Visitor Experience Matters

Experiences are now at the heart of what museums provide

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

Museums and heritage sites are informal learning spaces where visitors experience society’s preserved knowledge and objects of historic, cultural, artistic and scientific importance. We’ve all been to one if not many, but the way we as a society preserve and impart this knowledge has undergone some critical changes in the past decade. The museum’s focus towards the visitor’s journey to learning at the museum has inevitably changed the very method of how a museum quantifies and achieves its mission. The “why” rather than the “what” now matters more; measuring the visitor experience matters as much if not more to measuring the number of visitors. And the benefits of this new found focus on visitor experience has also led to an increase in total visitors. Numbers don’t lie: According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), 3 of the world’s 5 most visited museums are based in England, and nearly 40 million people visit UK national museums and galleries each year.

(Check this amazing infographic below created by Jonathan Hull which shows all the total visitors to museums and the social media check-ins, in a neatly graded world view)

Most Visited Art Museums Check-ins

Now, do you wanna know “why” this increase has taken place?

I believe it’s because a lot of the renowned museums have heeded to Philip and Neil Kotler’s advice in their seminal article “Can Museums be all things to all people”. Philip and Neil emphasised that in order to improve visitor experience, museums had to follow three strategies:

1. Improving the museum-going experience of the visitors

2. Community service to raise museum’s image and local impact

3. Repositioning towards entertainment to increase attractiveness as a leisure alternative

Museum activist Kenneth Hudson elaborates the change in the museums and heritage sector over the past decade by saying,

The most fundamental change that has affected museums… is the now almost universal conviction that they exist in order to serve the public. The old-style museum felt itself to be under no such obligation… the museums prime responsibility was to its collections, not to its visitors”.

What Philip and Neil stated about sweeping changes for repositioning, has had far-reaching changes. The very sacred activity of curation and cataloguing is being increasingly outsourced to the public, as well as crowd-funding activities such as restorations. Currently, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (USA) is exhibiting a part crowd-sourced, part-curated exhibit of all sorts of works about oceans created by the crowd. Such crowd-sourcing activities have saved the museum from its downslide. Crowd-funding by UK museums such as the Bowes Museum and the British Museum have allowed collaboration between the museums and the crowd to support projects they mutually like.

By focusing on visitor experience and involvement, museums have enabled themselves and their staff to help visitors get inspired, learn and associate with the love for art, history and culture. The need for museum staff to enable such learning has increased a lot, with front of house staff, tour guides, and support staff all adding the real differentiation between “ticking the museum off a list”, and making the museum visit a more inspiring, stimulating. It has fostered the way we as visitors reinforce what we think and feel about ourselves.

Visitor service staff are the ones who create visitor experiences

According to psychologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who pioneered the socio-cultural approach to learning,

Learning and sense of identity are inseparable: They are aspects of the same phenomenon”.

Identity formation is central to learning during a leisure-time museum visit. At the heart of visitor services lies the front of house staff. A museum visitor will most likely not meet the curator, education officer or the designer, but the museum attendants, gallery assistants, and docents. Just as the customer service staff at a store, the museum staff has a big impact on your experience at the museum. However, the difference is that you tend to view anyone with the staff’s uniform to be filled with knowledge about the museum’s art and heritage.

Graham Black in his book “The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement” says that

“… museum front of house staff are the worst paid, least well trained and mostly poorly supported of all the museum personnel”.

I completely agree. Visitor services staff needs to be looked after as much as the art itself (almost half (49%) the working staffs in museums are unpaid), and I believe museums today are realising this very fact. Rachel Souhami has a very interesting interview with four early-career museum professionals, who elaborate how the industry’s current lacking structure for training and jobs need to be tackled. They found that there was:

1. Lack of career advice at undergraduate levels

2. Hard getting the right amount of Training

3. Lack of transparency in career progression given by museums

4. Mutually beneficial Volunteering and remuneration

Front of house staff and tour guides are the face of the institution. Their ability of imparting knowledge through storytelling, their enthusiasm, and patience to engage with the visitors, makes it the very factor that distinguishes a visitor experience of museums and heritage sites from a tick-off-the-list destination, to a lasting spark of inspiration. This is the main reason why we at Partners With You are so passionate about providing training to visitor services staff and tour guides! And why is this type of training so important? As a recent attendee at a large attraction said, “It really helped me understand my role as a host and how certain questions lead people into conversations”; knowing what is needed from you and to be given the techniques to engage with your visitors (rather than to be told to do it but with no direction) is essential. To find out how we do this and more for front of house staff and tour guides, click here

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