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Home > Special Topics > Colloquium Last Updated: 15:15 03/09/2007
Colloquium #69: January 19, 2007

VISITOR STUDIES : Part 5 - Designing Exhibits From A Sociological Point of View

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

For designing exhibitions, in general, environmental psychology and cognitive psychology provide vital insights for considering the needs of individual visitors. In addition, however, a knowledge of sociology can help in designing exhibitions, reinforcing the contributions of both area of environmental psychology and cognitive psychology, since some of the factors which influence the viewing time are age, gender, socioeconomic/ ethnic factors and educational backgrounds. In addition to this, most zoo and museum visitors are family groups (Patterson & Bitgood, 1988: 44-45).


    "The science which studies the development and principles of social organization, and generally group behaviour as distinct from the behaviour of individuals in the group" (Drever, 1971: 274).

    "The discipline that focuses on the study of human behavior from the perspective of the social dimension. Sociology concentrates relatively less upon the individual as a separate entity than does social psychology, tending to view behaviour as it occurs in social interactions, in groups, for example" (Reber, 1985: 711).

Both definitions emphasis that sociology focuses on group behaviour. It also often overlaps with social psychology and anthropology.


An understanding of the process of the formation of group behaviour is indispensable to the design of exhibitions from the sociological point of view. Aveni's paper (Aveni, 1990: 48-54) describes this matter.

He argues first of all that when a person is born, he/she belongs to his/her own family called a family of orientation. The parents(s) teach(es) a child how to interact with others and this is called socialization. This involves his/her culture including his/her values, beliefs and rules for behaviour. When becoming an adult him/herself, the person may marry and have (a) child(ren) and thus creates a second family known as a family of procreation. These parents socialize the child(ren) with the same way as before.

When children become older they look toward their friends, and thus the children are influenced by the friends as well as their parents, and become members of small groups in which they feel very close or intimate with other members.

These are known as primary groups and include the family, play groups, school groups, for example. The primary groups have their own group norms and if a member is against these norms, some punishment is given.

Afterwards, people's memberships of groups continue to extend far beyond those in the original intimate groups and they also belong to many groups. Their relationships in these are less personal and more superficial but such memberships are very important to them. Such secondary groups include school groups, work groups, and also professional, political, religious and recreational organizations. Consequently, people belong to many groups and each individual has multiple group memberships and the web of these memberships is sometimes referred to as friendship networks.

In addition to primary and secondary groups, there is another way to categorize the term "group". These are known as societal categories and life experiences. Examples of the former include age, gender, nation, profession and university, and the latter includes the Depression; World War 2; the Vietnam War; widespread use of computers.

In conclusion, each individual belongs to some specific groups each having specific norms. People also exchange information using symbols (i.e. words) that is symbolic interactionism - coined by Blumer in 1969 (Sotobayashi, Tsuji, Shimazu, Nohmi 1981: 223). This means that conversations between different groups can be sometimes difficult since meanings are not understood. Aveni suggests that "people often think or assume that they are sharing the same experience in the same way, but in fact they may not" (Aveni, 1990: 51). Consequently, exhibition designers must create exhibitions for both individual visitors in their specific groups and group visitors, taking account of age, socio-economic standing for example. These priorities are not easy to achieve because of various demands by visitors in an exhibition. However some specific exhibitions for particular groups can be relatively easily designed and these kinds of exhibitions may be able to greatly influence such groups in terms of acquisition of net knowledge.


The numbers of family visitors are usually biggest in general exhibitions. So the study of the behaviour of family visitors is significant in terms of designing exhibitions. Kropf's paper (Kropf, 1989: 5-8) discusses this matter using papers, from Benton (1979), Wolf and Tymitz (1979), Rosenfeld (1980), Diamond (1981), Hilk and Balling (1985) and Taylor (1986).

First of all, in general, families come to exhibitions with a range of social agendas. Families viewing the exhibition may consider the acquisition of new knowledge as less important (Rosenfeld, 1980 quoted by Kropf, 1989: 7, & Spires, 1980: 13). In addition to this, families often discuss exhibits in terms of their previous experiences and therefore the acquisition of new knowledge may be not so important for them (Taylor, 1986 quoted by Kropf, 1989: 7, & Spires, 1989: 13). The families may simply see visiting the exhibition as a leisure activity.

