Re-Thinking the
Museum Visitor Experience
John H. Falk
Sea Grant Free-Choice Learning Professor
Oregon State University
Key Questions for Today
• Why do people visit museums?
• What do visitors do inside the museum
and why?
• What meanings do visitors take away from
their museum visit?
• If we knew the answers to these
questions, how could we use them to
improve museum practice?
Some Important Definitions
• Museum – any of a number of free-choice
learning settings such as art, history and natural
history museums, zoos, aquariums, science
centers, natural area parks, botanical gardens,
arboretums, etc.
• Identity – both internal and external – how we
perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
– We don’t have just one identity but multiple
identities; situated within the realities of
physical and socio-cultural world.
– We have both “I” identities and “i” identities.
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 the:
MUSEUM – content or style of exhibits
VISITOR – age, race/ethnicity, visit frequency
or social arrangement.
Museum visitor experience extends beyond the
museum’s spatial and temporal boundaries.
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.
Big Break-Through Was Realizing Why
Visitors REALLY Come to Museums
• Visitors come in order to fulfill specific, personal
identity-related needs.
• Identity-related needs are made “visible” through
descriptions of visit motivations/expectations.
Identity-Related Visit Motivations
An individual’s visit motivations represent a
contextually-specific construct, intimately
bound to desires for personal satisfaction.
• Identity-related motivations are based upon
the ways the public (currently) perceive the
attributes and value of museums.
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.
A visitor’s identity-related visit
motivation(s) creates 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 my work or is
something I actively
pursue as a 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
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 five
identity-related reasons.
Individuals with similar motivations have
qualitatively similar visit experiences and longterm patterns of long-term meaning making.
One Example:
The California Science Center, L.A.
Experience Seeker
Long-Term Learning by Identity
for Practice
Identity-related motivations
do not answer all aspects of:
* Why visitors come?
* What they do in museum?
* What they take away?
However, a wide range of
museum functions can
benefit by using this
perspective, e.g.:
Education & Exhibt 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.
• Since the same visitors can
come for different reasons on
different days, it’s not about
creating different exhibits &
programs, it’s about creating
different visitor experiences.
Marketing & Visitor Services:
Visitors’ identity-related motivations provide
direct clues as to how the public currently
perceives the benefits of our museum and why
they showed up at our door this particular day.
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.

Understanding Learning in and from Museums