Monthly Archives: March 2013

The design of systems to support people’s navigation of exhibitions often draws on concepts and theories about visitors’ movement through exhibitions. In reference to relevant literature it makes inferences about people’s interests in exhibits by the ways in which they navigate galleries and at which exhibits they stop and for how long. Thereby, designers and museum managers often talk about “visiting styles” and refer to a French paper by Veron and Levasseur (1991). Therein, the authors apparently, I haven’t read the paper, use an analogy from the animal world to describe four types of visiting style: ants, fishes, butterflys and grasshoppers. These types are seen as ideal types and it is argued that mixed styles of navigation are common. In fact, as Opperman and Specht (2000) suggest in reference to Bianchi and Zancanaro’s (1999) conference paper “the classification of a visitor is no longer made stereotypically by describing a visitor uniquely as one of the four animals, but as an estimation of the ‘degree of compatibility between the user’s movement pattern and the four stereotypes’ at a given point in time” (Bianchi and Zancanaro (1999) in Opperman and Specht 2000: p.132). From this typology probabilities are derived regarding people’s navigation pattern. This allows for the fact that visitors might change their visiting style ‘mid-fly’, i.e. as they navigate and exhibition. For example, a fish who has spent relatively little or no time with exhibits in one gallery, may encounter a gallery with objects s/he is more interested in and therefore spends more time with, thus turning into an ant.

This concept of visiting style links the  way and speed in which people navigate exhibitions to their level of engagement with exhibits. Underlying this concept of museum visiting are conventional measures of visitor research, i.e. the stopping and holder power of exhibits, coupled with theories of learning, such as the late Chan Screven’s (1976) goal-referenced approach that link assumptions about ‘learning from exhibits’ to the time people spend with exhibits. Using this approach it is possible to argue for technologies that promise to extend the time of people’s engagement with exhibits because according to theory, it leads to cognitive development.

A different but related kind of typology has been developed by John Falk (2009) in his book “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience”. Here, Falk proposes to link visitor behaviour to people’s motivations  grounded in the identity. His argument is more complex than the typology discussed above. It can be seen as an expansion of earlier work by the same author where he together with colleagues investigated visitors’ agenda for museum visiting.

As Veron and Levasseur’s (1991) typology Falks differentiation of visitors in types represents a classification scheme that in reality cannot be found in this way. It is an attempt to bring order to a messy social world and seems very useful for museum managers and marketing managers because of this lack of messiness. They can use such typologies to make decisions about exhibition programmes or technologies to be deployed in their galleries.

Such theories about museum visiting however largely ignore the reality of visitors’ experience of museums. They neglect what people actually do in museums, how they approach, examine and depart from exhibits, and how they make experiences of exhibits and generate experiences for others. This neglect is grounded on related research that is primarily interested in the individual visitor or in groups and families that are considered as social entities rather than as dynamic social processes. Researchers see the origin of actions, such as the approach to an exhibit or the departure from an exhibit, in either the visitor’s motivation or in the design of the exhibit. Yet, save for very few exceptions these researchers rarely look at how people draw each other to examine exhibits, how they encourage each other to inspect objects in particular ways, how they generate experiences for each other and how they occasion each other to move on.

By investigating the details of people’s action at the “point of experience” where the action is and where the action can be observed, researchers see how people produce experiences of exhibits in interaction with others. Whilst on the surface these details appear to ‘messy’ a closer look reveals that they are systematically produced and intelligibly orderly. Visitors in galleries behave in intelligible ways and their action becomes observable and reportable as museum visiting, without them requiring theoretical typologies to make sense of each other’s action.

It would seem that basing decisions on detailed knowledge about what people are actually doing in museums would provide decision makers in museums with a safer footing than theories about visitors’ actions. Are there any museum managers or designers out there who use detailed observational or video-based research to inform their decision making?


For related research go here



Bianchi, A. and M. Zancanaro, Tracking Users’ Movements in an Artistic Physical Space, in Proceedings of the i3 Annual Conference: Community of the Future, Octo- ber 20 – 22, 1999 in Siena, M. Caenepeel, D. Benyon, and D. Smith, Editors. 1999, The Human Communication Research Centre, The University of Edinburgh: Edin- burgh. p. 103 – 106.

Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press Inc. Retrieved from

Heath, C., & Vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. doi:10.1177/0263276404047415

Oppermann, R., & Specht, M. (2000). A Context-Sensitive Nomadic Exhibition Guide, 127–142.

Screven, C. G. (1976). Exhibit Evaluation: A goal-referenced approach. Curator, 52(9), 271–290.

Véron, E. and M. Levasseur, Ethnographie de l’exposition: L’espace, le corps et le sens. 1991, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.

vom Lehn, D. (2006). Embodying experience: A video-based examination of visitors’ conduct and interaction in museums. European Journal of Marketing, 40(11/12), 1340–1359. doi:10.1108/03090560610702849

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin suisse de linguistique appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2013). Withdrawing from Exhibits: the interactional organisation of museum visits. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility: Language and the Body in Motion. Berlin: de Gryter.