There are a few terms that will be used interchangeably throughout writing about my life in museums, tourism, and informal education. Visitor, guest, customer, and user will all refer to the same thing: the person/people who are interacting with an organization and its content. I will often use the term museum, but under the umbrella of museums I will include zoos, gardens, historic sites, galleries, and any other cultural attraction one might think of. As far as the specific departments in museums that are customer-facing, I will usually default to visitor experience since I am part of the Visitor Experience Group (VEX), but there are times when I will use other terms. For example, in my current role the department is known as Guest Experience. At Please Touch Museum (PTM) it was Visitor Services. I have seen this department called any combination of visitor/guest/public experience/engagement/services over the years. But to keep it simple, I’ll refer to it as visitor experience unless specifically referencing a title/department in an institution that uses one of the other terms.
A few years into the annual VEX conference, an attendee asked us to define visitor experience. We gave it some thought, had a few conversations, and this is what we came up with:
Visitor Experience encompasses all the tangible and intangible aspects of the presentation of your organization’s mission with which a visitor could interact. It is the perceptions, sentiments, and reactions a visitor has with your institution and ensures that every visitor is granted a pleasant and rewarding experience from pre- to post-visit.
Visitor experience is, in a word, everything. Remember that next time someone in your institution tries to say that their job does not relate to/impact the visitor experience. They’re wrong. It does. Visitor experience is the largest and most impactful aspect of museum work, but it has only just begun to receive attention.
What I see in my head when a museum worker says visitor experience isn't part of their job
Nicole Krom came up with the idea for what is now VEX after attending the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting in 2011. At the time, Krom was in charge of visitor services at the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philly and she was dismayed at the lack of sessions focused on visitors and frontline work. Seven years later, the VEX team presented a session at AAM on visitor experience basics to a packed room. Every seat was filled and people lined the aisles and perimeter to participate in this session. We were the only session with a focus on visitor experience.
Not much has changed at AAM (shocking) but despite that more folks in the museum field are focused on providing a quality experience for their visitors. Museums are hiring organizations like VEX to train their frontline teams and leadership on how to best provide excellent visitor experience. Institutions like the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science (DelMNS) have added a Service Philosophy to accompany their mission and vision. The annual Visitor Experience Conference continues to see a growing variety of titles among attendees.
This is a good trend. An increased focus on providing quality experiences for visitors can only help museums. Shifting to a people-first museum engagement model and making the museum a more welcoming environment is a great way to attract more visitors and improve your institution’s reputation. It stands to reason that if you focus your time and energy on making sure the folks who visit your museum enjoy their time there, that more people will have positive interactions with your mission and collection. It feels silly to state something so obvious, but somehow this is a new idea for many institutions.
At VEX, we have years of experience and work that we put into our visitor experience training and philosophy. Our training spans days and requires regular follow up within the organization to truly implement well. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” You can get pretty far with the visitor experience in your institution by being patient, pleasant, and proactive. Short, sweet, and alliterative. I’ll leave the rest of that for our future consulting gigs, seeing as everyone at VEX is an underpaid museum professional volunteering their spare time.
Part of ensuring that visitors have a good experience in your space is knowing the visitors. In Identity and the Museum Experience, Dr. John Falk breaks visitors down into five categories: explorers, facilitators, professional/hobbyists, experience seekers, and rechargers. I have to admit that I have not read Dr. Falk’s book, but I sure have heard a lot about these visitor types. And I recognize all of these visitor types from various visitor interactions over the years. I would, however, like to add a few more to the list.
First, I have to address experience seekers. I think there is a subgroup here for whom the title of experience seeker is a bit generous. I call them the checklisters. These are the people who are only visiting the museum because some outside influence has deemed it a must-see. They show up, do the thing, snap a photo to prove they did the thing, and generally have very little interaction with the museum as a whole. These are the people who go to the Liberty Bell Center and breeze past the exhibits to snap a photo with that old, broken hunk of metal and come out of the experience with no new information about the bell and what it represents. A more extreme example are the folks who go to the Franklin Institute (TFI) to run up the stairs and pose like Rocky and don’t even bother entering the museum. I enjoy this example because they’re not even at the right staircase.
There are things that can be done to try and engage the checklisters. Sometimes it is arranging the timing and location of eye-catching programs to lure these folks further into the museum. Sometimes it is ensuring that the thing they came to do is in close proximity to other things that look fun. But to be honest, this group is not my top priority. Let’s focus on improving the experience for people who are truly seeking an experience first. Once we nail that, then let’s start thinking about how to trick the checklisters into learning a thing or two.
A visitor I see often but I don’t think is represented in Falk’s visitor types is the exhausted caregiver. They are a somewhat reluctant facilitator and would probably love to be a recharger, but neither classification fits them entirely. Over the last two decades in museums, I have found that the smallest gestures often go the farthest with this group. Particularly at larger institutions like TFI and PTM. The exhausted caregiver is easy to spot: they’re often harried, wrangling any number of children, and increasingly frustrated. Whenever I saw an exhausted caregiver, I would give them directions to an exhibit that had a lot of hands-on activities for the kids and a place to sit near the only entrance/exit. I could watch the weight physically lift from their shoulders as they expressed their gratitude and ushered their charges to a place where they could take a break while the kids had free reign of a controlled environment. To this day, this simple action has been the most consistently effective form of providing an excellent visitor experience in my career.
Another group to consider here is children. The kiddos are usually visiting because they were brought there by someone wanting to facilitate an experience for them. In my lifetime, I have watched museums move toward more kid-friendly presentations in their exhibits and programs, which is great! Let’s do what we can to engage these children and inspire a passion for culture and learning early! On the visitor experience side, it is important to engage this group as well as the person who brought them. Children could mirror whichever visitor type their caregiver is, or they could be a different type altogether. Recognizing kids as individual visitors and not just extensions of their caregivers often will lead to a positive experience for all parties involved. This method hasn’t been as foolproof as the exhausted caregiver method, but it is still one I stick to.
The fourth visitor type I would like to add is somewhat similar to professional/hobbyist, but one I thought merited separation: Fellow museum workers. Professional/hobbyist visitors I associate more with content expertise, such as that incredibly awkward time when I performed a heart dissection in front of a heart surgeon. The visitor who considers themselves an expert in your subject matter (whether they are or not) is quite different from a fellow museum worker. In my experience, I have found that fellow museum workers fall into two categories: curious and judgmental. The curious museum worker is interested in how your museum operates. They take photos of your signage. They ask presenters about program structure at the end of a performance, not content. Sometimes, they actually miss a fair amount of content by focusing more on how the content is delivered. This person is me. The judgmental museum worker is similar, but instead of looking for new ideas to bring back to their museum, they are instead focused on how they would/already do it better. In the words of Ted Lasso, I encourage you all to “be curious, not judgmental.” In either case, it’s helpful to try and refocus the museum worker’s energy into actually enjoying their experience and not just focusing on how their visit could influence their work.
Finally, I think members are a category all their own. Whatever initial motivation first brought them to the museum was satisfied enough that they decided to become more involved. Members can range from enthusiastic supporters of your mission to entitled pains in the butt who demand attention and special treatment from the museum. This visitor type typically has a whole department dedicated to it, but it is important for folks from all departments to get to know members. Establishing a rapport with repeat visitors is not only a way to provide a great visitor experience, it is often pretty rewarding.
With that, here is an updated list of museum visitor types:
Explorers - motivated by personal curiosity
Facilitators - motivated by other people and their needs
Professional/hobbyist - motivated by specific, knowledge-related goals
Experience seekers - motivated by the desire to see and experience a place
Rechargers - motivated by a desire for a contemplative or restorative experience
Checklisters - motivated by an outside influence to say they were there
Exhausted caregivers - motivated by a need to just get through the experience
Kiddos - brought by someone else, motivations vary
Museum workers - motivated by a desire to relate experience to their own work
Members - motivated by their connection to the organization
With all visitor types, we need to ensure that we are meeting their needs to ensure that they are able to fully engage with our content. This was explained artfully by Elissa Olinsky when she adapted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for museums in 2016. In her blog post Maslow in Museums, she wrote:
Museums are always going to be in the content business. This model doesn't ask museums to stop doing what they do best. It does ask that they remember their visitors are brains in bodies, and those bodies need care, feeding, respite, comfort, and confidence before they can benefit from all that great content.
A lot of the foundation of that hierarchy is rooted in visitor experience work. Your museum’s frontline workers are the ones who have to figure out workarounds for any accessibility issues and ensure physiological needs are being met. In an ideal situation, that foundation is addressed in design but, given that many museums exist in old buildings, that is not always possible.
A good example of an institution taking an older building that was not designed to be accessible or address physiological needs and morphing it into a welcoming space for visitors is the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science (DelMNS). The building that houses the museum is essentially a shoebox. A large, mostly windowless rectangle on a busy road with no foot traffic. When I had my first interview there, I drove right past it despite my GPS’ insistence that I had arrived. The building was so nondescript I didn’t even notice it from the road.
The inside of the museum was an active work site. The museum had opened to the public in 1972, and not too much had changed there since. In December of 2020, the museum, then known as the Delaware Museum of Natural History, closed and they got to work. They took everything out of the museum, every panel, every exhibit, everything. They tore down walls and brought everything down to the studs. Then, they created a new museum from scratch.
In May of 2022, they reopened after a year and a half of destruction and reconstruction. In addition to new narrative pathways, new exhibits with a variety of teaching and interaction styles, and a new focus on visitor experience, they also had two new areas in the museum: the Delaware Community Foundation Respite Room and Rest, Relax, and Recharge.
The Respite Room is a quiet space off of one of the galleries designed for guests who need a private space to take a break from the museum experience. The lights have dimmers, there are fidget toys available, there’s a child-sized chair and ottoman, and a rocking chair designed for calming patients in institutional settings. This room is a place for an overwhelmed adult to take a few moments to calm, for a nursing parent to feed their child, for a caregiver to soothe their child having a meltdown, or for anyone else who might need a space to cool down.
Rest, Relax, and Recharge is a café space in which beverages and premade sandwiches, wraps, and salads are available for purchase. There is comfortable seating, tables, and ample outlets for charging your devices. Its central location in the museum makes it the perfect space to take a quick break in the middle of a museum visit.
By including these two spaces focused on the accessibility and physiological needs of their visitors, DelMNS has shown their dedication to the health and safety of the people who come through their doors. Visitors now know that there are amenities available to them to help ensure their visit is a positive one. Adding these spaces to the museum vastly improved the accessibility and visitor experience. While other opportunities may have been missed, such as redesigning the restrooms to be more accessible, less crowded, more private, and no longer gendered, the fact that the museum has the space to recharge and a space for respite is a huge step in the right direction.
To sum up, quality visitor experience happens when you know your visitors, meet their basic needs, engage them with your content in a variety of ways, and remain patient, pleasant, and proactive in your interactions. Essentially, attentive service combined with meaningful engagement yields positive visitor experiences.