Rethinking the
Museum Visitor Experience
John H. Falk
Sea Grant Free-Choice Learning Professor
Oregon State University
Key Questions:
• Why do people visit museums?
• What do visitors do inside the museum
and why?
• What meanings do visitors take away from
their museum visit?
• How would this information allow us
to improve museum practice?
Most efforts to describe and understand
museums and their visitors have begun and
ended inside the “four walls” of the museum.
Most efforts to describe and
understand museums and their
visitors have focused on
PERMANENT qualities of either:
MUSEUM – content or style
of exhibits
VISITOR – age, race/ethnicity
visit frequency,
social arrangement
or address
The museum visitor experience extends
beyond the museum’s spatial and temporal
The museum visitor experience is not something
tangible and immutable but rather an ephemeral,
constructed relationship that uniquely occurs
each time a person visits a museum.
Q: What would make these people,
visit this museum, on this day?
•A: Each and every visitor comes in
•order to fulfill his/her own
•personal (identity-related) needs.
Defining Identity
• Both internal and external – how we
perceive ourselves and others perceive us.
• We don’t have just one identity but multiple
identities; each situated within the realities
of physical and socio-cultural world.
• We have both “I” identities and “i” identities.
• Identity can be made “visible” through
descriptions of motivations/needs/actions.
Identity-Related Visit Motivations
People visit museums in order to satisfy some
personal and/or social need or desire.
• Identity-related motivations are based upon
the ways the public (currently) perceives the
attributes and value of a particular museum.
What Happens at the Museum
As we’ve learned over
many years, the
museum visit is shaped
by the visitor’s Personal,
Socio-Cultural and
Physical Contexts.
However, a visitor’s identity-related
visit motivation(s) create a basic
trajectory for the visit.
WHY someone comes to the museum shapes
WHAT he/she finds interesting & important.
Long-Term Impact of Experience
• Why a person comes to
the museum not only
shapes what s/he does
in the museum but also
his/ her long-term
memories and the
meanings created about
the experience.
So Why Do People Come to Museums?
I came here
primarily because
it interested me
and I thought I’d
like it...
Motivated by Personal Curiosity
Motivated by Personal Curiosity
I came here primarily
because others would
like it or wanted to
Motivated by Other People
Experience Seeker
I came here
because it was
an attraction or
thing to do in this
community; its
Motivated by Desire to See & Experience Place
I came here primarily
because it relates
to something I
actively pursue as my
job or my hobby.
Motivated by Specific Knowledge-Related Goals
Motivated by Specific Knowledge-Related Goals
I came here primarily
because it will help
me feel refreshed or
focused or
Motivated by
Contemplative or
Restorative Experience
Cultural Affinity
Motivated by “I” Identity
I came here primarily
because it speaks to
my heritage, my
sense of personhood.
Respectful Pilgrim
I came here
primarily to honor
the memory of
those represented
Motivated by Sense of
Duty or Obligation
What My Research Shows:
• The majority of visitors to all
kinds of museums can be
successfully categorized as
visiting for one, or some
combination, of these 5 (7)
identity-related reasons.
Individuals with similar motivations have
qualitatively similar visit experiences and longterm patterns of long-term meaning making.
Identity-related motivations
do not answer all aspects of:
for Practice * Why visitors come
* What they do in the museum
* What they take away
However, a wide range of
museum functions can benefit
by using this perspective --
Education & Exhibit Design
Marketing & Visitor Services
Education & Exhibit Design:
• By knowing visitor’s entering identity-related visit
motivations we can better customize the museum
visit experience and provide each visitor what s/he
really wants.
Exhibits and programs,
Including school field
trips, should be
designed to
accommodate the
diversity of visitor
needs and interests.
Marketing & Visitor Studies:
Visitors’ identity-related motivations help us
understand why visitors ARE CURRENTLY
coming to our museums. They also tells us why
people DO NOT CURRENTLY visit.
Visitors’ identity-related motivations provide a
way to more accurately measure whether
visitors learned from their experiences.

Understanding Learning in and from Museums