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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #68: January 12, 2007

VISITOR STUDIES : Part 4 - Visitor Studies from the Psychological and Sociological Points of View (3)

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


In many museums, computers are widely used for education services in galleries, or for other educational purposes. However, computers are not always better than other conventional educational devices such as labels and graphics. Some arguments about these matters follow.

Many researchers criticize the use of computers for educational purposes in museums. Screven suggests that computers are not the only way to educate in museums. He argues that "Low-tech" interpretative media like labels or a discovery room for example can achieve the same purpose at less cost (Screven, 1986: 109-137). Also McManus suggests that "Low-tech" approaches can be more effective than computers (McManus, 1990: 125-127). One of the reasons why computers often generate considerable holding power is that they offer the fun of manipulation rather than their teaching power (Screven, 1990a: 131).

Moreover, in crowded conditions in a gallery, it is very difficult to serve the computers for all who wish to use them because they are still costly to purchase (Ibid: 136). These arguments are essential at the planning stage of installation.

On the other hand, generally speaking, many advantages of using computers or video desks have been reported because of their large variety of special qualities such as large storage and multimedia capabilities. Screven suggests that "simulation can place visitors in real-world condition such as a rainforest and a planetary system for example. Animation can also make it easier to illustrate how blood vessels work for instance" (Ibid: 135). In addition, visitors not only receive simply information from computers but also can control windows with various ways to suit their interests. This feature of computers is called "hypermedia environment" (Whitney, 1990: 91-108). In fact, recently, there has been progress in using computers in museums to directly link visitors with relevant exhibit information (Screven, 1990a: 133).

All in all, whenever museums want to install computers, they must consider cost-effectiveness as well as the effective delivery of information.


The visitors' length of stay including viewing time naturally can influence people's recollection in terms of exhibitions. The factors affecting this matter are many, and the methods of investigating this subject are various too. Some discussion now follows.

Haeseler suggests that cultural and commercial attractions affect visitor's length of stay (Haeseler, 1989: 255, 256). A summary of this argument follows.

Internal Factors:
The factors of the design of an attraction which influence the visitor length of stay.

  1. Setting: inside or outside.
Outdoor attractions typically have longer lengths of stay than in the case for indoor attractions. This evidence comes from the results titled "Average Visitors' Length of Stay and Various Facility Characteristics at Illustrative Types of Cultural and Commercial Attractions" quoted by Haeseler (Ibid).
  2. Attraction Content: size and intensity of the attraction content.
The size of the attraction often influences visitors length of stay and the intensity of the attraction content also exerts an influence, e.g. dynamic versus static; live versus inanimate; interactive versus passive; and also a physical experience versus sedentary experience.
  3. Visitor Services: e.g. cafeteria, restaurants and shops.
  4. Visitor Fatigue:
The issues of visitor fatigue arise particularly from indoor settings. Haeseler suggests that "visitors exposure to exhibitions, particularly in indoor settings such as museums may have a tolerance limit" (Ibid).

External Factors:
The factors beyond the design of an attraction which influence the length of stay.
  1. Seasonality: seasonal factors such as changes in temperatures affects visitors' length of stay.
  2. Crowding: crowded conditions typically on summer weekends appear to cause visitors to shorten their stay.
  3. Time budgets:
The more a visitor wants to view different settings in a limited time, the shorter his/her stay at each setting.
  4. Demographics: individuals; families; and friends; or general people; and specialists. For instance, families with children tend to stay longer than adult groups (Ibid), and also specialists and students stay longer when they are researching the subject matter. These factors relate to sociological points of view.

In addition, Beer suggests the goals of museum visitors which can be divided into four types:
  "1. Factual knowledge for self;
  2. Factual knowledge for child or guest;
  3. Extra time on the way to another destination;
  4. Relief from boredom or the weather."  (Beer, 1987: 211)

Furthermore Serrell and Becker suggest three types of visitors in terms of behaviour and motivation. These are as follows.
  1. People who spend a long time and study everything.
  2. People who browse through, spending less time and looking at less.
  3. People who rush through, uninterested, and hardly looking at or reading anything. (Serrell & Becker, 1990: 263)

Thus, without knowledge of these factors, the visitors' length of stay cannot be discussed at depth. In addition to this, exhibition evaluators must use this knowledge whenever they evaluate an exhibition in terms of visitors' length of stay.

  The choice of the method of this measurement depends particularly upon the museum budgets, since these methods vary from relatively low cost to high cost (such as tracking by staff). Haeseler suggests various ways of measuring (Haeseler, 1989: 252-253). A summary is as follows.

