum environment. In his subchapter ‘Nailing Jello to the wall’ Falk admits that his definition of visitor identity in the museum context is indeed a very soft science. However, he feels he has sufficient substance, based on his experience, to justify his call for action, via his book, throughout the museum market. After a second look, though, I believe that the author’s case focuses on a selected portion rather than the whole of a museum’s market. Following his justifications, Falk ends this chapter with a loop-closing diagram that synchronizes identity-related needs of visitors with what museums have to offer them.

The Visit (23 pp.) – In this chapter Falk describes his five visitor identities that a museum must be aware of as it seeks to meet and satisfy its market needs. Discussed are the widely varied expectations that a visitor brings to the museum and the flexibility museums need to exercise in order to meet those needs through their exhibits, labels and explanatory methods. Unforeseen events in the museum can affect the trajectory of visitor satisfaction which, in turn, can affect future decisions by the visitor as to visitation frequencies. In this chapter Falk reveals the five categories that all (or most) museum visitors fall within. These are: Explorer, Facilitator, Experience seeker, Professional/hobbyist, and Recharger (C).

Response. (C). No doubt there are more identity categories – the nostalgic visitor comes to mind. Moreover, I believe that during a single visit, all of the author’s named identities may be present from minute to minute in any individual, depending on the exhibit they are seeing and the extrinsic (facility) and intrinsic (inner self) environments they are in.

Satisfaction (12 pp.) – In just 12 pages the author covers considerable ground describing the extent that visitors will go to in their efforts to ensure themselves a satisfying visit. Based on positive experiences from previous visits, the perceptions a visitor leaves with are likely to be more important than the conditions under which the visit was made. For example, an uncomfortably warm or cold day is usually not as important to visitors as their determination to ensure that their expectations and experiences have been met. As part of a self-fulfilling prophesy, visitors can be expected to extend themselves beyond some inconveniences to ensure that their experience was enjoyable (D).

Response. (D). This point is well made. I recall watching visitors during pre-airconditioning days at the Brookfield Zoo reptile house sweating in the 90°F+ heat and humidity, oblivious to all discomforts as they moved, entranced, from one exhibit to the next.

Memories (27 pp.) – Museum experiences tend to be well remembered by visitors of all ages for many years. Memories are the stuff that museums depend on for future repeat visitations. Moreover, repeat visits can compound a visitor’s understanding of concepts not fully grasped previously. Occasionally, the author asserts, a visitor’s memories may be recalled with some embellishments (E). Memories are also discussed in terms of mental filters, recall, and selectivity. A particularly insightful passage points out how visitors change through time, and this will affect to some degree the quality of future visits based on past experiences (F). Although this chapter is comparatively long, the discussion about the many ramifications of the role that memory plays in visitation frequency is justified since attendance growth, even modest, is crucial to any museum’s long-term competitive edge (G). Response. (E). Memory embellishments appear to be commonplace where many exhibits are concerned. In my experience, when acquaintances and even family members recall for me the size of a python or the huge alligator snapping turtle, or the erection of our celebrated male elephant, Ziggy, exaggerations were ever the rule.

(F). In my own experience, early on, I found myself concluding that a significant reason why many visitors returned repeatedly to the same exhibit was because it was the visitor (and obviously not the exhibit) that had changed over time. It would seem that visitors need to relive their past visitation experience within an up-dated personal context. This realization provided me with yet another very valuable tool when laying out exhibit design strategies.

(G). At no time does the author make any mention of the adverse impact that a negative experience can may have on future visits.

The Museum Visitor Experience Model (20 pp.) – Based on his previous chapters the author weaves his theoretical construct into a model which he offers to museums as a practical armature when they design future exhibits. His eight-point ‘Outline of the Museum Visitor Experience Model’ is concise and clear. The diagram of ‘Identity-related Visit Motivations’, however, is not as clear. Falk’s final paragraph in Part I suggests that much of the visitor experience is knowable and predictable, and that museums can markedly improve their services by knowing what to look for and how to appropriately respond. To quote the last sentence: ‘I [Falk] will introduce some thoughts and suggestions on how these ideas can be applied in practice – ideas for attracting, engaging and retaining visitors as well as suggestions as to how these ideas could better define and measure the impact of the museum visitor experience.’ At this point in the read my anticipations were at their highest point.

