Meryl Streep and Empathy in Museums


I often think about museums when encountering popular culture or thinking about current events.  I couldn’t help but think about museums while watching this year’s Golden Globes award ceremony.

This year the Hollywood Foreign Press Association presented Meryl Streep with the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement.

In her acceptance speech, Streep made some points that museums should take note of.  If you haven’t seen the speech in its entirety, please take the time to watch it.


So how does this speech connect to museums?

There’s been some good discussion in our field about making museums empathetic and places where visitors can become more empathetic.  If you haven’t seen it already, check out The Empathetic Museum and Mike Murawski’s thoughts about the need and urgency of empathy in museums.

Streep used her speech to teach everyone that an actor’s profession is one of empathy.

“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different than us and let you (the audience) feel what that feels like,” she said.  That’s empathy.

I like the concise definition of empathy on Google:  “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

An actor, according to Streep, uses empathy in order to play the role of another human being—to understand.  Then, the actor shares those feelings with the audience, allowing the audience to understand the other.

At museums, like the movies, we encounter the lives of others, whether they are people who lived in the past or those who created or are the subject of artwork.  Museums help us be empathetic with the natural world.  Museums help us understand our relationship to others and our place within the universe.  Those of us who work in museums have an opportunity to help our visitors and guests understand the other.

Streep went on to say to her peers:  “We have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”

Let us in museums not take the privilege of act of empathy for granted.  Let’s use empathy within our staffs, which is a prerequisite for sharing it with our visitors.

Let’s use empathy to understand our content and collections so that we can help our visitors be empathetic as well.

Let us not forget for a second the responsibility of the act of empathy in museums.  It is our responsibility to practice and share empathy to fulfill our role of creating a more empathetic society in our communities.

What can museums learn from theater, film, and actors about creating empathy in others?  How can the practices within these fields to create empathy be adopted in museums?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.


The role of demographics in visitor surveys

In my last post, I shared information about how to create a survey based on Dr. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Such a survey can help your museum better understand what is motivating your users to visit your museum.

The identity/motivation of visitors was not the only information I gathered.  I also collected demographic information and information about other important aspects of visitors and their experience, such as length of stay and group size.

Collecting demographic information
In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience Dr. Falk strongly discourages museums to market and serve visitors based on demographics.  Falk writes:

“Knowing a museum-goer’s age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, and occupation does not now, nor will it ever tell anyone why someone does or does not visit a specific museum…museum-going is far too complex to be understood only on the basis of easily measured variables such as demographics.”

I agree that demographics are the not primary type of information to gather and use when understanding and serving visitors.  However, there are still some benefits to collecting demographics.

Age is important to know because if too many visitors are in a certain age bracket the museum has some work to do to attract visitors of other ages.

There should be some balance in the gender of visitors.  If there is too much imbalance the museum may want to explore ways of correcting that.

The same idea applies to ethnic / racial heritage.  Museums have an obligation to serve everyone in the community.  If visitors of certain ethnic / racial heritages are not coming to the museum then there is a problem.

Image result for census

Arnold Lehman, the now retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, has said “the most important book any museum director should read is the U.S. Census.”

The Census is only one of many governmental resources for demographic information.  Many local governments collect and sort Census data in a way that is beneficial to museums.  In a study I compared the results of the participating visitors with demographic information from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.  The Partnership gathered demographic information for eight central Iowa counties, including the county where the study museum was located.  Thankfully, the study sample closely mirrored the racial and ethnic heritage makeup of central Iowa.  Keeping tabs on the demographics is an important measurement of the museum’s mission to serve the public.

Here are a couple of important tips to keep in mind when collecting demographic information:

First, make sure visitors participating in the survey understand that providing this information is voluntary.  Some people may be wary of providing strangers with their racial /ethnic heritage, age, gender identification, or other demographic information.  You can make study participants more comfortable in providing this information by asking for it at the end of the survey and by allowing visitors to provide the information privately.

Second, descriptions of racial / ethnic heritage and gender identity are constantly changing.  Do a little research to see the classifications that others are using.  Facebook now allows users to choose from one of 71 different gender options.  You’ll have to decide what types of classifications you’ll want to use.  If you plan on comparing study participants with another set of data, such as the U.S. Census, you may have to use the same classifications as the other data set.  The good news is that agencies collecting demographic information are now constantly revising their classifications in response to the public.

Collecting other types of visitor information
While you’re collecting data about visitor motivations, why not collect some other data about them?  It will only give you more insight into your visitors.

For a study I conducted, I asked visitors to tell me how many people were in their group.  I did this because museum-going is a social experience.  If we consider the visitor alone we miss out on understanding the visitor’s social context of the visit.

In my study, I wanted to know how many people over and under the age of 18 were in each visitor’s group.  Knowing the average group size can help you design exhibits and other services that can accommodate visitor groups.

