Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Challenging Visitors

In this post, UNREST doctoral researcher Eleanor Rowley discusses the role of museum visitor research in the UNREST project.

Museums dealing with the heritage of conflict are important shapers and communicators of cultural memory and, -- profiting from both the museum boom and the memory boom -- they enjoy unprecedented popularity. A key focus of the UNREST project is therefore an analysis of the memory messages transmitted by war museums. But the communication of these messages is a process that extends beyond transmission to include reception and interpretation by the audience. Recognizing that the museum is an ‘open work’ completed by its visitors, the UNREST project is also conducting visitor research, a process which throws up its own set of challenges.

Young visitors examine a display the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley

Studying visitors is not a new practice; early examples in the US and the UK demonstrate that museum professionals have sought to generate data on visitor behaviour since at least the nineteenth century. However, studies did not become widespread until the late twentieth century when accountability measures set by funders began to require the evaluation of exhibitions, including data on visitors.

Following models innovated in the education sector (also under scrutiny for cost efficiency), external evaluators sought to measure behavioural variables in order to assess educational impact. Trends in visitation were also tracked and some museums launched in-house studies, establishing a feedback loop through which visitor data was incorporated into the development of exhibitions. More recently, public policy promoting inclusivity and accessibility has also stimulated visitor studies with museums collecting data to inform their audience development programmes.

In this climate, visitor studies as a field of both professional practice and academic study has exploded. However, the adoption of up-to-date methods is uneven. Two concerns strike me as problematic as we attempt to understand visitor experience and perceptions at museums dealing with violent pasts.

Young visitors watch a video display at Imperial War Museum North
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley

Firstly, the uneven development of visitor studies in our five museums across Europe means that some museums can tell us more about their visitors than others. This is symptomatic of the field more generally, where many factors can promote or inhibit visitor research. National or local policy contexts, funding sources, accountability requirements and budgeting concerns can all play a part in how many or few resources are invested in studying visitors.

The cultural and educational climate of the museum profession is also significant, with visitor research better established as a legitimate concern in some contexts than others. In the literature it has even been reported that senior figures in some institutions perceive the growth of visitor studies as an unwelcome, populist encroachment on decision making in museums.

Secondly, epistemological and methodological developments in visitor studies over recent decades have led to interesting hypotheses about visitor motivation and experience that could indicate a need for museums of difficult history to do more to challenge their visitors.

Until the 1990s, most visitor studies focused on the educational value of museum visiting and followed a positivist, behavioural paradigm. That is, evaluators sought to observe the visitor’s behaviour and measure the knowledge accumulated during a visit. This approach to visitor studies has been successfully challenged and supplemented (though not replaced) by a more interpretive, constructivist orientation. The latter approach emphasises the context of museum visiting as well as the visitor’s ability to interpret exhibits and construct meaning for herself through the course of a visit.

Visitors looking at a display at the Thiepval Museum
Image (c) Eleanor Rowley

One important finding arising from this way of investigating museum visitation is that people are highly selective, both about the museums they choose to visit and the exhibitions and objects they pay attention to. As a free choice leisure activity in a climate where people often consider themselves ‘time poor’, visiting a museum can become a way of affirming a sense of self (for example as somebody who appreciates or is interested in a particular subject, or as somebody who values lifelong learning or cultural, scientific or historical understanding). Researchers have noted that visitors not only make choices on which museums to visit based on prior interest, enthusiasm and knowledge, but these factors can also play a large part in directing their attention and the assimilation of new information encountered in museum settings.

This confirmation bias raises an important question for museums of all kinds about how to attract, interest and inform visitors with regard to novel and challenging topics and interpretations, but it is particularly pertinent for museums that seek to unsettle comfortable memories. Given the sophistication of today’s audiences, are museums of difficult history in fact too easy on their visitors? Do they (or are they able to) invest enough in studying their visitors to find out?

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