The Visitor Experience Revolution

Demonstration, Bordeaux

Has it passed you by?

I have been in the interpretation business for a long time. 33 years, in fact (I started when I was two, I swear.) During that time, trends and fashions have come and gone, but in all my years I don’t think I’ve seen anything as fundamental as what I call the visitor experience (VE) revolution. This has been a sea change in the way museums, aquariums, historic sites and other informal education centres do their daily business, and I’m really worried that we interpreters have been left in the dust.

It began fairly innocuously, not too long ago, with some very interesting studies that re-evaluated our institutions as houses of learning. Where in the early days it was simply taken for granted that visitors were there to learn—and do so in traditional ways—schools of thought like Dr. John Falk’s contextual model of museum experience came to the fore and dispelled those myths once and for all.[ref]If you want to get caught up on this research, I really recommend Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, and its recent update The Museum Experience Revisited by John Falk and Lynn Dierking. (The links take you to Amazon, by the way—and no, I don’t get a cut. Hmm, I should look into that… [/ref]

Falk and his colleagues were able to demonstrate something that we had long suspected: a visit to a museum, park, zoo or historic site is not about entering a house of learning and consuming knowledge. Visitors have a whole variety of identity-based reasons for visiting our sites. Each visit takes place within a certain set of contexts—physical, social and individual— and any learning that happens is subordinate to these highly individual motivations.

John Falk categorizes these identities in the following ways: you have your explorers, who are the closest thing to classical learners. Then there are the experiencers, who are there because of the buzz or because of the “been there, done that” feeling that goes with checking something popular off a list. There are rechargers, who don’t want to learn so much as simply be in a contemplative space. There are professional/hobbyists: your dinosaur geeks and serious birders and hard-core art mavens. And there are facilitators, who may actually be explorers or experiencers themselves, but when they bring their children or in-laws their main priority is facilitating someone else’s experience.

Faulk’s personas are not the only identity-based segmentation system in our field. We also have the closely related Explorer Quotient, developed by Environics Analytics, which is another way of understanding how visitors see themselves. The EQ system acknowledges nine types; interestingly, only three are learners when they travel.

The idea behind these studies is simple: when you understand how visitors see themselves vis-à-vis a visit to your site, you can’t help but realize the importance of the entire experience—washrooms, parking, interaction with staff, interactions with fellow visitors et cetera. The interpretive panels are suddenly a little less important, the baby change rooms much more so.

And it’s not just about the amenities; there’s a change of emphasis around our content, too. The facts that we set out in our panels and programs are a little less important in and of themselves; rather, it’s things like the subtle visual and verbal cues in those panels (that have always made people of different ethnic and socio-economic classes feel less welcome) that are suddenly much more important to address.

Along with this new understanding of visitor context came the rise of a constructivist understanding of free-choice learning. Education in our institutions was now seen as one event within a lifelong suite of cognitive experiences, and this new constructivist approach seemed to cast interpretation—that is, interpretation in its narrowest sense—as old-fashioned and naive.

No longer could we assume that a good interpreter, armed with a strong theme, could meet standard outcomes in all the individuals in the audience—something that had always been a pillar of interpretive planning. No longer could it be assumed that an exhibit, even a really good one, could have a simple, predictable impact on the broad spectrum of people who participated in it. No longer was this even relevant or desirable.

Quickly, we adopted the term Visitor Experience to manifest this new level of understanding. Visitor experience is the term we use to describe two different, related things: first, it is the whole of the visitor’s sensory inputs through the entire visitor experience cycle, from the wishing phase, through the traveling and arrival and visiting phases, right through to the remembering phase of the visit.

Secondly, and more importantly, visitor experience is now thought of as an internal cognitive process. It’s what happens inside the visitor, when the individual, social and physical contexts of the visit are synthesized. The internal visitor experience, like the external one, starts before the visit and it continues long after: the cognitive processes sparked by the visit become stitched within the myriad pre-existing constructs—memories of past lessons and learnings and attitudes and values—that already live within the visitor. Visitors build their own experiences; we don’t create them.

Buekorps, Bergen, Norway
So there.

Understanding our visitors’ needs and desires and trying to facilitate their experiences—both internal and external—suddenly and very quickly became more important than creating didactic panels and programs. Soon we started creating departments of Visitor Experience and hiring Directors of Visitor Experience, and we were suddenly left to figure out where our old interpretive planners and front line interpreters fit into the picture.

Now, down the hall in the interpreters’ office, all of this new understanding was seen as fairly interesting. While we could no longer lay claim to determining the visitor experience, we were suddenly armed with a whole new set of insights about what makes our visitors tick. And we were suddenly called upon to capitalize on this new insight by thinking of ourselves not as educators so much as facilitators of learning, facilitators of revelation, facilitators of experience.

It should have been a fairly easy transition to make. It should have cast our profession in a new and exciting light. It should have made interpretation more relevant than ever. We have, in our own way, recognized constructivism in education since 1957: “Anything that does not relate to something within the experience of the visitor will be sterile.” (Look at that: Freeman Tilden was a constructivist!) We have, in our way, recognized Falk’s contextual model of visitor experience, too, since the earliest days of our profession: “Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole (person) rather than any phase.” It should have injected a tremendous renewal of energy and interest in interpretation. It did the opposite.

We have been relegated to the sidelines by the visitor experience revolution. Why?

Next: Out With The Old

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