Typically, family visitors tend to walk through an exhibition without long stops to view particular sections. However if they can interact with exhibits or museum guides, the length of stay tends to be longer. In addition, novel or unusual content attracts them for longer periods. One of the reasons for the short length of stay depends on children's behaviour. For instance, young boys often investigate their favorite exhibit ahead of the family groups, and this encourages the family groups to move on quickly. Beton (1979 quoted by Kropt, 1989: 6) found that in zoos, the length of watching exhibits such as animals by family visitors was only one third of their total spent time in the zoo. The rest of the time was used for just walking, using the playground, are especially eating since most families spent more time at the food concessions than viewing the exhibits probably because of children's demands.

Reading labels and panels is not popular amongst family visitors. Especially "children are much less likely to read labels and are more affected by motion" (Bitgood, Nichols, Pierce & Patterson, 1986; Koran, Koran and Longino, 1986: 227-224). Family visitors tend to be more interested in viewing displays which immediately catch their attention than labels which do not attract them in the first place.

However, in zoos, children ask most questions such as the animal's name and have personal interactions with animals. Adults tend to interact more frequently with children than other adults, and children are more apt to converse with adults than other children, that is, exchange of information between family members tends to be mostly between adults are children. Consequently adults sometimes read labels in order to answer children's questions.

People visiting museums with family or friends wish to engage in social interaction. In this case, "the use of an audio tape tour with a portable tape recorder discourages their social interaction" (Bitgood, 1989b: 3). However according to Spire's paper, audio tours do not disturb a family's interactions, and rather encourages their conversations. Since, in her case study, "family members were asked to turn off the tape frequently for discussions at their own pace and to view other works of art not highlighted by the audio tour" (Spires, 1989: 13). She quotes from some visitors: "Very fine, stimulated communication in family on the rocks at this time". "My daughter and I have not talked for weeks until today, thanks". These comments are not representative of all family visitors, but an audio tour can work in terms of education for the a family as well as their interaction if designed deliberately as explained above.

However some guided tours by docents (museum guides) seem to be problematic. One of the problems is that families do not listen to the commentary by the trained guides, nor do they ask question (Rosenfeld, 1980, quoted by Kropf, 1989: 8). Another problem is that volunteer interpreters often do not have enough training or knowledge to answer visitors' questions (Taylor, 1986, quoted by Kropf, 1989: 8). Consequently well-trained docents who correct visitor's misconceptions as well as attract them are needed.


Differences between male and female in terms of their preference for museum objects have been investigated by some researchers. Patterson and Bitgood suggest that females are less likely to prefer snakes and insects than are males (Patterson and Bitgood, 1985).

Korn R. (1990: 256-262) also found distinctions between both genders. In a case study (on the National Museum of American History, the USA, 1989), first of all, the observations indicated that more men (76%) approached weapons than women (24%). Secondly in the pots exhibition, only 11% of males were interested in pots, although 36% of females were attracted by them, according to interview responses. However, when asked the theme of the pots exhibition, only 10% of females were able to correctly identify this, whereas 60% of males answered correctly. This research suggests that people come to exhibitions in order to view museum objects, not necessarily to see conceptual themes and stories, and this may be particularly true for females. Consequently, the power of the object is significant.


  Aveni A.F., 1990. The Group Context of Visitor Behavior, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice V3, Center for Social Design: 48-54.

  Bitgood S., 1989. Museum Evaluation From a Social Design Perspective, Technical Report No 89-20 December 1989, Center for Social Design: 3.

  Bitgood S., Nichols G., Pierce M. & Patterson D., 1986. The Effects of Instructional Signs on Museum Visitors, Technical Report No 86-70, Jacksonville, AL: Psychology Institute, Jacksonville State University.

  Drever J., 1971. A Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin Reference Books: 274.

  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.

  Korn R., 1990. Men and Women: Do They Experience Exhibits Differently? Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice V3, Center for Social Design: 256-262.

  Kropf M.B., 1989. The Family Museums Experience: A Review of the Literature, Journal of Museum Education, Museum Education Roundtable, Washington DC: 5-8.

  Patterson D. & Bitgood S., 1985. Birmingham Zoo Visitor Survey (a report submitted to the Alabama Zoological Society).

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

  Reber A.S., 1985. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin Books: 711.

  Sotobayashi D., Tsuji S., Shimazu K. & Nohmi Y., 1981. Seishin Shinrigaku Jiten (Seishin Dictionary of Psychology), Seishin Shoboh (Japan): 223.

  Spires S., 1989. An Audio Tour for Family Visitors, Journal of Museum Education, V14 N2 Spring-Summer 1989, Museum Education Roundtable, Washington DC: 13.

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