WMA conference keynote: Dr. John Falk

by Stephanie Weaver

We were lucky to have Dr. Falk with us to kick off this year's conference in Portland, and also to be part of a visitor satisfaction panel the following day. If you haven't read his newest book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, here are some highlights:

Dr. Falk's extensive research has found that people have a series of identities that we take on and off throughout our lives, and even during the course of a day. What he calls "Big 'I' identities" are things that don't change like gender, race, ethnicity, etc. It's the "Little 'i' identities" that are more fluid, and relevant to those of us in the museum field.

After talking with thousands of visitors, Falk's team has found that there are five main identities that bring visitors to museums. For each, I've linked to a previous blog post giving you more details about visitor services, interpretation, etc.

His work is critical to understanding how and what we provide for visitors. I wish I had known about the five identities when I was on staff at museums! For example, Experience Seekers are probably the only group likely to use an audio tour, if it helps them see the highlights in a time frame that works for them. I recall many audio tour planning sessions; in none of them did we discuss that they would only be used by tourists. It would have made them far more effective had we known that up front (and might have tabled that discussion at some institutions without much tourist traffic). His work also has enormous implications for marketing, exhibitions, social media, website content, and mobile apps. (Note that any of these adults might be in a family group.)

1) Experience seekers: these are what we think of as tourists. People who want to see the highlights, and then check you off their list.

2) Explorers: are defined by their curiosity. They don't know a lot about the subject, or what they are precisely looking for. They "know it when they see it." But they like art, or history, or science, and will follow their interests through your museum.

3) Facilitators: are there for someone else. This may be a child, or a relative or friend from out of town. On that day, they aren't really interested in your content, except as how it will fulfill the needs of their loved one.

4) Professional/hobbyists: are us. Museum professionals who visit museums. Model train collectors visiting train museums. Paleontologists visiting natural history museums. They are highly knowledgeable about the content and want to dive deeply.

5) Rechargers: want to escape, sit quietly, contemplate, perhaps do yoga in your galleries. They want to know when they can come when it's quiet.

It's important to know what mix you have, which might vary at different times of the year. Dr. Falk has a simple card-sort research tool that can be used to test out your audience to see what your mix is. (It is included in the webinar link below.)

Dr. Falk will be speaking as part of the Smith Leadership Symposium next Monday, November 8, 2010. If you don't have a copy of his book, Left Coast Press is offering a 20% discount for WMA attendees. Use this code when ordering from them: L5810

Here's a free podcast with Dr. Falk I did in 2008. He was also a guest on the Experienceology webinar last year, where he showed some great visual examples. (There is a nominal fee of $10 to watch the webinar, which includes the PDF of his card-sorting tool. WMA members can use the code news2010 for $5 off.)




I will be utilizing this point of view with future volunteer trainings. I think that docents and volunteers will enjoy getting this information and using it as an assessment tool when they are thinking about how to approach and interact with visitors.

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