Part II – Practice

Theory to Practice (4 pp.) – Falk states his view of the current competitive museum environment, pointing out that (a) more museums are opening their doors, including those non-traditional examples that can be found in shopping malls, libraries, even ultra-religious groups, (b) museum attendance in the U.S. has gone from 40% of Americans in 1980 to over 60% by 2000, and (c) the ‘one size fits all’ concept for visitors is now out of date (H). He emphasizes the growing demand by the public for heightened quality of experiences for a variety of clientele types and individual needs. He argues that it’s not about exhibits alone, but that museums need to rethink the way they define and measure value delivered. He then asks seven questions he believes every museum management should ask themselves regarding their performance in meeting visitor needs. (Note: these broad-context questions, however, were reminiscent of a social studies mid-term exam.) While intimidating, the questions target the kind of self-review museums should be making use of in any case. Falk then uses the remaining chapters as a road map to underscore his recommendations.

Response. (H). I’m not quick to agree with the author. My personal triad of review criteria in assessing an exhibit’s justification for continued existence (or not) is: (a) don’t fix a wheel if it isn’t broken, (b) always look for a better mousetrap, and (c) keep it simple – anyone can make something complicated but true simplicity can be sheer genius.

Attracting and Building Audiences (28 pp.) – Because the heart of the museum is its visitors and competition is paramount, Falk points out that old-fashioned marketing strategies are in serious need of updating. While the author considers ‘word-of-mouth’ to be the best advertising, he also states that most visitors do not go to a museum for its content, but rather to satisfy individual identity-related needs – a phenomenon that museums need to understand. He further claims that the majority of visitors have a single dominant visitation motivator which drives them throughout their visit. The author’s subheadings provide suggestions for attracting visitation for each visitor-identity category. He then presents a well-chosen example that underscores his contention that exhibit strategies based on demographics alone are not candidates for success. He also suggests that a cluster of museum facilities within a limited geographic area can each emphasize their areas of specialty, marketing themselves accordingly rather than engaging in wasteful competition among themselves (I).

Response. (I). Missing is any comment that when a visitor recruitment strategy has proven successful over the years, it behooves the museum to maintain that initiative with enthusiastic commitment, and make fine-tuned adjustments when necessary to insure continued success. Moreover, I did not see a reference by the author as to what percentage of the museum world’s total visitors consists of his five visitor-identity types. This leaves me to presume that the author is arguing that 100% of museum attendances is composed of his five types.

Making Museums Work for Visitors (22 pp.) – Museums need to move from ‘types of visitor’ to ‘types of visit’, which embraces the author’s main point. Falk states that instead of emphasizing exhibits and programs, diversity within the whole needs to prevail to satisfy goals that are personally relevant to each visitor’s needs. Falk includes some rhetorical genuflection that seems to back away from the singular importance he had been placing on the five identity-related types throughout his book when he states, ‘as I have pointed out, reality is more complex that just these five motivations.’ While he acknowledges that these identity types may or may not hold up over time, his emphasis on these five identities throughout his book would indicate that he sees these as subsets that make up the whole of all museum visitors. The author provides ten factors that influence visitation, based on the headings of ‘Personal Content’ (i.e. the visitor), ‘Socio-cultural Content’ (the group level), and ‘Physical Content’ (the museum environment).

This chapter also contains the author’s recommendations for each of the five identity-related types (see above, p. 347). These include suggestions regarding audio tours, exhibit arrangements, labels, live guides, lecture programs, gift shops (including books), and food service. Most but not all of the above were included within each visitor-identity category (J). Falk emphasizes the point that the single, most paramount thought that every departing visitor should leave with is when they plan to come again (K).

Response. (J) – Although the author’s suggestions for each of the visitor-identity types were most insightful, I admit I was expecting some further elaborations to support his practical suggestions. Generally, Falk’s recommendations, if implemented, would require significant increases in budgets and/or staffing, the kinds of expenditure that might not be so feasible among smaller institutions or those with budget limitations. For example, the author would like to see multiple (rather than only one) audio tour options made available to address most of his visitor identity types, selected increases in bookstore merchandise, live guides and more. These and his other suggestions would create substantial cost increases, but could – perhaps – be justified if (a) museum visitors consisted 100% of Falk’s five identity types and (b) the museum decided that the ends would serve the means. I am sure that the anxieties of any institution’s financial departmental head would soar while reading this. Generally, Falk’s recommendations would require significant budgetary increases that could be virtually unattainable for any but the larger museum institutions. In fact, resourceful and pragmatic planning coupled with innovation could offset actual cost increases in trying to meet those needs.

