There are several basic assumptions that museum professionals make about visitor behavior. Research has helped clarify or dispel commonly held notions about visitors’ interests, motivations, time, and values. Below are some that I believe are worth focusing on.
—Assume that visitors are there for the first time and do not have any special interest, knowledge, or training in the subject of the exhibition. Assume they do have some interest―after all, they are there. But they are not specialists. “I’m just interested.”
—Visitors arrive with a limited amount of time and attention to devote to viewing the exhibit. Spending a brief amount of time (less than 20 minutes), stopping at fewer than half of the exhibit elements, and feeling overwhelmed by too much to see or do are common behaviors/feelings when exiting an exhibition. “I just breezed through. There’s so much to see. I’ll have to come back.” But they probably won’t or can’t.
—Assume a continuum of interest that visitors bring with them that can be encouraged or discouraged by the designed environment of the exhibition. Assume that most are “strollers” who have the potential to pay attention, become more engaged, and spend more time if/when/because you have planned, designed and prototyped exhibit elements that are likely to provide personally meaningful experiences (benefits) for the effort (cost) required.
But back to the question at hand: how to get visitors to enter the exhibition at the beginning instead of the end when the architecture or traffic flow intuitively directs them otherwise?
- How important is it to the visitor experience to follow the intended pathway? If it’s not, don’t worry about it.
- If it is, use all the cues at your disposal to communicate where the entrance is located, e.g., signs, arrows, visitor service people, maps, stanchions, walls, banners, floor treatments, lighting.
- Feeling lost is not an option for visitors who use, like, or need orientation. Give people the most effective directions possible to allow them to know what the intended path is, and then let them decide for themselves.
- Research has shown that many visitors’ exhibit experiences are confusing, frustrating, effortful, or missed due to poor orientation―physically, psychologically, mechanically and/or conceptually. Lack of orientation is the most common complaint or reason in recommendations for improvement in summative evaluations of exhibitions.
- Questions lurk in the backs of visitors’ minds in the exhibit environment, such as, Where should I go? What do I do here? How does this work? What’s it about? So what? Exhibit planners need to address these questions with context and designs that intuitively provide the answers and let visitors choose which ones they want to engage with.
- Suggested routes do not force visitors to take them. We need to give visitors ways to make intelligent choices about where to spend their precious time. We need to be transparent about our hopes and intentions so that they can satisfy their own.
And finally, a plug for the Big Idea. Visitors can use an exhibition briefly, out of sequence, and incompletely and still get a sense of what it’s about and why it might be important if the exhibition is planned with an underlying and meaningful thesis statement. The natural behavior of visitors is best accommodated by exhibitions that are not too big and are held together conceptually and contextually by an idea of importance to the intended audience.