Attended a talk by John Falk about identity today and here's my notes.

  • No such thing as the “public” – there are only collections of visitors
  • Visitors cannot be understood by starting with the museum and what we do
  • People visit to fulfil their own needs – these may not have anything to do with the museum
  • Therefore need to start from the visitors’ perspective, not ours
  • Many efforts to study visitors have taken place within the four walls of the museum
  • Visitors mostly have been described in terms of the kind of museum/exhibits or characteristic of visitor demographics
  • Gave example of survey conducted for California Science Centre which foundthat the single best predictor of who visited was lifestyle and what you did in leisure time (as well as income) – people who visit musuems aslo go to library, go on family trips, read books, etc
  • Visitor experience not tangible and immutable but rather an ephemeral and protracted relationship – need to think about the visit in terms of being a piece in a person’s life, and that the visitor experience extends beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the museum
  • His research suggests the best way to understand the abstract relationship of visitrs and mujseum is through the lens of identity – although identity is a ‘very slippery construct to pin down’
  • Identity is complex and multidimensional: there is ‘I identity’ – who I think I am and ‘me identity’ – how others define who I am, can be tension between these
  • Visitors identities can be made indirectly visible through their descriptions of why they are visiting – their expectations and motivations
  • Identities are robust ways of describing visitors and there are five categories: explorers, facilitators, experience seekers, professional hobbyists, recharger
  • Falk has also identified two new categories – cultural affinity (to learn about themselves) and respectful pilgrim (motivated by sense of duty and obligation)
  • Memories and meanings are shaped by what the visitor sees and does as well as events that occur post-visit, emotions feature very strongly in memory

Visitors using the guide map
Visitors discover the museum galleries and facilities using the Guide Map. Image: James Horan
© Australian Museum


  • By understanding visitors’ entering identity-related motivations we can customise experiences to provide them with what they want (or else just the tools for them to customise for themselves I think)
  • We can influence why people visit and the ways they think post-visit about their experiences
  • It is not about creating different exhibits and programs – it’s about creating different visitor experiences
  • Visitors’ identity-related motivations tells us how the public perceives museums
  • John also discussed the problems with measuring long-term learning.

John also inspired me to revisit the sections of my thesis that look at identity and have written three more blog posts: