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'Categorising visitors'?

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 31 Aug 2009

I have been asked how (and why) researchers categorise visitors. Well, here's some of the ways they do that (and a little speculation as to why they do that)!

Here's some ways visitors have been categorised as reported in George Hein's 1998 book Learning in the Museum (London: Routledge):

Higgins (1884)

  • Students
  • Observers
  • Loungers
  • Emigrants

Wolf & Tymitz (1978)

  • The commuter – use the hall to get from one entry point to the exit
  • The nomad – casual visitor
  • The cafeteria type – interested visitor who treats museum like a cafeteria as they search for objects or exhibitions of interest
  • The VIP – very interested person

Falk (1982)

  • Serious shoppers – come with a clear predetermined notion of what want to see
  • Window shoppers – come 'to do' the museum
  • Impulse shoppers – discover one or more exhibits that are interesting and become more engaged than first planned

Bicknell & Mann (1993)

  • 'buffs' – experts who know intimate details of objects and exhibits
  • 'it’s for the children' – families that are explicitly or implicitly a 'learning unit'
  • 'I’m museuming' – usually couples, often tourist, often older. Culture vultures who know the international museum 'code'
  • School visits

Veron & Lavasseur (1989)

  • Ants – move methodically from object to object
  • Butterflies – move back & forth, alight on some displays
  • Grasshoppers – chose specific objects and hop from one to the other
  • Fish – glide in and out of exhibitions with few stops

I always remember George MacDonald (formerly of the CMA and Museum Victoria) who called visitors 'streakers, strollers and students' which I quite like as it explains different visiting patterns really well I think.

John Falk, in his 2006 Curator article An Identity-Centred Approach to Understanding Museum Learning (pp151-166), classified visitors as:

Explorer:

Visit because of curiosity and/or general interest in discovering more about content area of institution

Described themselves as curious people

Facilitator:

Satisfying needs and desires of someone they cared about (other than themselves)

Professional/hobbyist:

Strong knowledge and interest in content areas

Specific agendas for visit

Experience seeker:

Collect an experience to say they’ve 'been there done that'

Spiritual pilgrim:

Visit to reflect, rejuvenate, just ‘bask in the wonder of the place’

In my own thesis The Interrelationships Between Adult Museum Visitors' Learning Identities and their Museum Experiences, I found that there were three roles played by visitors during a visit: the 'visit manager' by directing and organising; the 'museum expert' in explaining, clarifying and correcting; and the 'learning-facilitator' through questioning, linking, reminiscing and wondering. These roles were interchangeable, occurred simultaneously and were dependent on both the social context of the visit and the group composition, particularly the ages of any accompanying children.

So, my view is that we like categorising visitors because it makes our lives easier and also that is the nature of museum work - to classify and explain. However, we need to remember that these are only an indication of the nature of visitors and that human nature is ever-changing and ever-fluid (and often inexplicable).

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