  Estimate by Management: a management estimate based on judgment developed in day-to-day operation of the exhibit.
  This data is not dependable but can often be relatively accurate.

  Recording Entrance and Exit Volumes: Comparing the number of visitors entered an exhibition with the number of visitors existing the exhibition at fixed intervals, for example every 15 minutes.
  This data is more accurate than the former method. It is used in situations where an intrusive method is not appropriate.

  Recording Entrance and Exit Times: a visitor's sticker issued at the entrance noting the time of entering is collected at the exit to measure the visitor length of stay.
  This data gives an exact length of stay, and also this method is one of the least costly. However this is a rather intrusive method.

  Estimates by Visitors: Asking directly a visitor his/her length of stay using the method of interview or questionnaire.
  This data might be distorted (Bitgood & Richardson, 1986) or overestimated by a visitor. However the data may still be generally useful.

  Visitor Tracking: Tracking covertly a visitor throughout the course of their visit from entrance to exit.
  This data gives an exact length of stay. Simultaneously this method obtains other data in concerning visitors' behaviour and attitudes. However, this is the most labour intensive and sometimes the data is not valuable if the visitor is aware of being tracked.

The above discussion of the visitors' length of stay can be useful in a variety of circumstances such as for a whole museum or one specific exhibition. Under most circumstances, less intrusive methods are the best way to obtain dependable data, because if a visitor is aware of being observed, the visitor might change his/her length of stay.


Recollection which is a general term for remembrance of things past (Reber, 1985:621) relates to cognitive psychology. Museums are places where people can learn some information through the exhibits and / or just enjoy looking around the exhibits as a form of recreation. However after a museum visit, whether they wish or not, people's new knowledge which they have obtained from the exhibition naturally affects their lives. Consequently, if a museum wants to give a specific message to visitors through the exhibit (such as environmental education), the exhibition should be memorable in order to help visitors recollect such information easily after their visits.

The factors of recollection depend upon the design of the exhibit as well as a visitor's attitude during the visit. Falk (1988: 65) suggests some factors in terms of a visitor's attitude which is summarised by this author in this way:
  1. What aspects of the experience, such as learning the subject matter or having refreshment, were considered important at the time ?
  2. What specific parts of the exhibit were actually perceived?
  3. What sort of prior experience the person had, for instance, having visited similar exhibit (s), or studied the particular subject of the exhibit.
  4. What sort of cues, such as prompts, was used to elicit the recollection?
One of the case studies on the recollection by Falk (Ibid: 61-63) is introduced as follows:
The samples used in this study were not systematically derived. He talked to friends, relatives people sitting next to him by chance about their museum experiences using very simple questions. Some remarkable results were obtained. Firstly, some visitors could remember quite clearly the visit a long time ago e.g., the 54-year-old man visited the Smithsonian when he was 9. Secondly, all individuals remembered the museum's architecture or feeling of boredom caused by less attractive exhibits or museum fatigue. Thirdly, most respondents, children to adults, could recall at least a few exhibits in a museum and some details about them.

However to collect data on museum recollection is one of the most difficult tasks within visitor studies in terms of its reliability and validity. If the researcher collects the data about some particular exhibits of which he/she has a thorough knowledge, the data obtained will be analysed relatively easily. On the other hand, such analysis is made more difficult when the researcher does not know the exhibit intimately.


  Beer V., 1987. Great Expectations: Do Museums Know What Visitors Are Doing, Curator 30/3: 211.

  Bitgood S. & Richardson K., 1986. Validation of Visitors'self-reports in a Zoo, Technical Report No 86-30, Jacksonville, AL: Center for Social Design.

  Falk J.H., 1988. Museum Recollections, Center for Social Design: 61,63,65.

  Haeseler J.K., 1989. Length of Visitor Stay, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice V2, Center for Social Design: 252, 253, 255, 256.

  Reber A.S., 1985. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin Books: 621.

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

  Screven C., 1990a. Computers in Exhibit Settings, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice V3, Center for Social Design: 131, 133, 135, 136.

  Serrell B. & Becker B., 1990. Stuffed Birds on Sticks: Plans to Re-do the Animal Halls at Field Museum, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, V3, Center for Social Design: 263.

  Whitney P., 1990. The Electronic Muse: Matching Information and Media to Audiences, ILVS Review: A Journal of Visitor Behavior, 1(2): 91-108.

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