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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #67: January 5, 2007

VISITOR STUDIES : Part 3 - Visitor Studies from the Psychological and Sociological Points of View (2)

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


Some definitions of cognitive psychology are follows:
"Cognitive Psychology is a general approach to psychology emphasizing the internal, mental processes. To the cognitive psychologist, behaviour is not specifiable simply in terms of its overt properties but requires explanations at the level of mental events, mental representations, beliefs and intentions" (Reber 1985: 129).

Cognitive Psychology is, under the inferences from Gestalt Psychology, a series of studies which attaches much importance to the subjective side of behaviour as opposed to "behaviourism" which regards the objective side of behavior as important (Fujinaga, editor, 1981: 660, translated from Japanese by this author).

These definitions suggest that cognitive psychology emphasizes the internal, mental processes underpinning the subjective side of behaviour. This means that cognitive psychology is more complex than behaviourism, because behaviourism essentially looks at the relationship between stimulus and response. However the nature of response caused by stimulus arises from a variety of factors such as intention, belief and culture.

Since the 1950's, cognitive psychology has had an influence upon, both the field of social psychology and that of clinical psychology. Recently cognitive psychology has become an indispensable underpinning for information technology to enable it to create better artificial intelligence (Ibid).

Consequently visitor studies strongly relate to cognitive psychology in terms of relating an exhibit to the visitors. Although the purpose of visitor studies is not to research the field of cognitive psychology, in order to design effective educational exhibits, such studies can contribute to the development of cognitive psychology.

In this section, some vital themes are discussed. These include orientation; labelling; the use of computers; factors influencing viewing time; and recollection.

"Orientation" is vital important for people who wish to start any work (e.g. joining a university course or viewing an exhibition) planned and organised by others. In museums, in order to give visitors effective education through exhibits, in the first place, clear orientation of the exhibit must be given to enable visitors to grasp the overall plan and concept of the exhibit. Orientation can be divided into "topographical orientation" which refers to physical layout and "conceptual orientation" which refers to subject matters. Needless to say, all devices used for both types of orientations must be defined by the visitor (Griggs, 1983: 130).

Topographical Orientation
Some better exhibitions have been constructed with a carefully considered route and sequence through the gallery so that visitors can walk easily through from the entrance to the exit. Therefore, if topographical orientation shows the visitors this sequence effectively, problems caused by carelessly considered ground-plans will be reduced.

Topographical orientation includes the overall flow of the route and physical layout of the display. In each section of the exhibition, if the numbers are to be used to show the sequence in any cases, they must be clear and organized in a sensible fashion (Ibid).

In addition, a visitor's cognitive map is often used in researches into museum studies. The term "cognitive map" has been coined by Tolman (1948: 189-208) as "to describe the internal representation that people construct of their external environment and which they use to find their way around". Griggs suggests that "during the course of visiting a display, visitors will construct cognitive maps irrespective of any attempts to provide or improve orientation. However, our assumption is that the quality of these representations can be greatly enhanced by effective orientation" (Ibid: 121).

Conceptual Orientation
Conceptual orientation is to give visitors the appropriate expectations before they encounter a display using in most cases, panels (general labels see next section). It enables visitors to grasp the broad outline and aims of the exhibition and gives them enough information on how it is organised conceptually so that they can study the exhibit rationally and effectively. Conceptual orientation needs to be provided throughout an exhibition, for instance overall orientation in the entrance, each section's orientation and orientation for a small sub-section. Lakota suggests that conceptual orientation can provide explicit statements of what an exhibition is designed to convey, and provide introductory questions to guide visitors' thoughts in the appropriate direction, in order to ensure that the organisational structure throughout an exhibition as well as in a section is made clear (Lakota, 1976).

To create effective conceptual orientation there are two main questions raised by Griggs (1983: 131).
  1. How to attract and hold visitors' attention to that necessary information.
  2. How to communicate that information to them.

In order to achieve the aim of effective orientation both topographical and conceptual, some evaluation studies are probably needed, such as formative evaluation with mock-up exhibits and summative evaluation as well.