It was in this chapter, where the author makes his case, that I was most disappointed. While many of his generalizations were important for review purposes, many more of the recommendations for his five visitor identity types dealt with revenue-generating departments including food-servicing and gift merchandizing. Thus, any hoped-for improvement in any institution where per-capita spending is concerned would require a vigorous preliminary review of bottom-line projections before any action should be taken. As I examined and compared my own experiences and past strategies with the author’s practical suggestions, I was left with a substantial feeling of being let down. I was expecting a set of pragmatic, even specific exhibit strategy revelations based on his research and theories in Part I – i.e. his visitor identity types and what kinds of exhibits they would respond to, from which a museum could create new irresistible visitation anchors from which new exhibit concepts could be devised – but this I did not find.

The author’s observation that visitors rarely know what they want from a visit was absolutely on target. However, Falk’s suggestion that a museum should provide proactive intervention by trained staff members to aid those in search of special exhibits or ways to make best use of their time could be a serious mistake. Based on my past experiences, any intervention by a staff member, regardless of how well-intended, will more than likely be viewed by the newly-arrived visitor as unwelcome upwards of 90% of the time. Most individuals or groups arriving at a zoo want no impediments as they dash off with high expectations to their first exhibit. To minimize the risk of creating visitor ill-feeling, the safest and most prudent strategy is to let the visitor(s) seek out a trained staffer, conspicuously positioned, in their own time. (K). My experiences fall fully in line with the view of the author regarding the paramount message visitors should leave with, which is a profound desire to come again. Exactly! All other messages, including education and conservation, while critically important at the strategic level, should not prevail at the tactical level when the visitor departs. It is only through repeat visits that updated messages or message re-enforcement can be imparted as they visit old as well as new exhibits. Besides, repeat visits will keep turnstiles humming, an ever-necessary revenue-generating tune.

Institutional Value and Accountability (12 pp.) – Falk states: ‘The most successful museums are those who have found ways to merge their own interests and capabilities with those of their public and by appreciating that it’s neither about just ‘‘giving them what they want’’ nor about just ‘‘giving them what they need’’ ’ (L). Another important point is Falk’s assertion that outcomes for the visitor are deemed important by the individual, not by the museum (M). A further assertion is that without continual attention and investment for improvement, museums are unlikely to retain their lofty position in the leisure marketplace.

Response. (L). The author’s observation that visitors rarely know what they want from a museum visit was ‘spot on’. In fact, I believe he could have emphasized this point more strongly. Very early in my career, through a visitor satisfaction survey that I conducted at my small zoo, the evidence was abundantly clear: visitors are simply unequipped to make useful suggestions about what kinds of exhibits they should see or want to see. The point is that we need to be proactive by showing our visitors what they are going to want and enjoy, and we need to do it in a way that builds enthusiastic repeat attendance. Putting it another way, it is highly improbable that the Sea Worlds or Lion Country Safaris were ever concepts suggested by zoo visitors. The success of the Apple Computer Company, for example, is not tied to asking people what they want – rather it is the public wanting what Apple creates for them. (M). Museum and zoo directors or staff members who implement exhibits they believe are necessary for the visitors’ own good are working in reverse order and tempting failure. It is the visitor, not the administration of a zoo or museum, that will underscore what is (and is not) important, which will in turn affect attendance.

Following this last chapter are Notes (20 pp.), References (14 pp.), Index (8 pp.) and About the Author (1 p.).

I am sure that zoo and aquarium staffers could learn as much as those in the traditional museum field from reading about the author’s views and understanding of visitors. In order to build attendances, we need to know more about the very ‘soft’ science of measuring the dynamics of visitor attendance in the leisure market world, and Falk has made a substantial stab at it. While the reader may disagree with him about some of his conclusions as well as his interpretation of his data, the book is certainly thought-provoking. Moreover, the author deserves high marks for daring to make suggestions in order to put his theory into practice!

I believe that Falk’s book is well worth reading regardless of whether one agrees with him or not, in part because his views are likely to incite readers to exercise their own creativity – something that zoos (and the rest of the leisure field) can use much more of. For myself, I found the book to be stimulating at both the creative and the reflective levels. Based on the author’s efforts to provide us with a useful set of options as to how we must continually elevate visitor experiences in the highly competitive leisure field, I certainly recommend this book.


[Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by John H. Falk. Left Coast Press (Walnut Creek, California: www.lcoastpress.com), 2009. 302 pp., paperback. ISBN 978–1–59874–163–6. $29.95.]

Ray Pawley, P.O. Box 12, Hondo, New Mexico 88336, U.S.A. raypawley@pvtnetworks.net).