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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #66: July 18, 2006

VISITOR STUDIES : Part 2 - Visitor Studies from the Psychological and Sociological Points of View (1)

Jack Hiroki IGUCHI (Professor, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Aomori University, Japan)

Visitor studies draw upon many subjects, since the nature of such studies are not simple. Strictly speaking, a museum evaluator should have the basic knowledge of visitor studies as well as museum studies, psychology, sociology and, if possible, the subject of the exhibition, because many reports of visitor studies use the perspectives of these subjects. Hence in this section, this author looks at psychological and sociological issues. In fact, many researchers in this field come from psychology, not the world of museums, because psychology especially environmental psychology and cognitive psychology are vitally important in creating educational exhibits as well as places of recreation. This section is a form of summary of existing papers in this field.

A dictionary of psychology defines "environmental psychology" as:
  "a true synthesis drawing from the data and theories developed in a variety of areas including social psychology; sociology; ethology (observation of the behaviour of animals in their natural environment); political science; architecture; and anthropology, and turning them upon issues involving the complex interactions between people and their environments" (Reber A. 1985: 243).
Also there are other definitions of this subjects, for instance:
  "This is the study of the interrelationship between behaviour and the built and natural environment" (Fisher, Bell, & Baum 1984).
These definitions emphasize interaction between human behaviour and environment. In the museums and zoos, this subject includes architectural and exhibition influences on the sensory perceptions of visitors.

Environmental psychology is a relatively new discipline within psychology (Reber A. 1985: 243). In the 1940's, psychologists began to research the relationships between work environments and productivity using research from the fields of "human engineering and human factors" (Patterson D. 1989: 80). In the 1950's, behavioural scientists and architects began to cooperate in designing buildings to offer the psychological needs to the users (Ibid). In the 1960's, Ittelson has first used the term, environmental psychology in his paper presented at the American Hospital Association Conference on Hospital Planning, N.Y. (Ittelson W. 1964). In the 1970's, some universities began to give the opportunity of studying environmental psychology (Patterson D. 1989: 80).
From the 1980's to up to the present, environmental psychology has grown to maturity. "The Handbook of Environmental Psychology" (Stokols & Altman, 1987) included many applications in this field.


  Both fields have some philosophical similarities. Patterson suggests some similarities with "pragmatism"; "empiricism"; "methodological eclecticism"; the "interactionist perspective"; and the "user perspective" (Patterson D. 1989: 82,83). This author reforms them and summarizes them into two approaches, "pragmatism" and "empiricism".
Both subjects focus on field studies (inductive work) and less deductive theory because the most attractive building or exhibits may meet the user's needs. In general, architects are apt to judge buildings more for their aesthetic and engineering value than user's convenience to use it. Sommer emphasizes the role of environmental psychologist as an advocate for the users of a building (Sommer, 1983).
Pragmatism relates to empiricism since in order to collect information from the users, some empirical work in the field is indispensable. The empirical works are basically evaluations such as front-end evaluation, formative evaluation and summative evaluation using sometimes mock-up exhibitions, and using some methods such as direct observation and self-reported methods which are interviews and questionnaires.

"Architectural factors" and "exhibition factors" from the environmentally psychological point of view are usually a part of visitor studies. Both factors strongly related to each other and therefore the descriptions of these factors in the papers of visitor studies frequently overlapped. In this thesis, in order to avoid such confusion, this author defines "architectural factors" as; the factors of total environment in the exhibit which influence visitors' behaviour toward the exhibit including museum climate for visitors; visibility; object satiation; and realism.

  1. Museum Climate for Visitors
In museums, environmental control such as control of temperature, humidity and lighting is vital in order to conserve the artifacts. Also museums must consider offering visitors a comfortable museum climate over summer and winter, and crowded conditions when the temperature rises. However both purposes of climatic control for artifacts and visitors often conflict with each other.

In the outside setting, like zoos, botanical gardens and temporary exhibits, the exhibit planners must consider these factors. For instance, in order to avoid strong sunshine and rain, some shades are needed in front of exhibits such as animals. In addition, free resting places are needed for these purposes. Patterson and Bitgood reported that "visitors stayed longer at exhibits that were free of high and low temperatures, rain, wind and bad odours" (Patterson D. & Bitgood S. 1988: 45).

