6.2. Before entering the museum

Two visitors about to enter an exhibition facility: small figures in front of a huge building.

6.3. picture: The Imperial War Museum, Manchester. With its size, the building provides the impression of extraordinary power. The visitor feels overwhelmed, similarly to the first experiences of a citizen in a country entering a war. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Banner hanging at the entrance of a museum with creative wording.

6.4. picture: Banners of the Science Museum, London, invite exploration and raise curiosity. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

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.

Children and adults engaged in solving a quiz.

6.5. picture: An example about the importance of the social context: during the Night of the Museums, even adults are happy to take part in quests and quizzes. During a regular, daytime visit, they would rarely consider sitting down to play. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

This documentary video produced for this book gives you an impression about the atmosphere of the museums during irregular cultural events and educational programmes.

entrance hall with a lot of people wandering around.

6.6. picture: Another example of the importance of social context: different expectations are raised if we enter a huge, empty hall rather than joining others in a busy reception area.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A big group of people standing in front of a small museum showcase.

6.7. picture: If we cannot get close enough to an installation, the guide will lose our attention; we wander off, chat or look at other things. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A big group of people standing in a circle, attentively listening to the woman in the centre.

6.8. picture: A rare moment: the museum guide manages to capture the attention of the whole group. Her secret: she asked them to form a circle, so that she could maintain eye contact. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

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.

A sheet of paper with hand-written text attached to the door of a museum, below the printed announcement of opening times.

6.9. picture: The visitor who encounters this handwritten note, saying “Please call this number upon arrival!”, will expect an informal, friendly atmosphere in the small memorial museum. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Signs showing directions to different attractions.

6.10. picture: Colour-coded road signs in three languages at the Szentendre Open Air Museum (Skanzen). (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

An information panel explaining the floor plan and other characteristics of a village granary.

6.11. picture: A well-designed sign system leads us safely to our destination at the Szentendre Open Air Museum (Skanzen).  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)