the museum environment and the visitor experience

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  • The museumenvironment


    European Journal of Marketing,Vol. 34 No. 3/4, 2000, pp. 261-278.

    # MCB University Press, 0309-0566

    The museum environment andthe visitor experience

    Christina GouldingDepartment of Marketing and Economics,

    Wolverhampton Business School, Wolverhampton, UK

    Keywords Museums, Consumer behaviour, Qualitative techniques, Services marketing

    Abstract Since the advent of the contract culture, the reduction in museum budgets, and theimplementation of performance measures based on customer satisfaction management,museums have faced increasing pressure to attract wider audiences. This requires anunderstanding of visitor expectations, and experiences, of visiting a museum. However, for themost part, public museums have concentrated their research efforts into obtaining statistical datawhich measure through-put and provide demographic profiles, ignoring in the process the natureof the experience itself. This paper looks at research derived primarily from academics working inthe field of visitor studies. It outlines three approaches; the social, the cognitive, and theenvironmental perspective, which have been applied to studies of museum visitor behaviour. Thepaper then presents the findings from an observational study of visitors to a city museum. Thesefindings are recast in the light of the three approaches described, in order to offer an integratedframework of customer behaviour which has implications for the management of the serviceencounter in museums.

    IntroductionThe nature and characteristics of services pose different challenges formanagers, given that a service is an act, a process, and a performance (Gilmore,1996). As with many services, the museum product is delivered in a physicalenvironment or site which encompasses the land or building area, shape,lighting, means of orientating the visitor, queues, waiting, crowding, andmethods of stimulating interest and engagement (Shostack, 1985; Bateson,1991; Goulding, 1999). The service encounter is the service as seen from thecustomer's point of view and is normally defined as the period of time duringwhich the customer directly interacts with a service (Shostack, 1985). In thecase of museums, the effectiveness of communicating historical information,the essential product, relies on the ability to construct images, conveyinformation, and engage the visitor, through either social exchange or moretraditional textual and visual methods (Goulding, 1999). Consequently, there isgeneral agreement that what we term the delivery of a service might just aseasily be described as the selling of an experience (Bateson, 1991). In thepresent climate, the need to understand the nature of the museum experiencehas never been greater. Since the late, 1980s there has been increasing pressureon museums to widen their appeal in order to attract larger and more diverseaudiences. This may be seen primarily as a consequence of the contract culture,the reduction in museums' budgets, and the implementation of performancemeasures based on customer satisfaction management (Hooper-Greenhill,1996):

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    At a general level power is shifting from the curator as guardian of standards and values, to thevalues and standards of the consumer . . .These days central and local government stress theneeds of the `` consumer'', the `` customer'' the `` citizen'', the `` user'' (Hooper-Greenhill, 1996, p. 180).

    Nonetheless, outside of academic circles, there is little research that takes accountof the actions and voices of the visitors to museums themselves. What museumcurators and related official bodies are good at is collecting numbers. However,much of this research has been criticised for its lack of attempt to integrate theresults into a coherent framework (Falk et al., 1985; Moscardo, 1996), and forfailing to use the results to advance an overall understanding of the nature of thevisit (Merriman, 1989; Stevens, 1989; Stapp, 1990). Visitors bring a multiplicity ofinterpretations to the reading of displays and the fact that artefacts may besubject to multiple interpretation has important implications for the waymuseums think about and present themselves (Smith, 1989; Urry, 1990; Squire,1994). Much of the work on museums as service providers has tended toconcentrate predominantly on museums as institutions of culture which areprimarily ideological in what they choose to present (Cleere, 1989; Simpson, 1993;Byrne, 1991; Thomas, 1991; Hudson, 1987; Jenkins, 1991). Specific examplesinclude issues such as the portrayal of gender (Proesler, 1990; Porter, 1988), race(Garrison, 1990; Merriman, 1995), and social class (Bennett, 1988; West, 1988).Merriman (1991) suggests that museums should act as `` enablers'' to the past, andwhat they offer should be intellectually accessible and culturally relevant to theiraudience, despite social or ethnic background. As it stands, the lack ofrepresentation of relevant histories may act as barriers which serve to exclude,rather than include, vast numbers of the population (Bourdieu, 1968, 1984).