  2. Visibility
Exhibits need good visibility for the enjoyment and study by visitors. Visibility is reduced according to the level of LUX (1), glare from lighting, visual obstacles, barriers and distance from the artifacts or animals. Exhibits can be designed for visitors with lower eye level, such as for children and wheel chair users. Bitgood, Patterson and Benefield shows that visual barriers reduce viewing time and visitor satisfaction (with the exhibit), and also shows that the closer the animal is to the visitor, the longer the viewing time.

(Bitgood, Patterson & Benefield, 1986). In addition, Bitgood, Pierce, Nichols and Patterson have observed that increased lighting levels in a simulated cave exhibit increased viewing time as well as the satisfaction with the exhibit (Bitgood, Pierce, Nichols & Patterson, 1987: 31-39).

However for the interest of environmental control for artifacts, the level of LUX often cannot meet visitors' needs owing to the limitation of present technology for conservation of artifacts such as textiles, watercolours, manuscripts and many natural history exhibits which must be illuminated with low level of LUX (Witteborg, 1981: 79).

(1) LUX: A unit of illuminance equal to the amount of light falling on a surface 1 metre from a source of 1 international candle or candela (Reber A. S. 1985 p410).

  3. Object Satiation
The exhibition with high density of objects through the gallery or a single section causes the problem of object satiation for visitors leading to fatigue, lack of interest and reduced viewing time. Also some visitors want to see as many objects as they can within a limited time, and then it causes the same effect on the visitor. Some researchers on this effect have been documented. For example, after around 35 minutes in the gallery of the museum, visitors sharply reduced their attention to the exhibits (Falk, Koran, Dierking & Dreblow, 1985: 249-257). Also, in art galleries with similar exhibits (paintings of a particular style), visitors spent decreasing amount of time in the gallery when they observed more paintings (Melton, 1935; 1972: 393-403). In addition, Patterson and Bitgood suggested that the effectiveness of exhibits is decreased when zoo and museums show similar objects together (Patterson & Bitgood,1988: 44). In order to overcome this problem, sometimes a variety of species can be shown together in a section.

  4. Realism
Unlike conventional exhibitions which show only objects with labels, these days sections using the methods of realistic exhibits are found in many museums and zoos. In museums, cultural artifacts are displayed in a reconstructed place such as a room of old house or workshop, and sometimes with performances by craftsmen. Natural history objects are displayed in the dioramas which imitate a real African Savannah. In zoos, artificial landscapes are often used. Coe has suggested that naturalistic exhibits will hold the visitor's attention (Coe, 1985: 197-208).
However realism is not always the best. Sometimes exhibit planners want to display same species together in a case such as small insects in order to make visitors easily compare their shapes, colours and patterns. In this case, video screens can help to show their habitats.

Exhibition factors are defined by this author as:
  the factors of a specific nature of a single object which affect visitor's behaviour and/or attitude toward the object including "moving factors"; "multi-sensory factors"; "interactive factors"; "aesthetic factors"; and "novel factors".

  1. Moving Factors
Moving elements in an exhibit or active animals can increase visitor's viewing time in the exhibit (Patterson D. & Bitgood S. 1988: 41). Some papers of this research show this evidence. For example, a machine working intermittently in a museum increased the number of visitors who wanted to see the exhibit (Melton, 1972: 393-403), and a strong relationship between animal activity and viewing times was found across zoos in various parts of the USA by Bitgood & Benefield (1986). In addition video films in front of the exhibit can be used to show the natural motion of animals such as crocodiles and koalas which tend to move slowly and infrequently.

  2. The Multi-sensory Factors
Human senses of vision; hearing; smell; taste; and touch are fundamental to allowing the body to receive knowledge of things in the wider world. Visitors are ready to use these five senses to receive exhibit messages. If a visitor can use not only vision but also hearing, touch and if possible smell and taste together to receive the information, a visitor's length of stay in the exhibition increases. This factor is called a "multi-sensory factor" by this author. Several authors have found this evidence. For instance, exhibits which could be both seen and heard produced longer viewing times (Peart, 1984: 220-237), and exhibits which could be both seen and touched could increase viewing time as well (Koran, Koran & Longino, 1986: 227-244).

