Falk and Dierking’s The Museum Experience Continues to Inspire

John Falk and Lynn Dierking’s The Museum Experience is one of the most important books in the museum canon.

After reading part of the book in graduate school, I finally got around to reading all of it.  The authors published The Museum Experience Revisited in 2012 but the original remains valuable (and available, now through Routledge).

At the beginning of the book, Falk and Dierking note that most people spend their leisure time at home, an idea recently highlighted in a blog post by Colleen Dilenschneider.  The fact that someone as respected as Dilenschneider feels the need to address this idea 25 years after Falk and Dierking shows that museums are still struggling to understand that we exist in a larger leisure-time ecosystem.  We need to give people a compelling reason to come to our museums, but we also need to understand how our visitors operate so they will have a fulfilling visit when they show up.  That is the goal of The Museum Experience.

Below are what I thought were the book’s main insights into visitors and how we as museum professionals can use this information to create better visits for guests.

The Interactive Experience Model / Contextual Model of Learning
This book introduced the Interactive Experience Model, later renamed the Contextual Model of Learning.  This model states that a museum visit takes place within three contexts:  the personal, social, and physical.  Museums should be aware of these contexts because they can influence visitors through them.

Influencing visitors through personal agendas and advance organizers
The visitor’s personal context is made up of their preconceptions and expectations for the visit.  This context is often influenced by previous experiences and existing knowledge.  This personal context creates an agenda for the visit.

It is important for museum professionals to understand the expectations that create the agendas.  If expectations are understood then agendas can be influenced.

One way to do this is through advance organizers, which provide visitors with conceptual information to help structure their learning or their visit.

The authors share an amazing example of how understanding the expectations of school visitors, and their desires to see and do certain things during a zoo visit, enhanced their learning.  By addressing the students’ desires before and during the visit the students were able to retain more information.

I don’t think this applies only to school groups.  We can create advance organizers for many types of visitors.

An example is the “social story” created for people on the autism spectrum.  People on the autism spectrum are often more comfortable in social settings when they know in advance what they will encounter.  A social story is a document that shows where the person will go and what they will do.  These social stories are not just beneficial to people on the autism spectrum.  They can be helpful to young children nervous about entering new environments or outsiders who don’t want to appear as outsiders during an unfamiliar experience.

Behavior settings and modeling
Falk and Dierking share the idea that physical and social settings are not just backdrops for an experience.  These settings influence the behavior people exhibit—they are behavior settings.  Certain behavior is acceptable in a library.  Different behavior is acceptable in a movie theaters, churches, or shopping malls.

Visitors model the behavior of others within their own social groups and visitors outside their group during museum visits (especially if the experience is new or unfamiliar).

Modeling can be used to help visitors understand what type of behavior is accepted within the museum.  The authors use the example of a solitary hands-on exhibit in a museum where touching was not permitted at almost all the other exhibits.  Because of the predominance of the no-touch exhibits in the physical context, visitors did not realize that touching the hands-on exhibit was acceptable.  They assumed what they had encountered was just another hands-off exhibit.  When visitors observed others touching this exhibit they realized that it was acceptable for them to touch it as well.

I think it would be preferable if we designed experiences that visitors could naturally understand, without having to observe others in order to know how to behave or what to do.  When we design experiences we should observe visitors to see if they are struggling so we know what we need to fix.  If we can’t design an experience a certain way or need to fix it cheaply modeling is an important tool we can use.

What kind of behavior is acceptable in your museum?  Is this the type of behavior you want?  Understanding that the setting and environment determines people’s behavior within your museum is an important piece of knowledge if you want to change the behavior of visitors.

Helping visitors organize information
Objects are more successful than words in transmitting ideas in museums.  I would never say the fewer words the better, but certainly there are exhibitions which rely on text too heavily.  We need to find the right balance of text in our museums.  That balance should be weighted toward objects but the objects need to be supported by concise and effective interpretive text.

Falk and Dierking note that one of the reasons experienced visitors are more successful than inexperienced visitors in museums is that those with experience know how to “chunk” the information they encounter.  Inexperienced visitors are overwhelmed because they see all the objects as separate pieces while experienced visitors are able to group the objects into “chunks.”  We can help move novices to experts by organizing our displays to help them chunk the information we’re sharing.

Visitor goals
If we understand the visitor experience in the three contexts of the Contextual Model of Learning, shouldn’t we create goals for visitors based on what we know about how visitors operate in these contexts?  Falk and Dierking encourage us to do just that.  They encourage us to acknowledge the goals visitors have when they visit so that the goals we create for visitors can be more closely aligned with the goals visitors bring with them.  We will be better able to connect with visitors if our goals are aligned with their goals.

Bridging the gap
As museums, we create our exhibitions and experiences with ideas about what we want visitors to know—our big idea and messages.  But what do visitors already know about these subjects before they come to the program or enter the exhibition?  We should understand what visitors know and help them to bridge the gap of what we want them to know.

Museum learning
Finally, I believe that everyone who works in museums should read the chapter titled Museum Learning Defined.  It continues to serve as a good overview to understand the definition of learning, how people learn differently, and how the museum environment can help visitors learn.  Museum educators are the expert in understanding these issues but all museum professionals, from curators to visitor services staff, should have an understanding of these concepts.  This chapter is a good place to start.