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.

Highlights of the APGA Education Symposium

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Mount Rainier, seen from the plane on my way into Seattle.

Conferences provide many opportunities for professional development, from the chance to meet and network with others in the field to seeing how other museums are operating.  The greatest opportunity is to learn and take that new knowledge home and put it to use.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Garden Association’s Education Symposium.  This conference was extremely well organized and I brought home much that I want to share and implement at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Symposium Organization
The organization of the Symposium was excellent and provided a framework that other conferences should follow.

The Symposium was held in the Seattle, Washington area over three days.  Each day was at a different public garden.  Visiting other gardens and museums is a great way to see what colleagues are actively doing to serve and engage their public.  It was great that the Symposium provided the opportunity for us to visit three separate gardens during our visit.

Organizers also took advantage of the proximity of the University of Washington.  Universities, of course, have researchers working in a variety of fields that can enhance museums.  The Symposium featured U of W professors from museum studies, neuroscience and environmental psychology backgrounds.

Evaluation / Washington Park Arboretum
Day one was held at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.  Dr. Jessica Luke, chair of the university’s museum studies department, gave a talk about the importance of doing evaluation.  Luke made three important points:

  1. Evaluation starts with strategic thinking: She encouraged us to think about outcomes in our evaluation.  What is the change that comes about as a result of our guests participating in the activities we’re evaluating?
  2. Evaluation doesn’t have to be big or expensive: Luke asked the audience what the major barriers are to doing evaluation.  Of course, the top two answers were time and money.  I appreciated her bluntness in asking us to get past these barriers and make evaluation part of our jobs.  Evaluation is something you can do yourself and with your team and something you can keep simple.  Just do it!
  3. Evaluation requires you to translate your results into practice: As Luke said, “Evaluation is about use. If you don’t have a use for your data, don’t collect it.”  Another way to put it is be prepared to act on what your data tells you.

Following this presentation we had a tour of the Washington Park Arboretum, including the park’s Fiddleheads Nature School, a nature preschool.  I encourage you to check out the school’s website to learn more about this program, which will hopefully not be so unique in the future.

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Me with Dr. John Falk

Meeting Dr. Falk
For the second day, we were at the beautiful Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Dr. John H. Falk is a name that many of you are probably familiar with.  His research has had a profound influence on my museum practice and our field as a whole.  One of the first things I wanted to do when I began my career at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was conduct a study based on John’s Visitor Motivation Theory.  I did and I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.  The opportunity to meet John, pick his brain, and gather ideas from him was one of the highlights of this trip.

Every once in a while, someone says something that you know is going to stick with you forever.  There was one of those moments during John’s presentation:  “Many people are coming for people things,” he said.  I’ll be repeating that quote to my colleagues for a long time as a reminder that we need to keep people things top of mind in our work.

So often we think about our content first.  But our guests are thinking about people things first:  spending time with family or friends, looking to get away from life for a little bit and relax, making memories, etc.  We need to consider these people things first and our content and collections second.  When we do that, we’ll create better experiences for our guests.

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Dr. Falk giving his keynote address and talking about visitor motivations.

Next, Susanna Cunningham and Jenny Williamson, two University of Washington faculty members, taught us how our brains work and what happens when this plastic organ learns.  Here were the points I found most valuable:

  • The regular attention span of the brain is 20 minutes, and may be getting shorter in our digital world. We need to provide varied experiences for our guests so we can continue to hold their attention.
  • People learn more when they believe they have a “growth mindset.” There’s an increasing amount of literature about this, which I encourage you to explore.  At our gardens and museums we can play a role in helping people believe they have a growth mindset.  Failure—and learning from it—is an important part of the process.  So is mindfulness.  There are things we can do to help our guests be more aware of their mindfulness, such as providing space in serenity gardens.
  • Cunningham and Williamson shared the Pyramid of Learning and encouraged us to think about how it applies to the programs and experiences we create for guests. Google the Pyramid if you’re not familiar with it.  Most learning takes place on the bottom of the Pyramid, which is active learning—discussion (50%), practice doing (75%), and teaching others (90%).

Lynn Manzo and Kathleen Wolf, environmental psychologists, presented next.  Manzo talked about placemaking and place attachment, two related ideas extremely important for museums and gardens.  (She’s co-edited a book about this, which went on my reading list.)  Our environments are special places and through place attachment we can help people create emotional bonds.  Manzo said that we need to love what we save.  This reminded me of Freeman Tilden’s principles of interpretation and his idea that through understanding comes conservation.  Love is a very deep type of understanding.  Place attachment was new to me, but an area that I am going to become more familiar with, since it has important implications for how people interact with the physical space of gardens and museums.

Interest-based Marketing
Gabe Kosowitz, the acting head of brand marketing with the Smithsonian, presented on this topic.

The goal of interest-based marketing is to reach new audiences by meeting them where their interests are.  Falk has encouraged museums to pay more attention to the interests of visitors, including in marketing.

Kosowitz encouraged us not to only market to what he called our “gold viewers” (he comes from the world of television).  He says that gold viewers are super fans—they are already engaged.  Instead, focus on new audiences through three steps:

  1. Identify what those motivations might be for people to interact with you. Kosowitz called some of these motivations “sideway entrances.”  I’ll give an example in a second.
  2. Create contact groups.
  3. Find places to reach the audience with the motivation.

Kosowitz provided an example using the dating website Hinge.  Hinge needs places where people who have met online can meet in person.  The motivation in this case is people looking to fall in love, the contact group and the place to reach the audience is the Hinge platform.  If a museum holds a Hinge meet-up event it can become a platform where new audiences and brought into the museum.

Evaluation, Visitor Motivation Theory, the importance of understanding how the brain works in learning, place attachment, interest-based marketing and the incredible Seattle scenery—these were the highlights of my Symposium.  These highlights were inspirational thanks to a well-designed conference that was well worth the trip.  I’ll be putting these ideas into practice over the next few years at the Botanical Garden!