I also tracked the time visitors spent at the museum.  When people find that the expectations associated with their motivation for visiting are fulfilled they will be more likely to stay longer at the museum.  If expectations are not met, they will cut the visit short.

There are other types of visit information you can collect that will add insight into visitors, such as if it is their first visit, if they are a member, etc.

Concluding thought
I believe it is important for all museums to periodically measure and understand the motivations and demographics of their visitors.  Museums are not able to properly serve visitors unless they know what motivates guests to visit and if the expectations associated with visits have been met.

As institutions that serve the public, museums have an obligation to know if their visitors reflect the community.

Collecting other information about the visit can give you greater insight to how your visitors are using your museum, which can help you make the adjustments needed to provide more fulfilling visits for your users.

I’m passionate about surveying and understanding visitors because it makes for a stronger museum.

Creating a survey based on Falk’s visitor identities

Understanding visitors or users is paramount in today’s museum work.  Understanding our visitors helps museum professionals be more effective.  The educating, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting we do is enhanced by deeper understanding of the people who come to visit us.

One of the most exciting pieces of research I came across in graduate school was Dr. John H. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Dr. Falk outlined the five common visitor motivations he discovered in his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, published in 2009.  This is an essential book for any museum professional working in the 21st century to read.

According to Falk, most visitors have one of five motivations for visiting a museum:

  • Experience Seekers are similar to tourists. This type of visitor wants to see the building and grounds and the most important parts of the collection or experience.
  • Explorers describe themselves as curious and enjoy learning. They have a general interest in the subject matter of the museum and come to learn more.
  • Facilitators come in two subgroups. Facilitating Parents come to have a shared experience with a child.  I advocate for this group to be called Facilitating Caregivers since this type of visitor could be a grandparent, aunt/uncle, older sibling, mentor, etc.  Facilitating Socializers come with another adult – a spouse or friend – because they think their companion will enjoy the museum’s experience.
  • Professionals / Hobbyists have a specific goal in mind for their visit. An example would be a visitor who has photography as a hobby and wants to come to take photos of plants, gardens, or sculpture.  Another example would be a visitor who has a deep interest in impressionism and comes to see your museum’s collection of impressionist paintings.
  • Rechargers seek what Falk calls a “restorative experience.” They use the museum as a setting for a mental and physical break that they use to recharge their batteries.

Visitor identities have important implications for museums.  Understanding visitors in this way means that museums will need to create experiences and services that cater to the needs, expectations, and preferences of each visitor type in order to successfully serve visitors.

In my first position out of graduate school I was responsible for creating the organization’s “guest experience.”  One of the first things that I wanted to do was conduct a study to help the staff better understand visitors, including their identity.

I knew that Dr. Falk’s research had been funded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and that the tool he used in his study was available on the organization’s website.  I figured I could use this tool myself.

Dr. Falk’s original tool was 20 statements that the visitor had to read through.  Each statement was a possible reason the visitor had decided to visit the museum that day.  The visitor was asked to choose five statements that most closely matched the reason for their visit.  Next, the visitor was asked to select on a scale of 1 to 7 how important each of the five statements was to that day’s visit.

The person administering the survey would then take the information the visitor had provided and input it into a spreadsheet, also available on the AZA website.  The spreadsheet would then indicate the visitor’s identity.

I was no more than 10 surveys in when I realized I had a problem.  Each time I would enter the information in the spreadsheet it would tell me the visitor had a non-dominant identity.  In other words, the visitor did not seem to fit into one of Falk’s visitor types.

The problem was with how the data was collected.  When doing any type of visitor survey it should not be too difficult for the visitor to provide you with information.  In these initial surveys, visitors seemed to be struggling with the three tasks of reading through all the statements, selecting five that applied to them, and then ranking those five statements on a 1 to 7 Likert scale.  I knew I needed to simplify the survey.

The tool I created also had a list of statements about why the visitor had decided to come to the museum that day.  There were two statements for each type of visitor identity.  For example, two of these simple statements were “I’m here because this is a good place for a child to learn about plants / nature / gardening” (Facilitating Caregiver, this survey was done at a botanical garden) and “I was looking for something to do and someone recommended I come here” (Experience Seeker).  The visitor was asked to select one of the statements that applied to their visit.

I was pleasantly surprised that the new tool worked effectively!  Suddenly, it was easier for visitors to fill out the survey tool and for me to gather the information I was looking to capture.

Visitors were asked to complete this part of the survey when they entered the museum.  Before they left I conducted a short interview with them to ask about their experience.  The first question I asked was why they had decided to visit that day.  I asked this question because I wanted to ensure that the statement they had checked on the survey tool was accurate.  I found that the answers to my verbal question supported the information visitors gave me in the survey tool.  This validation supports what Falk has said about museum visitor identity—that the identity of the visitor will influence their motivation for visiting, what they will see and do during the visit, and what they will remember about the visit after they leave.