    Museums, particularly in the public sector, have been slow to catch on to theidea of customer orientation, regardless of growing pressure to become morecompetitive and self-reliant (Cossons, 1989; Broadhurst, 1989; Hewison, 1991;Malcolm-Davies, 1990; Perot, 1993). This paper therefore looks largely at thework of academics who have conducted research into the nature of the on-siteexperience. It outlines a number of theories relating to the social, psychological,and environmental aspects of the visit, before presenting a case study, based onobservations of visitor behaviour at an orthodox museum. The paper concludesby offering a number of interrelated factors which have implications for themanagement of customer service in museums.

    Social approaches to understanding the visitorThe social approach to museum visitor behaviour requires that consumption isperceived as meaningful behaviour on the part of an individual in a socialcontext. For the researcher, it is the interaction between individual processes andthe social situation which is of prime importance when considering the serviceencounter and the nature of the experience. Kelly (1985) contextualises the `` idealself'' concept within the arena of group dynamics in his proposition that many ofthe influences on behaviour will derive from primary or secondary groups towhich people belong. He provides the example of the museum visit as a newstatus symbol which serves to separate the cultured ``us'' from the uncultured

  • The museumenvironment


    `` them''. He further contends that many visitors are motivated to attain a state ofhaving been to a museum, rather then to enjoy ``being there''. McManus (1989) inher research into communications with, and between, visitors to the BritishMuseum, concluded that visitors in groups attend to museum communicationsas a social unit. The social unit focuses on an exhibition, selectively activatingcontributions from the text to build conversations. In such cases group pressuresare given priority over more individually based satisfactions. However, whilethere is evidence that groups do play a part in the experience for some, neitherKelly's (1985) nor McManus's (1989) findings go any way to explain thebehaviour of the lone visitor who actively seeks out the solitude of a museum inorder to soak up the atmosphere in isolation.

    Cognitive approaches to understanding visitor behaviourScreven (1986) argues that an understanding of consumer motivations is oneessential factor in successful museum management and proceeds to classifymotivations as intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations, in this context,centre on the usefulness of the visit, the coherence of context, timeliness,personal meaning, the opportunity to interact, and the degree of challengepresented to the participant. Extrinsic motivations include feedback andrewards such as tokens or privileges for achievement. He further makes thepoint that fun must be part of the experience. Nonetheless, a cursory glance atthe writings of Hewison (1987, 1989), Fowler (1992), Carr (1991), and Waterson(1989) raises questions about the emphasis on fun. A common theme runningthrough the writings of these scholars is a plea for a less intrusive, moreimaginative form of interpretation to replace the increasing tendency towards`` amusement'' park museums with their stress on `` fun'' and entertainment at theexpense of mental engagement.

    A further area for investigation is the level of involvement and participationbetween visitors and exhibits. Eason and Linn (1976) and Boisvert and Slez(1995) propose that much of the research in museums centres on theeffectiveness of participatory exhibits. However, Blud (1990) argues that mostmuseums actually ignore the nature of the visit by concentrating too much onthe effectiveness of the exhibit. Moscardo (1996) looks to the discipline ofpsychology, particularly social cognition to provide a theoretical framework.His findings are based on the work of Langer and Newman (1987) whodeveloped the `` mindfulness''/`` mindlessness'' distinction. Mindfulness is theproduct of novelty, surprise, variety, and situations that require effort on thepart of the individual. Mindlessness, on the other hand, is a result of overfamiliarity, or exposure to stimuli which is not perceived as personally relevant(Langer and Newman, 1987). Uzzell (1989) and Moscardo (1996) propose thatinterpretation should produce mindful visitors who are active, interested andcapable of questioning and reassessing the situation. Both Uzzell (1989) andMoscardo's (