Visual Wednesday: Visitor Motivations in Museums

People talking

This post explores the motivations that compel visitors to visit art museums.

Visitor motivations are all the more important to consider at a time when museum professionals are envisioning the institutions’ relevance, and developing strategies to broaden access to all visitors. To meet these goals, it seems critical for museum spaces to identify and understand viewer motivations. As motivations are, in part, the underlying driving force for a visit as well as met or unmet expectations of the visitor at the museum.

When visitors go to art museums, is it with the expectation for education or something more? After some research I found an article that includes a qualitative  research project on this very topic of visitor motivations, and the project also explores visitors’ interpretive strategies in detail. It is worth reading. Click here for a link to the article, “Making Meaning in Art Museums 1: Visitors’ Interpretive Strategies at Wolverhampton Art Gallery”. In the article, visitors reported visiting the museum for education and entertainment, but also for reasons beyond that.

In addition to education/enculturation and entertainment the visitors’ self reported motivations related to place, and practical reasons as well. Allow me to elaborate.

Education/Enculturation

It may be too simple to write, but I’ll do so anyway. People go to museums to learn! To learn about history, philosophy, religion, art practices, fun facts, psychology, anthropology, and so on. It can also be an excellent source to know more about the place (see section on place) surrounding the museum and the culture of the specific community.

Entertainment

Museums are incredibly entertaining and there are vast amounts of visual stimulation. Visitors have the opportunity to interact with an array of sculptures, paintings, installations, videos, photographs, curatorial materials, etc. It is interesting, entertaining, thrilling, challenging, and fun to visit museums.

Place

Museums are inescapably related to place. The physical site of a museum (and yes, even virtual museums are linked to place) influences the museum, so its contents are unique to that place. In this context museums serve as a strategy for visitors to know the physical surroundings in another way. For example, many tourists enjoy visiting museums in order to learn more about the community, city, or country they visit.

Practical Reasons

Some of the visitors attend museums for a fixed purpose, such as viewing a handful of art to write an art history paper, or looking at a specific collection of historical photographs for a journalism discussion. Broader practical reasons may include studying a certain aesthetic, an identity based search, and searching art that challenges preconceptions. Also, a participatory experience is sought to build or connect to the community (such as interactions with museum professionals, docents, artist lectures, other visitors).

All in all, museum visitors’ motivations are clearly diverse and extend far beyond entertainment and education alone. As museum institutions cultivate social relevance and strive to reach broader audiences, it seems this achievement will be done by offering content that continues to meet diverse visitors’ expectations, while sustaining their motivations for visiting in the first place.

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