I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Gardens Association’s Education Symposium earlier this year.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Falk.  I asked him about what tool he uses to gather visitor identity from visitors.  He said that he has five cards with pictures of visitors.  There is a word bubble, kind of like what you would see in comics.  In each bubble is a simple statement that reflects one of the five visitor identities.  He asks the visitor to hand him the card that represents why he or she is visiting the museum that day.  I felt a bit of pride as I heard him say this.  I had simplified Falk’s tool in the same way he had!

In my next post, I’ll share more information about designing this visitor study, including the other types of information I gathered.

A Review of Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making

Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke
Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke

At my museum, we are beginning the process to create our first interpretive master plan.  I’ll blog about our experience creating our plan as we move along, in the hope that it helps other museums create their own interpretive master plans.

In order to prepare to create our plan, my professional reading is focused on interpretation.  I just finished Interpretive Planning for Museums: Integrating Visitor Perspectives in Decision Making, by Marcella Wells, Barbara Butler, and Judith Koke (2013).

There does not seem to be many books available to assist museums in developing interpretive plans.  I was drawn to the title of this book because I believe that visitors are at the center of museum work.  If that is true, then we must ensure that visitor perspectives are included in all of our planning efforts, including interpretive plans.  After all, the people who benefit the greatest from interpretation are visitors.

I found this book to be a helpful as well as an enjoyable read.  The book is well organized, with chapters devoted to:

  • The conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation;
  • An overview of interpretive planning;
  • Information about the authors’ Outcomes Hierarchy; and
  • Chapters about interpretive master planning and project planning.

The chapter about the conceptual frameworks of museums, visitors and interpretation is helpful because it reminds the reader about the basis on which interpretation is built.  Before beginning any interpretive planning, we must first understand:

  • How museums operate as learning institutions;
  • How different types of visitors learn;
  • The expectation that museums will provide benefit to visitors and communities; and
  • The principles of interpretation.

The authors provide a good overview in this chapter, with plenty of references to research and resources for those who are willing to further explore these critical areas of influence on museum operation.

Stephen Weil (2003) once wrote “As profits are to a business, so outcomes are to a museum.”  The expectation that museums produce outcomes, or benefits for their visitors and communities, continues to grow.  With this in mind, the authors have created the Outcomes Hierarchy, a helpful tool to help ensure that museum interpretation creates and is guided by outcomes.

There are four tiers to the Outcomes Hierarchy pyramid.  The base, or first tier, is audience data and information.  The second tier is outputs (people, programs, products).

The third tier is outcomes, how visitors are changed as a result of their experience at the museum (Wells, Butler, and Koke, 2013, p. 55).  Outcomes are divided into immediate, short-term and long-term.  The authors further divide outcomes into domains: intellectual, emotional, social, and psychomotor (which relates to behaviors or the senses).

The fourth, or highest tier on the pyramid, is impacts.  The authors describe impacts as the “collective results or effects” (p. 59) of museum experiences.  Impacts are long-term influences on individuals, social groups, communities, economies, and the environment.

In the chapters about master plans and project plans, the authors do not provide prescriptions for creating these plans.  Instead, they offer a general framework and guidance for what these plans include and how to put them together.  The authors note that each master plan and project plan will vary, based on the variables of the museum and the project.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is useful because it helps build visitor perspectives into both types of plans.

The planning chapters include real-life examples from museums and botanical gardens.  Personally, it was nice to see examples from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens included throughout the book.  While the examples come from certain types of museums, the principles the authors explain apply to all museum types.

I would encourage anyone considering undertaking interpretive planning to begin by reading this book.  The overview it provides is a good foundation to begin.

The Outcomes Hierarchy is a strong contribution to the overall museum field and the field of interpretive planning.  It reminds us of the purpose of museum work:  to make a difference in our visitors and communities.  By using the Outcomes Hierarchy, museums can articulate the difference they are trying to make, document how these intentions will influence their interpretive plans, and measure if their intentions and interpretation are indeed making those differences.

Weil, S.E. (2003, November / December). Beyond big and awesome: Outcome-based evaluation. Museum News, 40-53.

Wells, M., Butler, B., & Koke, J. (2013). Interpretive planning for museums: Integrating visitor perspectives in decision making. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Thoughts on beginning a museum career, the visitor experience, and positive word-of-mouth marketing

This week, after years of thinking about making a career move into museums, and two years of intense graduate study, I begin my museum career.  I couldn’t be more excited!

This is an exceptional time to begin working in museums.  Our field has recognized that in the 21st century it is the visitor that is at the center of museum activity.  However, in many ways museums are still adapting to this shift.

