What interests visitors about ancient cultures?

The Audience Research Unit has conducted several studies of exhibitions about ancient cultures.

Visitors were asked about the attraction of ‘ancient cultures’ in both the Ancient Lives (1999) and Pharaohs (1998) exhibitions exit surveys. Responses have been categorised as follows:

  • mystery, romance and beauty of subject
  • culture and technology so advanced for the time
  • personal interest in ancient history and archaeology, specifically Egypt
  • so old - so much survives for us to look at
  • different to our experience
  • identify parallels with today
  • our place in bigger history
  • learning about the people - how they lived and their beliefs • we can learn from them
  • personal interest: studied at school, uni
  • their influence on our lives
  • they were similar to us
  • seeing the real thing
  • beautiful objects
  • how clever they were, detailed and intricate nature of objects

Here's what some visitors to the Ancient Lives exhibition said:

Learning about what they did in the past.

Beauty is inspirational.

Background to our own culture.

See how similar they are – common humanity. Craftsmanship better than ours.

These days don’t see the real thing so much, computer-oriented information these days.

Wealth of artistic talent.

Depiction of life prior to technology – common human conditions are evident.

We also conducted a front-end evalaution for a potential Inca exhibition (2000). We found the aspects of Inca culture that fascinate on a spontaneous level were:

  • Complex and intelligent society
  • Highly ritualised and spiritual society
  • Brutal and bloodthirsty society
  • Preserving their dead
  • Wealth – large amounts of gold and riches
  • An artistic culture

Other general reactions to the concept:

  • They like the mysterious nature of their culture, contradictions and achievements
  • Death rituals of high interest, specifically mummification and reasons behind that
  • Building and architecture provides good example of how advanced their culture was
  • Stories around sacrifice ritual draws on many themes – the ritual itself is what appeals most however
  • Mystery was a consistent theme of interest – they want them explained but don’t expect definitive answers
  • Objects need to be used to help unravel the mystery or provide understanding
  • High degrees of interactivity not necessary but a static exhibition would disappoint.
  • Overall a better approach is to organise the exhibition around visitors’ key areas of interest, rather than chronological or different cultural groupings.

We're currently planning an evaluation of our Art of the Pharoahs exhibition (opening on Saturday 12th September) so be interested to see if these thoughts are still valid. Will keep you posted!