  3. Interactive Factors
In conventional exhibits, the artifact is simply shown to the visitor with a label. An interactive exhibit means that some action by the visitor produces some reaction from the exhibit object (Patterson & Bitgood, 1988: 42). Push-buttons and computers are often used in an interactive exhibit and also specialists answer visitors' questions. Some studies on these factors have been conducted. For instance, Melton reported that in the gallery exhibiting electrical devices, when an interactive element was presented, visitors' attention to the exhibit increased (Melton, 1972: 393-403). Especially these kind of exhibits can be seen in science or natural history museums.

  4. Aesthetic and Novel Factors
People visiting museums sometimes want to encounter beautiful or novel objects. Consequently, often temporary exhibitions are set up to show these kinds of objects. Exhibitions of Tutankhamen's mask or Venus de Milo are good examples.

Also museums can house special artifacts for permanent exhibition such as large jewels or Egyptian mummies. Several researchers have suggested that shape, colour and pattern of an artifact may determine the length of viewing time (Melton, 1972: 393-403, Martin & O'Reilly, 1982: 339-346), and visitors to the National Zoo, Washington, often make a queue to see the panda (Patterson & Bitgood, 1988: 42), which is still an endangered species.

However exhibition planners must be careful to plan the installation of these kinds of objects such as beautiful and novel artifacts because if these artifacts are displayed close to less attractive artifacts, visitors often skipped the latter (Ibid).

  Bitgood S. & Benefield A., 1986. A Comparison of Visitors Across Zoos, Technical Report No. 86-30: Psychology Institute, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, AL.

  Bitgood S., Patterson D. & Benefield A., 1986. Understanding Your Visitors: Factor Influencing Their Behavior, Proceedings of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, Minneapolis, MN.

  Bitgood S., Pierce M., Nichols G. & Patterson D., 1987. Formative Evaluation of a Cave Exhibit, Curator, 30 (1): 31-39.

  Coe J., 1985. Design and Perception: Making the Zoo Experience Real, Zoo Biology 4: 197-208.

  Falk J. H., Koran J. J., Dierking L. D. & Dreblow L., 1985. Predicting Visitor Behavior, Curator, 24/4: 249-257.

  Fisher J. D., Bell P. A. & Baum A., 1984. Environmental Psychology (2nd ed.), N.Y., Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

  Ittelson W. H., 1964. Environmental Psychology and Architectural Planning (paper presented at the American Hospital Association Conference on Hospital Planning), N.Y.

  Koran J. J., Koran M. L. & Longino, 1986. The Relationship of Age, Sex, Attention and Holding Power with two types of exhibitions, Curator 29 (3): 227-244.

  Martin J. & O'Reilly J., 1982. Designing Zoos for Children: An Alternative Approach, Proceedings of the International Conference on Environmental Design Research Association: 13, 339-346.

  Melton A., 1935. Problems of Installation in Museums of Art, AAM Monograph, New Series No. 14, Washington, D.C., American Association of Museums.

  Melton A., 1972. Visitor Behavior in Museums: Some Early Research in Environmental Design, Human Factors 14 (5): 393-403.

  Patterson D., 1989. Contributions of Environmental Psychology to Visitors Studies, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, V2, Centre for Social Design: 80,83.

  Patterson D. & Bitgood S., 1988. Some Evolving Principles of Visitor Behavior, Visitor Behavior, Center for Social Design: 41,42,44,45.

  Peart B., 1984. Impact of exhibit type on knowledge Gain, Attitude Change and Behavior, Curator, 27/2: 220-237.

  Reber A. S., 1985. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin Books: 243,410.

  Sommer R., 1983. Social Design: Creating Buildings with People in Mind, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall Inc.

  Stokols D. & Altman I. (Eds.), 1987. Handbook of Environmental Psychology (Vols.1,2), N.Y., John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

  Witteborg, 1981. Good Show !, Smithsonian Institute, USA: 79.

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