25 July 2017




As summer internships wrap up and August approaches, you may already be itching to get back to class. Fear not: it’s not too early to start hitting the academic journals again! My own summer internship has involved some visitor research projects, and it’s fascinating to see what kinds of information we can miss about our publics until we think to ask. In the spirit of inquiry, here are some recent developments in visitor-centred research to get us thinking about museum users in the wild.

"There's one! Crikey." Source. 

Our first stop is Pittsburgh, where staff at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh are currently developing a mobile experience (working title MUSE) which they describe as “a friendly, knowledgeable and charming chatbot extension”. MUSE would use native systems on users’ mobile phones, including cameras and SMS/messaging clients, as a platform to answer questions and make conversation about museum objects and facilities. The idea is reminiscent of Brooklyn Museum’s ASK system, but would use artificial intelligence rather than real-time human expertise.

This strategy removes a substantial obstacle to getting users to engage with museum apps, i.e. that very few living humans have ever intentionally downloaded a museum app. The Carnegie Museums found that 93% of the visitors they surveyed were carrying a mobile device, and virtually all of them had Facebook Messenger, iMessage, or both. If they can leverage those numbers to provide as frictionless an experience as possible, there’s reason to be optimistic about MUSE’s success. The recent popularity of SFMOMA’s ‘Send Me SFMOMA’ service, which texted artwork in response to user requests and emojis, proves that there’s quite a niche for whimsical digital experiences with museum collections.

Art on demand from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Send Me SFMOMA). The future has arrived, and it is *heart eyes emoji*. Source. 

After an intensive visitor study, CMP have kindly made their visitor research data, methodology, and infographics available on GitHub, where they might be useful for other museums looking to develop similar programs (and they’re an interesting read for the inquisitive – the incidence of selfies will surprise you).

Next we move to New York and this month’s issue of the Journal of Museum Education (vol. 42, July 2017), centred on the theme ‘Does Museum Education Have a Canon?’ In the article “Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners”, Carolyn Halpin Healey of Arts and Minds, a non-profit which works with people with dementia and their caregivers in New York museums, explains staff concerns in selecting artworks for these programs.

In keeping with the issue’s theme, much of the article’s focus is the tension between the canonical objects of a museum’s collection and the need for an accessible and enjoyable experience for participants, ultimately the more important factor. The most famous, visible, and ‘important’ objects in a museum are there for all visitors to enjoy; visitors with cognitive impairments are often unable to access them for physical reasons or because of fear and stigma associated with their impairments. While it’s important to push back against this stigma and increase access to the canon, there is also much to be gained from looking outside the canon and with specific groups’ histories and personalities in mind. 

An Arts and Minds program at the New York Historical Society. Successful programs for visitors with cognitive impairment have tangible benefits for all participants, including caregivers, but what makes a successful program, and how does the choice of art factor in? Source. 

My main takeaway came from the author’s testament to the importance of thoughtfulness: “While the “wrong” choice will certainly not cause harm, the “right” choice has the potential to catalyze self-exploration as well as provide the opportunity to reflect on the past, to empathically connect with others, and to imagine new ways of being as one ages, particularly in the face of life-altering cognitive impairment.” Even when the risks of curation are low, the payoffs may be substantial; all museum visitors deserve the best we can give them. The article draws usefully on existing education, visitor and neurological research, and is a neat example of how theory can be used to guide and bolster practice.

On our final stop, we move from understanding and shaping visitor experience to directly influencing visitor behaviour. In “Fostering customers’ pro-environmental behaviour at a museum” (Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25.9), Heesup Han and Sunghyup Sean Hyun explore the factors which predict pro-environmental decisions like recycling, water conservation, waste reduction and transport choice while visitors are in the museum.

The authors identified five cognitive dimensions (environmental value, concern, awareness, knowledge, and self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s own ability to act toward goals) and two affective dimensions (the expectation of positive versus negative feelings after completing actions) which impact eco-friendly intentions and behaviour, as well as two additional factors, willingness to sacrifice and interconnectedness to nature. Using survey results from several South Korean museums, they produced a model which showed the relationships between all these factors in visitor decision-making.

A young visitor acts on the expectation of positive affect at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, IL. Source. 

It turned out that the factor with the largest impact on pro-environmental behaviour was negative anticipated affect, or the expectation of feeling guilty, remorseful, and bad after they took action or failed to take action. The second most important factor was positive anticipated affect: visitors were motivated to recycle or reduce waste because they knew they would feel good afterward. The cognitive dimensions were also crucial. An effective strategy might be to let visitors know that recycling, creating less waste, and choosing friendly transport options is the decent and worthwhile thing to do, while making other choices has adverse consequences. As we have always secretly suspected, the best way to make sure visitors act ecologically in the museum might be with some gentle shaming. Perhaps someone could develop an ecologically-minded chatbot to remind them to recycle?


Halpin-Healy, Carolyn. "Well-Chosen Objects Support Well-Being for People with Dementia and Their Care Partners." Journal of Museum Education 42, no. 3 (July 14, 2017): 224-35. doi:10.1080/10598650.2017.1342189.

Han, Heesup, and Sunghyup Sean Hyun. "Fostering customers' pro-environmental behavior at a museum." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 25, no. 9 (November 25, 2016): 1240-256. doi:10.1080/09669582.2016.1259318.

Inscho, Jeffrey. "No App Required: Toward a Utilitarian Museum Mobile Experience." The Studio. May 18, 2017. Accessed July 23, 2017. https://studio.carnegiemuseums.org/introducing-muse-20a6f11c7c35.

Inscho, Jeffrey. "Field Study: Benchmarking Visitor Behaviors and Mobile Device Usage in the Museum." The Studio. July 18, 2017. Accessed July 23, 2017. https://studio.carnegiemuseums.org/chatbot-field-study-91fcbb1d4875.

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