Having researched some writers (Brucaw G. 1990: 6; Hornby A. 1990: 695; Witteborg L. 1981), this author defines "a label in exhibits" as:

a writing material beside on or near museum object (s) to identify its or their name (s) and nature. "Label" can be divided into "general label" and "secondary label". The former is for a group of objects or for area, which includes the texts of topographical and conceptual orientation, and sometimes called "panel" or "information board". The latter is for a single object called "object label".

In order to provide information on the various objects to visitors, labels are very often used. Some exhibits do not have labels so that visitors just visually experience objects, and give them scope for use of their imagination without any overt educational messages. However in particular, in science or natural history exhibits, education is emphasized to achieve the objectives of museum education as well as visitors' demanding that. Hence information on the labels are an essential form of education.

To begin with, label designers must be aware of the psychological and physiological mechanism that influence people's reaction to exhibitions. Secondly, designers must bear in mind the reasons why people visit museums. These include relaxing, socializing with friends or family and studying. Then thirdly label design must focus not only on cognitive outcomes but also on affective outcomes which meet the needs of a wider range of reasons why people visit museums.

Various studies on labeling have been conducted by researchers. This author summarizes their papers and groups them into these categories: "Content"; "Organisation"; and " Placement".

Philosophy of Content:
Basically, information described on the label must be technically correct and be closely related to the object (s). Sometimes label content can include questions and comparison so that a visitor's attention to the label increases. In addition, passive sentences should be avoided wherever possible (Witteborg, 1981: 85). Also labels must be designed, in terms of content, in order to clear up visitors' misconceptions. To identify such misconceptions, some evaluation studies are needed, such as front-end evaluation which enable to find visitors' misconceptions of the subject matter on display using interviews.

Comprehension Level:
The comprehension level of visitors in terms of label content is very wide and ranges from young children to specialists. However, generally speaking, information on the label must be comprehended by the general public. Serrell suggests that there are some conceptual and vocabulary barriers in label design (Serrell, 1988: 577-585). The problems which frequently arise are through the use of technical terms and jargon. In addition, the text must be grammatically correct and employ an improved writing style (Bitgood, 1986: 2).

Length of Information:
Some reports of results of this investigation are available. These can be divided into four such as:

  1. The number of syllables per 100 words:
130 to 150 syllables per 100 words are optimal (Serrell, 1983).

  2. The number of words per sentence:
10-20 words per sentence are the maximum (Ibid).
10-15 words per sentence, never more than 22 is the best (Witteborg, 1981: 84).

  3. The number of words per label:
Less than 75 words appear to have the greatest chance of being read (Bitgood S. 1990: 121).

  4. Information Overload:
There should be no more than 5 to 7 items of information per label (Witteborg, 1981: 84). Information overload as well as increasing the number of labels linked to an object causes problems of satiation which influence a visitor's attention to the label.

Legibility in terms of designing labels relates to the contrast between text and background; letter size; and eyesight.

  1. Contrast:
Smith and Wolf found that the contrast between text and background has a significant effect on legibility (Smith & Wolf, 1991: 48-52), and also Witteborg suggests that the contrast between the letters and the background should be as strong as possible, hence black letters on a white background are recommended (Witteborg, 1981: 85).

  2. Letter Size:
Bitgood et al. reports that increasing font size from 18 to 36 increased the number of readers by about 15% (Bitgood, Nichols, Pierce, Conroy & Patterson, 1986). Also Witteborg suggests that the size of the typeface for general labels should be bigger than 72 point (about 15mm in height) and the minimum size for objects labels should be 24 point (about 6mm in height), (Witteborg, 1981: 85).

  3. Eyesight:
The most common eyesight problems are experienced by elderly and colour blind visitors. Many elderly people need reading glasses in their every day life, hence font size must be as large as possible. In addition, colour blindness, especially red-green, is another visual limitation. This problem is mainly experienced by males owing to a sex-linked genetic trait (2) (Approximately 1 in 15 men showing some defects but only about 1 in 100 women). (Reber, 1985: 132). Consequently red letters cannot be used on a green back ground.
  (2) A sex linked genetic trait: a genetic characteristic that is controlled by genes located on the sex chromosomes (Reber A.S. 1985, p692).

The final step in organizing labels is the layout of information on the label. The method of layout includes: information mapping; layering information; and bulleting the major points (Bitgood S. 1990: 125).

