Audience Research: visitor behaviour

What do people do when they visit a museum?

Audience research has a long tradition of studying visitor behaviour relating both to the whole-of-visit as well as specific exhibitions. A large body of literature has been developed from this work.

Hein's research (1998) has shown that visitors use exhibitions in the following ways:

  • visitors spend little time at individual exhibition components
  • visitors seldom read labels
  • visitors usually stop at less than half of the exhibition components
  • they are more likely to use trial and error methods rather than written instructions in working out how to use interactives
  • children are more likely to engage with interactive exhibits than adults
  • attention to exhibits decreases sharply after about half an hour

In her extensive work on visitor time and behaviour in exhibitions, including data from more than one hundred exhibition evaluations, Serrell (1997) concluded that:

  • tracking and timing data suggest that visitors do what they want to do, regardless of the best effort of exhibit planners to force a path
  • visitors skip many elements, visiting on average only a third of them
  • visitors spend much less time in exhibitions than we either think or would like to think - usually less than twenty minutes

Our own research at the Australian Museum has shown that:

  • 'museum-type' displays/techniques, such as objects in showcases and dioramas, are more attractive for visitors
  • where available live displays are the most attractive for visitors
  • three-dimensional visual strategies (specimens, showcases and videos) are more successful in helping visitors recall key information
  • where there is more variety of interpretation, items other than text panels will be stopped at
  • where there is more than one strategy used for one message there is more retention of that message
  • the use of many different examples for a small number of key messages may be most effective for visitors who don't already know about the subject
  • visitors participate in active (doing) more so than passive (viewing) experiences


  • Bitgood, S. & Patterson, D. (1993). The Effects of Gallery Changes on Visitor Reading and Object Viewing Time. Environment and Behaviour, 25(6), 761-781.
  • Hein, G. (1998). Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.
  • Screven, C. (1990). Uses of Evaluation Before, During and After Exhibit Design. ILVS Review, 1(2), 36-6.
  • Serrell, B. (1997). Paying Attention: The Duration and Allocation of Visitors' Time in Museum Exhibitions. Curator, 40(2), 108-125.

Lynda Kelly
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