Understanding visitors and meeting their needs is not easy.  It’s also work that never ends.  As the demographics of our society changes, as new communication methods are created, and as we continue to refine our own practice of serving visitors, we must continually change and adapt.

My museum career begins as a Guest Experience Manager.  I’ve noticed that many museums are starting to create roles around the guest or visitor experience, and I think this is an important development.  If our field is serious about serving visitors then we need someone in each of our institutions who is responsible for managing and refining the visitor experience.

All museum professionals and staff—guards, curators, educators, directors, human resources managers—should have the visitor experience top of mind.  However, putting someone in charge of the visitor experience helps the museum coordinate its efforts and resources to create a seamless experience.


Positive experiences at the museum promote return visits; the cultivation of visitors into members and possibly donors; and encourage positive word-of-mouth marketing.  Thanks to the internet, we live in a world in which we can all be reviewers and have the ability to see what other people think of their experience before we try it out ourselves.

Gone are the days when we rely on this information only from family or friends.  Before I travel for leisure, I always check websites where people review hotels, restaurants, and places to visit.  I don’t know any of the people whose reviews I read and yet I trust their opinion and make choices based off what they’ve said.

We place much trust in those who do not have a stake in the marketing of a service or product because we perceive that the person giving us their opinion is unbiased.

This is ultimately why a visitor or guest experience manager is so important.  When people have good experiences at our museums, they will become our advocates and tell others.  It helps us advance our mission by giving us the potential to reach more people.

What people are saying about your museum to others is one of the most important indicators of whether or not your museum is successful.  A visitor or guest experience manager can focus on creating outstanding experiences and maintaining a high level of visitor satisfaction.  This work is bound to have a positive impact on the museum.

What are people saying about the experience at your museum?

Image credit: 212 Media Studios

Removing barriers: The work of the 21st century museum

Over the past 20 years, the discussion about the purpose and mission of museums has focused on visitors over and above collections.

As Stephen Weil (1999/2002) so eloquently wrote in From Being About Something to Being For Somebody, museums now have a public-service orientation.  Collections are now no longer “the museum’s raison d’etre but merely one of its resources” (p. 29).

As the sector adjusts to this shift, many are exploring how to best serve the public.  For many museums, this means removing barriers.

What are barriers?
Edward Steinfeld and Jordana Maisel (2012), experts in the area of universal design, note that much of life is about removing barriers.  We exist and interact within environments (p. 1).  Through our interactions with our environments and with others, we encounter barriers that are both experiential and intellectual (p. 3).

When unnecessary barriers are removed, people are better able to develop personally and participate socially (p. 14).


Barriers can take many forms:

  • Physical barriers can prevent people with disabilities from accessing areas, preventing them from fully participating.
  • Inclusive barriers can prevent people of a certain sex, sexual orientation, race, nationality, or cultural background from participating.
  • Economic barriers may prevent people of limited means from full access.

Barriers in the museum
It’s important to remember that barriers can exist within museums, the public, and the culture and society.

For example, physical barriers might exist in museums that are complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act but not going above and beyond what the law requires.

It’s been noted by many (including Levin, 2006) that white culture dominates many museums.  This is a type of inclusive barrier that might prevent people from other cultures from participating with the museum.

People who work low-wage jobs face an economic barrier that may prevent them from visiting a museum.

Removing barriers in the museum
Museums have a tremendous opportunity to provide better public service if barriers are removed.  Museums can have the greatest impact by removing barriers within their walls.

The first step is recognizing that barriers exist and then looking for them.  Often, museums have blind spots that prevent barriers from being seen.  Visitor experience evaluations and partnering with visitors (people with disabilities, minority ethnic groups, etc.) are two ways that museums can gather information about where barriers exist and learn how to remove them.

Thankfully, barriers seem to be gaining more attention in museum discussions.  Emily Dawson is in the midst of publishing an informative series of essays about inclusion over at The Incluseum.  Suse Cairns and the Museum Computer Network planning committee have announced that Invisible Architectures will be the theme of the 2015 conference.  Exploring how architectures and systems within the museum impact visitors and their experience, which MCN 2015 will explore, is another way of investigating the issue of barriers.

The three types of barriers I’ve mentioned here are only a few of many that could potentially exist in a museum.  Others might include barriers related to learning styles or the public’s motivation for visiting the museum.

What other types of barriers do you see at your museum?  How are you removing these barriers?

Levin, A. (2006). Why local museums matter. In A. Levin (Ed.), Defining history: Local museums and the construction of history in America’s changing communities (pp. 9-25). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Steinfeld, E. & Maisel, J. (2012). Universal design: Creating inclusive environments. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Weil, S. (1999/2002). From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American museum. In S. Weil (Ed.), Making museums matter (pp. 28-52). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Photo credit:  Electropod