Continuity, Change, and Museum Research

“What makes a museum visitor experience high-quality and personally engaging is that it fully satisfies the visitor’s entering identity-related museum motivations. As museum researcher Zahava Doering wrote: ‘Rather than communicating new information, the primary impact of visiting a museum exhibition is to confirm, reinforce, and extend the visitor’s existing beliefs.” (Falk 153)

“When I looked into the research on relevance, I discovered that experts define relevance as more than a link. In the words of cognitive scientists Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber, relevance ‘yields positive cognitive effect.’ Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. It’s not enough for something to be familiar or connected to something you already know. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table.” (Simon 29)

In reading Falk and Simon, I was struck by these two quotes and what they imply about visitor experience as well as the role of research experts in understanding these experiences. Falk and Doering seem to be suggesting the relative stability of visitors’ relationships to exhibits (confirm, reinforce), although the idea of “extend[ing]” existing beliefs implies some change. Simon, on the other hand, is more explicit about the idea of newness—relevance means adding something, making a difference.

I’m interested in museum research’s relationship to stability and change—how we can study the effect of a museum visit without implying that it needs to alter a visitor’s self-perception? Research is often thought of as a time consuming process and one that needs to hold certain variables constant, but if relevance implies newness and difference, then what might relevant research look like?

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