Our assumptions about an exhibition we are about to visit are also shaped by the way we have learnt about it. We may be informed about the display by an advertisement or the emphatic account of a friend or colleague. In the second case, our expectations are higher. If an exhibition is being advertised all over the city and the media, we are inclined to go and see and take part in the apparently important experience. The museum should wet our appetite if it wants us to rush in hungry.
Falk and Dierking (2000) describe the museum experience as a place for contextual learning. They presume that the learning process is influenced by three factors:
– The personal context: gender, age, education and previous experiences of the visitor.
– The social context: our relationship to other people suggesting that we go or accompanying us during the visit: our partner, some family members, casual acquaintances in a tourist group, complete strangers who came for the same guided tour, etc. The museum staff: guides, guards, explainers, lecturers – they also contribute to this context.
– The physical context: the building with its information system and the exhibition with its visual effects and verbal communication.
This documentary video produced for this book gives you an impression about the atmosphere of the museums during irregular cultural events and educational programmes.
The personal context has little to do with the exhibition. Museum staff may influence this aspect through positioning the institution in society, through making it relevant for as many potential visitors as possible. The social context is an interaction between visitor expectations and previous experiences and the intellectual and emotional offerings of the museum staff. The physical context is the product of the institution. The building has a clear message which the exhibition may reinforce or oppose. (In Chapter 2 we explained how museum buildings “work”.) Visitor routes through the halls are also spiritual journeys that are guided by different communication channels. However, it would be a mistake to concentrate on this last aspect only, as all three components of the visitor experience are interrelated.