orientation in a museum- an experimental visitor study

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National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution - experimentation on visitor's orientationaCurator 20/2 1977


  • 20/2 1977

    Orientation in a Museum- An Experimental

    Visitor Study MARILYN S. COHEN







    If visitors have trouble finding their way around museums and do not have the information they need to choose what to see, how can we expect them to use museum facilities in the best and most helpful way? Orientation to a museums environment is essential for a suc- cessful visit. Good orientation facilitates learning, appreciation, and exposure. Without a useful scheme for viewing exhibit halls, frustra- tion, boredom, fatigue, and missed opportunities will result (Cohen, 1974). But how do we know what orientation systems will work? Until recently there have been few guidelines to help in designing an efficient and integrated system of orientation.

    We conducted a study designed to assess the effectiveness of differ- ent orientation aids and to develop an experimental procedure that would allow a comparison of how useful the aids were in assisting museum visitors. In looking at the problem of orientation within buildings, we saw the importance of linking information about the location of exhibits, other facilities, the visitors themselves, and so forth, to salient cues provided by the architecture (Ittleson, et al., 1974; Winkel and Sasanoff, 1966).



    The research described in this article was conducted at the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution. Previous research in this setting (Cohen, 1973), along with anecdotal evidence provided by the museum staff, pointed to the existence of extensive orientation problems in the building. We were convinced that to understand the problems visitors were having, we had t o in- tervene in their actual visits to the museum; thus, we started a demon- stration project to compare some commonly used devices-maps, signs, directories, and information people. Our experimental pro- cedure focused on measuring various indexes of disorientation and how much selected aids could alter the indexes. Our objective was to discover which orientation devices, or systems of devices, were most helpful to visitors and what information was being communicated by each particular device.


    Our conceptual framework treated orientation as multidimensional. Various test instruments, written and oral questionnaires, on-site ob- servations, and sorting tasks were used to develop the data base. Ran- dom sampling techniques ensured objectivity in selecting experi- mental subjects. The results of the statistical analysis are summarized here. The method, instruments, statistical data, and further discussion are detailed in the original manuscript (Winkel and Cohen, 1975).

    Our first task was t o obtain baseline information concerning the ef- fectiveness of the orienting devices already used in the museum, in- cluding directories and information people located at the major build- ing entrances. These were then supplemented by specially prepared maps, signs, and combinations of maps and signs located at strategic points: the entrances, the central rotunda, a main hallway, and within one of the buildings wings.

    The area chosen for intensive investigation was the Physical Science wing on the first floor of the museum. This section of the building was complexly arranged, attracted many visitors, and provided an interesting diversity of exhibit halls. Using a combination of observa- tions and interviews, we were able t o gather 21,000 pieces of data from July to November 1974. This period allowed us to sample different visitor populations-more in the summer than in the early winter, and a possible variety of backgrounds.

    For the first part of our research, we prepared special maps and put them at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the museum, at the en- trance t o the Physical Science wing, and at two points within the wing. The maps detailed all the floors of the museum with the names


  • Tilted map is easily approached by many visitors at once.

    Maps, this one at eye level, help visitors choose which exhibits to view.

    Signs in the exhibit halls of this complex museum help visitors find their way.


    of all the exhibit halls. The map of the first floor was enlarged and color coded, as were the other maps within the wing, to show the visitors which area was being represented. In addition, there were color photographs of all the exhibit halls on the bottom of the map panels.

    We had different map designs, but they were all based on letting the visitor come very close, so that a route could be traced with a finger if desired. One map design was a pedestal base tilting a map at a thirty-degree angle toward the visitor. Another was a large eye-level map. All maps were placed in the immediate path of visitor traffic for optimum use.

    In the second experiment, we hung signs from the ceilings at the exits and entrances of each of the exhibit halls in the wing. The signs contained information about the halls located straight ahead, to the right, or t o the left. Directional arrows on the signs next to the ex- hibit titles pointed the direction visitors should take. The shafts of the arrows were broken according to how many halls away the de- sired hall was located; two breaks indicated two halls away from the present sign.

    In the third experiment, we used both maps and signs t o measure the combined effectiveness of these devices. The fourth experiment tested the usefulness of having information people available t o answer questions. People wearing appropriate uniforms stood in the central rotunda and in several places in the wing. At other times, people were seated at distinctive booths in the same areas.

    Our final studies focused on the arrangement of the exhibit halls. Thirty-six were open at the time of the study, and we believed it might be possible to organize them into a smaller number of groups, each of which would contain a cluster of related exhibits. If the visitor perceived different areas as belonging together in some way, orientation problems could be reduced by designing directories and brochures listing each of the groups with an associated generic title, thus simplifying the amount of information about the museum that the visitor might need to remember.


    The following material summarizes some of the major findings of the investigation.

    Baseline Conditions- Under baseline conditions existing before we started testing, where only the museum directories and information desks at the museum entrances were available to visitors, we found


  • 2012 1977

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    the following from interviews with visitors entering and leaving the wing:

    1. Seventy-one percent of the visitors were unaware of the exhibits in the Physical Science Wing.

    2. Eighty-six percent of the people did not have any understanding of what halls would be encountered as they moved through that area.

    3. Sixty-six percent of the visitors did not feel they had entered an exhibit hall at its beginning. 4. Forty-six percent of the visitors did not think they had seen the

    entire wing. 5. Forty-one percent were forced to backtrack at some point in

    the wing. 6 . Thirty percent looked at exhibits they would rather not have

    seen. 7 . Thirty percent encountered difficulties finding their way back

    to the main corridor. 8. Each visitor missed an average of two exhibit halls that would

    have been interesting. 9. Most people wished there were some orientation assistance


    Maps and Signs-When we introduced maps, signs, and a combina- tion of the two, we found dramatic changes from the baseline figures, as shown in the chart on page 89. We saw the following findings:

    1. All devices used alone or in combination were effective in re- ducing the various indicators of disorientation used in the study.

    2. The signs were most influential in assisting visitors. 3. The combination of maps and signs did not result in very sub-

    stantial improvement in orientation compared to either device used alone.

    The maps were most helpful in the following ways: 1. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the wing as a

    whole. 2. Allowing visitors to see the most interesting exhibits, thus re-

    ducing the number of missed exhibits to an average of one per person.

    3. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the entire museum. 4. Helping people decide how t o organize their visits or choose

    what they wanted t o see in the entire museum. The signs did the following: 1. Told visitors what sequences of exhibit halls could be expected

    as they moved through the area.


  • 2012 1977

    2. Assisted people in reducing the amount of backtracking through

    3. Allowed people to avoid uninteresting exhibits. 4. Increased the probability that people would know where one

    hall ended and another began. 5 . Did not decrease the average number of interesting exhibits

    missed per person. The signs reduced most disorientation and should be considered

    the more effective of the two devices. A comparison of maps and signs indicates that maps are used to obtain an overall image of the area represented, not to find detailed directions. For example, visitors will use maps to help them choose which exhibits to see or facilities to use. People do not appear to recall map d


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