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


<ul><li><p>20/2 1977 </p><p>Orientation in a Museum- An Experimental </p><p>Visitor Study MARILYN S. COHEN </p><p>NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND TECHNOLOGY </p><p>SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION </p><p>GARY H. WINKEL (CHAIRMAN), </p><p>RICHARD OLSEN, AND FREDERICK WHEELER </p><p>ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY PROGRAM </p><p>CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK </p><p>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. </p><p>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). </p><p>85 </p></li><li><p>CURATOR </p><p>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. </p><p>APPROACHES </p><p>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). </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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 </p><p>86 </p></li><li><p>Tilted map is easily approached by many visitors at once. </p><p>Maps, this one at eye level, help visitors choose which exhibits to view. </p><p>Signs in the exhibit halls of this complex museum help visitors find their way. </p></li><li><p>CURATOR </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>FINDINGS </p><p>The following material summarizes some of the major findings of the investigation. </p><p>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 </p><p>88 </p></li><li><p>2012 1977 </p><p>m h </p><p>I- </p><p>v) </p><p>I m </p><p>I- </p><p>v) </p><p>U </p><p>IS I v) </p><p>89 </p></li><li><p>CURATOR </p><p>the following from interviews with visitors entering and leaving the wing: </p><p>1. Seventy-one percent of the visitors were unaware of the exhibits in the Physical Science Wing. </p><p>2. Eighty-six percent of the people did not have any understanding of what halls would be encountered as they moved through that area. </p><p>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 </p><p>entire wing. 5. Forty-one percent were forced to backtrack at some point in </p><p>the wing. 6 . Thirty percent looked at exhibits they would rather not have </p><p>seen. 7 . Thirty percent encountered difficulties finding their way back </p><p>to the main corridor. 8. Each visitor missed an average of two exhibit halls that would </p><p>have been interesting. 9. Most people wished there were some orientation assistance </p><p>available. </p><p>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: </p><p>1. All devices used alone or in combination were effective in re- ducing the various indicators of disorientation used in the study. </p><p>2. The signs were most influential in assisting visitors. 3. The combination of maps and signs did not result in very sub- </p><p>stantial improvement in orientation compared to either device used alone. </p><p>The maps were most helpful in the following ways: 1. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the wing as a </p><p>whole. 2. Allowing visitors to see the most interesting exhibits, thus re- </p><p>ducing the number of missed exhibits to an average of one per person. </p><p>3. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the entire museum. 4. Helping people decide how t o organize their visits or choose </p><p>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 </p><p>as they moved through the area. </p><p>90 </p></li><li><p>2012 1977 </p><p>2. Assisted people in reducing the amount of backtracking through </p><p>3. Allowed people to avoid uninteresting exhibits. 4. Increased the probability that people would know where one </p><p>hall ended and another began. 5 . Did not decrease the average number of interesting exhibits </p><p>missed per person. The signs reduced most disorientation and should be considered </p><p>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 details and must rely on the signs to provide the additional information they seek once in the area. The signs are inadequate when the visitor requires an image of the areas layout because their information is so limited. </p><p>These findings suggest that an integrated orientation system could usefully employ both maps and signs because in combination they re- duce different types of disorientation. It seems that the cost involved in preparing maps and signs at strategic points is minimal, compared to the overall benefits that would accrue. If it were necessary to choose only one approach, an effective system of signs would be most desirable. </p><p>Because the maps and to a certain degree the signs had complicated designs, we developed a series of interviews to evaluate their effec- tiveness. For the maps, we found the following: </p><p>halls. </p><p>1. Sixty percent of the visitors reported using them. 2. Eighty percent of those who used the maps found them helpful. 3. Ninety percent of users found them clear enough-not too </p><p>confusing. 4. Maps were used mostly to determine which exhibits to visit and </p><p>to provide general orientation within the museum. 5 . Visitors did not use maps conventionally-to determine routes </p><p>from one area to another. Instead, they used them to get an overview of exhibits in an area and to make sure they saw the most interesting ones. </p><p>6. The most useful map component was the floorplan, which pro- vided a sense of the museums organization. </p><p>7. Visitors would like maps located at different places in the museum. </p><p>8. Maps should be located at major decision points such as eleva- tors, escalators, stairwells, and central areas leading to specific sec- tions of the building. </p><p>91 </p></li><li><p>CURATOR </p><p>9. Maps placed at directional choice points within the wing were </p><p>10. Visitors did not find photographs of representative exhibits in </p><p>For the signs, we found the following: 1. At least ninety percent of the visitors noticed the signs, used </p><p>2. Visitors used signs primarily to find paths to interesting exhibits. 3. Signs were not helpful in determining the overall layout of the </p><p>wing, finding specific exhibits, or returning t o the main corridor (this was expected; the informational content of the signs was limited). 4. Visitors did not understand the meaning of the broken shafts on </p><p>the directional arrows, indicating the number of halls to be traversed. 5 . Half the people realized that an arrow to the left or right of the </p><p>exhibit title indicated a left or right turn. Orientation systems using maps or signs require simple design for- </p><p>mats. Some of the additions to our maps (arrows and photographs) were neither necessary nor helpful. Symbols whose meaning is not clear simply confuse the visitor. One of the consequences of this is that alternative design schemes should be carefully tested prior to their introduction on any large scale within the museum. </p><p>Further Assistance- Although our experimental devices were effec- tive in reducing virtually every index of disorientation, visitors still felt a need for further assistance, no matter which devices were intro- duced. The combination of maps and signs yielded the fewest num- bers of requests, even though forty percent of the visitors said they wanted more guidance. Brochures were most commonly mentioned under all experimental conditions. It appears that visitors have an in- satiable demand for orientation information; they do not really need it , but apparently they feel more secure if there is redundancy in the information system. This desire should be weighed against the alterna- tive of overdesigning an orientation system, where the aids might in- trude on the exhibits that should form the core of the museums function. </p><p>Some aids were frequently mentioned as desirable alternatives, but guided tours, information desks, and museum directories did not re- ceive much support. We conducted a separate series of studies to determine how often some devices-directories and people at desks located at the entrance to the museum and information people sta- tioned at various places within the wing at desks and on foot-were actually consulted by visitors. Our observations showed the following: </p><p>1. More visitors used the maps than used either the information desk or the directory at the museum entrance. </p><p>not consulted with any frequency. </p><p>the wing helpful or necessary. </p><p>them, and found them helpful. </p><p>92 </p></li><li><p>2012 1977 </p><p>0IpuLIIc.E </p><p>TWUD fLOOU </p><p>Floorplans of the first, second, and third floors of the National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution (the basement, not shown here, contains the exhibit "Suiting Everyone"and the cafeteria). </p><p>93 </p></li><li><p>CURATOR </p><p>2. The information desk at the entrance was used more often than the directory (perhaps simply because the desk was physically more prominent). </p><p>3. The questions asked of information people were different from those leading to the use of maps, and therefore the former should be seen as complementary to the latter. 4. Having information people at various places in the Physical </p><p>Science wing was not effective. Whether they were seated at a promi- nent booth or were standing in the hall wearing a bold identification badge, they were rarely approached. </p><p>5. When visitors did ask questions of the information people lo- cated in the wing (well into the interior of the building), they usually wanted to find the cafeteria or another Smithsonian building, or they asked for a brochure. </p><p>6 . When informatio...</p></li></ul>