  1. Information Mapping:
Screven suggests that information mapping is a way to help visitors appreciate the information more easily (Screen, 1986: 109-137). This method includes indentations, boxed enclosures, flow diagrams, type styles, and colour.

  2. Layering information:
This is also suggested by Screven (Ibid) that information needs to be divided into small sub-sections and "layers" expressing the main ideas in larger or bold letters and the details in smaller letters. This makes it easier for visitors to identify or select the information which they prefer to study.

  3. Bulleting:
"Bulleting the main points is yet another way of making it easy for visitors to find information" (Bitgood S. 1990: 125).

Although a label has been elaborately produced in terms of its content and organisation, inappropriate placement of it in the exhibition area spoils previous efforts to design the label effectively. Exhibition designers must bear in mind the placement in terms of eye level, distance from the object, lighting and density of labels.

Eye level:
Visitors often just scan a label without changing their position, in other words, standing on tiptoe or stooping. That is why the placement at eye level is strongly recommended. Especially in case of position on a vertical wall, it must bear in mind to place the label for various eye levels for instance, those of children. Also the field of vision by humans occupies a cone roughly defined by angle of 400 (Witteborg, 1981: 13). Hence labels must be placed within this angle.

Distance from a label to the object must be considered because if the labels are placed far from the object or too close to other labels or objects, visitors may not want to read it or confuse one with other. Bitgood et al., discovered that moving labels closer to the objects made more people read the labels (Bitgood, Finlay & Korn, 1986: 6-7).

Lighting influences readability. In particular, poor lighting levels makes visitors with low eyesight strain to see it. Smith and Wolf reported that low levels of light as well as glare, and shadows of light interact with contrast between letters and background (Smith & Wolf, 1991: 48-52). In addition in order to illuminate the label, an absolute minimum of 5 foot-candles (3) should be used (Witteborg, 1981: 85).

(3) Foot-candle: the intensity of one candle at one foot distance (Reber A.S. 1985, p106) All in all, label designers must consider these factors using existing knowledge through researches as well as using the results of their own evaluations such as front-end, formative and summative evaluation.

Label density is another problem of placement. High visual density causes confusion as well as fatigue. Bitgood also suggests that too many labels on the wall means that they compete with one another for a visitor's attention (Bitgood, 1990: 122). This means that visitors cannot concentrate on reading the labels.

  Bitgood S., 1986. Design had Evaluation of Exhibit Labels, paper presented at the Southeastern Psychological Association Atlanta, GA, March 1987: Center for Social Design October 1986: 2.

  Bitgood S., 1990. The ABCs of Label Design Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice V3, Center for Social Design: 121, 122, 125.

  Bitgood S., Finlay T. & Korn R, 1986. Bibliography: Exhibit Signs, Labels and Graphics, Visitor Behavior, 1(3): 6,7.

  Burcaw G.E., 1990. Introduction to Museum Works, aaslh (The American Association for State and Local History), Nashville: 6.

  Fujinaga T., 1981. Newly-edited Dictionary of Psychology, Heibonsha, Japan: 660.

  Griggs S.A., 1983. Orientating Visitors within a Thematic Display, The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, 1983: 130, 131.

  Hornby A.S., 1990. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Oxford University Press: 695.

  Lakota R.A., 1976. Good Exhibitions on Purpose: Techniques to Improve Exhibit Effectiveness, In Communicating with the Museum Visitor, Guidelines for Planning Toronto, Canada, Royal Ontario Museum.

  Reber A.S., 1985. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin Books: 106, 129, 132, 692).

  Screven C., 1986. The Design of Exhibitions and Information Centers: Some Principles and Approaches, Curator, 29(2): 109-137.

  Serrell B., 1983. Making Exhibit Labels: A Step-by-Step Guide, Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History.

  Serrell B., 1988. The Evaluation of Educational Graphics in Zoos, Environmental and Behavior, 20(4): 577-585.

  Smith J.K., & Wolf L.F., 1991. Factors influencing the Legibility of Object Labels, In Current Trends in Audience Research and Evaluation, 1991, Denver, CO: American Association of Museums Visitor Research and Evaluation Committee: 48-52.

  Tolman E.C., 1948. Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men, Psychological Review, 55: 121, 189-208.

  Witteborg, 1981. Good Show !, Smithsonian Institute, USA: 13, 84, 85.

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