The museum audience segmentation: My 8 types of museum visitors tool
It was not a lot of time ago that I have experienced why visitors’ behaviours are so important for museums. The literature on the topic is vast, but as a museum professional and passionate museum visitor, I am going to give you some tips to discover what kind of visitor you might be.
Every museum is closely connected to its audience. Despite the effort of museums to arrange attractive displays, it seems that it is the visitor who ultimately decides how to engage and interact with the collection. Some engagements are tangible, other intangible such as mindfulness as explained in this episode of For Arts Sake podcast where Karly Allen explores the interplay of art and mindfulness.
Thanks to my experiences in different museums and my closed observations on visitors’ behaviours, I was able to outline 8 museum visitor profiles based on theories and data of the audience segmentation.
The science behind the audience segmentation studies used by museums to understand their public has the same foundation of consumers behaviours theories. However, museums and cultural institutions are not necessarily selling a product but experiences.
One of the purposes of museums is to make the visit to their permanent or temporary collection as experiential as possible according to the institutional mission. Not an easy undertaking, but the world’s leading museums have reached great levels of Visitor Experience focusing on their audience and not only on the collection they preserve.
“Visiting a museum is an experience and any visit is a unique experience”
Whatever is the reason for visiting museums, the basics are the same. A building, many things to see and mostly limited time to do so. But what kind of visitors are we? Why are we visiting a museum? How do we react to the museum space and the objects on display? Which expectations we have?
Who we are and what we want to achieve from the visit determines how we see things, although there is always room for unpredictability.
A bit of theory
Since the beginning of the modern concept of museology, the visitor has become the centre of interest to which attention is directed. Observations on visitors show that audience behaviour and experience are anything but predictable. Yet in 2009, John Falk (an American museum scholar) identified 5 categories of museum-type visitors with certain characteristics that identified the public in the way they visit museums:
Far from being static, these macro Falk’s typologies were thought to be flexible and modular. Considering that people’s attitudes are variable, the way they visit museums is also unpredictable.
Museums want to know what triggers visitors’ interest, to make the experience unique and memorable.
More than 10 years have passed and Falk’s theories have continued to evolve. Nowadays the world’s leading museums, with thousands of visitors and a reputation that precedes them, relied on agencies specialized in the cultural sector to analyse their audience and develop visitors profiles.
Let’s see two examples in detail of how these agencies can help museums to benefit from a different group of audiences.
The Audience Agency is a mission-led charity funded by the Arts Council England, as a Sector Support Organisation whose purpose is to enable cultural organisations to use their national data to increase museums relevance, reach and resilience. What they do is work with museums departments to gain a deeper understanding of current and potential audiences. The Audience Agency has developed a tool called the Audience Spectrum that allows museums to discover, compare and benchmark their audience with the whole population.
The Morris Hargraves McIntyre are change agents: through customer research, they assist and support their clients in becoming more effective and sustainable using enhanced audience focus. They have developed a free, sector-specific segmentation system for the arts, culture and heritage market — called Culture Segments — a powerful psychographic segmentation tool to help museums better understand and engage with their attenders and non-attenders (you can try it here).
Due to the current critical situation, these agencies have developed studies about the impact of Covid-19 on audiences as suggested also in this For Arts’ Sake article.
The audience segmentation research is applied by the museums at any stage of their work. For instance, in collection interpretation, to plan exhibitions and learning activities, but also to reach community engagement, inclusivity and marketing campaigns.
Another variable to think about is that each museum has its own identity, mission and ethos. So their audience tends to vary accordingly.
With these theories and concepts, together with my own experience in the National Museums of London (the V&A, the Science Museum, the National Gallery), I have designed My 8 type of visitors tool. My mission is to interpret the audience segmentation for the visitors’ benefit and use. I created this guideline to understand what kind of visitors we are in museums and how we can optimise our visit without being overwhelmed.
To design my 8 types of visitors tool, I considered the variables that we may come across when approaching museums. For example, the social and entertainment motivation, the intellectual part of our interests, and the emotions that guide us to the discovery.
My 8 type of visitors tool
How to use the tool:
The first step is to identify the visit scenario, the reason why we are visiting museums.
Now that you’ve visualised a scenario, here 3 questions that might help you picture your experience before and during your visit to a museum.
I have launched these questions in a survey to get answers from friends, acquaintances and anyone who came across it. The answers were very interesting because expanded my point of view as a regular visitor and professional, considering who experiences museum visits differently.
In summary, visiting a museum could be challenging. The concerns may be determined by the nature of the museum itself. The building and design could be complex to navigate, or the collection on display might be difficult to follow.
It seems that — Where to start the visit — is the dilemma of many. If you can recall the first visit to a big museum, you have probably experienced a sense of loss and confusion that discourages and tires many visitors.
To know what to see — it also seems to be a challenge for most of the public, so they tend to look for the outstanding pieces as a selection of the vast offer.
When, where and how to approach a visit involves planning journeys and bookings tickets. All factors together might prevent the audience from returning periodically to museums. However, spontaneous visits tend to be more common among those who live closer. In this scenario, the museum is experienced also as a meeting place for locals, as an alternative space in the city and not only for museum enthusiasts.
Another factor to consider is the company. The experience changes depending on those with who we choose to share a visit. Also, museums seem to be a favourite place for solo explorers.
If a museum reflects our tastes and passions, it could become a familiar and affectionate place. Therefore, visiting a museum can be both a social and an inner experience, the choice is up to us.
And now you can enjoy discovering what kind of visitors type suits you better depending on your scenario of visit.
Are you an Avid Cultural Users who never miss a room or a Busy Ambitions with a ready checklist?
Are you a Cutting-edge trend discoverer or a Cultural Nostalgic?
Whoever you might be, your time spent in museums, art gallery or heritage site is a personal experience, and you can make it unique every time.
I hope My 8 type of visitors tool guide may help you better understand who you are while visiting a museum. Once back in the galleries among objects, be yourself. Don’t be intimidated by museums opulence, the vast knowledge they contain or by the challenge of certain art forms. Remember those objects are there for you.
“It is the human being, in his ontological essence, who is irremediably complicated and for this reason so curiously creative and noteworthy.”
Philippe Daverio, art history critic (1949–2020)
Silvia De Vecchi
Silvia is an art historian an addicted museum visitor and a professional. After years of studying deeply the fundamentals of art history at Milano’s University, she moved to the UK to explore deeply the museum and collection management with a Masters. In the last five years, she has worked in London National Museums and as a visitor guide. Currently, she is working in the V&A Museum Archive of Art and Design unlocking the hidden collection to make it accessible and more relevant to the public.
Her interest in the Visitor Experience and the audience is tangible in her engaging tours in Museums and Cultural Heritage sites. She hopes to be able to visit museums and art gallery soon to share her exploration of new pieces of art and museums exhibitions.