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Museum Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Theory and Praxis (September): Engagement and Evaluation

By Juilee Decker

Engagement and Evaluation

Engagement has become a buzzword in the field of museum studies and it drives both theory and application. In The Participatory Museum Nina Simon stands on the shoulders of many of the giants discussed above.  She interprets and contextualizes earlier approaches, drawing from them a mini-manifesto for cultural institutions and challenging them “to invite visitor participation while promoting institutional goals.”  Simon’s follow-up book, The Art of Relevance, builds on her audience-focused work and digs deeper in looking at how museum work (and other kinds of work) can become more vital to the community by inviting perspectives from all.

Framing engagement across three areas—stakeholder, audience, and community—Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle’s Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement argues that “magnetic” museums become essential to their communities by involving stakeholders in meaningful experiences and widening the circle to let in, and empower, others. 

Museums serve the public, and how the museum interfaces with the public is important. Museum visitor studies seek to understand and so enhance visitor experiences, particularly educational experiences. John Jacobsen’s Measuring Museum Impact and Performance: Theory and Practice offers a toolkit (supplemented by an online resource) aimed at helping museums measure impact and performance and, in turn, communicate their value to their communities. Combining educational theory with business and measurement savvy (and terminology, glossed in an appendix), the book is an accessible resource for evaluative measures.

A pioneer in social design, Stephen Bitgood has done much to enrich the visitor studies field, particularly through his three-stage attention-value model—capture, focus, and engage. In Attention and Value: Keys to Understanding Museum Visitors, Bitgood offers guidance in creating more effective environments through self-guides, exhibit design, and navigation. John Falk and Lynn Dierking published The Museum Experience in 1992, taking as their premise the no-longer-shocking notion that visitors do not come to museum spaces as blank slates ready to take in wisdom. In The Museum Experience Revisited, published two decades later, Falk and Dierking elaborate on their contextual model of learning and call for changing  and reimagining the museum. They write that “each and every museum must rethink how it does its work if it wants to thrive in the radically altered marketplace and society of the twenty-first century.” Falk and Dierking have collaborated in developing visitor studies models that look beyond demographics and toward identity-related interests and needs. In addition, Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience approaches visitor studies by developing a museum visitor experience model that highlights the role identity-related motivations play in the museum visitor experience.

In Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens, and Libraries, Stephanie Weaver fosters the idea of offering the best possible visitor experiences through brand, identity, staff, and connection to visitors. Weaver outlines an eight-step process she calls experienceology, which can be used to analyze a visit from beginning to end.

Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson’s Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum advocates for listening to visitors and for valuing the hard work that is required when museums decide to transition to the visitor-centered ethos. After introducing the sea change, Samis and Michaelson offer a series of case studies from institutions in the US and Europe that are engaging audiences, acknowledging the struggle to democratize institutions, and offering resources that can help develop a visitor-centered approach. 

Visitor experiences are affected by a variety of factors, and in The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums, Elizabeth Wood and Kiersten Latham present what they call the object knowledge framework, a tool for using objects “to connect museum visitors to themselves, to others, and to their world.” After defining and exploring the framework, Wood and Latham offer examples and exercises of framework use in order to aid readers in developing elements of design, theming, messaging, and content/context.

In Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory, and Space, editors Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone acknowledge the ways in which the museum experience is more than just an encounter of the moment. In fact, it is “a multilayered journey that is proprioceptive, sensory, intellectual, aesthetic, and social.” The collection offers perspectives on the place of museums relative to cognitive science, sensory studies, and multisensory learning. Levent and Pascual-Leone advocate for inclusive multimodal environments and experiences for all museum visitors.

Focusing on art museums, though it is relevant for other museum types as well, Georgia Lindsay’s The User Perspective on Twenty-First Century Art Museums analyzes fourteen museums in the US, Europe, China, and Australia, looking at architecture practices in light of site, programming, and expectations. Of particular note is the broad definition that Lindsay adopts for users—visitors and staff, but also the greater metropolis (including those who have not visited the space) and the ecosystem of which it is a part.