Museum Visitor Experience and Learning Styles

The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I’m connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner.  These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation. 

I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience.  It’s been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn’t hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.

My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn’t previously visited heritage site with.  The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.

 For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen.  He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best.  Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn’t seem to engage him – regardless of what was in the display case.

Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth.  Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities.  But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station.  In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement.  Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.

Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience.  The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences.  It’s impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.

Temporary Exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center

I spent part of last weekend in Traverse City, Michigan.  The Saturday morning of my trip was spent wandering around The Dennos Museum Center located on Northwestern Michigan College campus. My visit was great, the space is well designed and featured a number of interesting visiting and permanent exhibits.

The Dennos was far from busy when I was there. My partner and I were the only visitors for the bulk of the morning, which allowed us to take our time but also contributed to a bit of an eerie feeling to the gallery spaces. The front desk staff were friendly and helpful at explaining the layout of the space and the content of each gallery. Overall, it was a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Tanioka Shigeo, ‘Asuka,’ 2002

The main visiting exhibit at the Dennos right now is “Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art” which explores the use of bamboo as an artistic medium in Japan.  The exhibit is curated by Dr. Andreas Marks, Director and Chief Curator of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, Hanford, California and is visiting a number of art galleries across the United States in the next few years. 

I particularly enjoyed the historical narrative told by Modern Twist. The exhibit included a number of descriptive panels which described the history behind bamboo being used for functional objects and developing into a nationally significant form of sculptural art.  The textual panels also helped illustrate the role that bamboo items have played in traditional Japanese culture and religious ceremonies. Lastly, the exhibit highlighted the national interested in preserving bamboo sculpture art.  Since 1967 six bamboo artists have been declared national treasures in Japan, highlighting the significance of their on a national scale.  In addition to the historically interesting components of this exhibit, the bamboo sculptures were amazing to look at.  The fine detail and variety of techniques was intriguing and awe inspiring. 

Groundcover II (detail), Larry Cressman

The second, smaller temporary exhibit currently on display at the Dennos is Line Work which features Larry Cressman.  This exhibit focuses on Cressman’s installation drawings that use twigs, wire, and other materials to create unique sculpture pieces.  The temporarily of Cressman’s works intrigued me, as many of his installations are temporary ‘drawings’ that are installed in site-specific ways and never replicated. How can temporary art such as Cressman`s be preserved for future generations? Many of Cressman’s exhibits have been photo documented, but much of their presence is in the 3-D nature of their construct and the shadows created by the materials, which can’t be accurately captured by a camera.

The final temporary exhibit on display right now at the Dennos is The Wings of Icarus featuring the work of Rufus Snoddy, a local artist from Traverse City.  The installation consists of suspended “construction paintings” and was inspired by the mythological story of Icarus. This entire exhibit is suspended from the ceiling of the entrance hall to the Dennos.  The effect is visually appealing and does a great job of utilizing a gallery space in a creative way while simultaneously showcasing artwork in an ideal manner.

All three of the current temporary exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center were interesting and thought inspiring in their own ways.  The layouts of the gallery spaces were conducive to display and education.  In addition to these temporary exhibits the permanent Discovery Gallery and Inuit Art Gallery made an impression on me a well and I plan on writing about them in a later post.

Upper Canada Villiage: Historical Tourism or Commericalism?


Should heritage facilities and organizations be restricted to featuring historically correct events? Any reputable museum or similar institution should have a mandate which outlines which historical period the institution focuses on. However, during times of economic hardship can historical institutions be blamed for attempting to attract visitors by reaching outside of their mandate?

This past Saturday Upper Canada Village held a medieval festival, complete with knights and jousting. The justification for this event, that is clearly outside of the historical scope of the Village, is that the park needs to attract more visitors. Many have been critical of this and other moves by the park, suggesting that the park is becoming overly commercialized. On Saturday, members of the Lost Villages Historical Society and other concerned park patrons protested outside the medieval festival. The Lost Villages Society has also raised some concerns over the safety of artifacts inside the Village, as many of them are out of the view of staff and could easily be stolen. One of my concerns is that without the proper context and explanation of why a medieval festival is being held, some visitors may assume that this type of festival actually occurred in Upper Canada in the 1880s.

Who is in the right in this instance? Should the park be allowed to do whatever is necessary to attract visitors? Or does the park have a responsibility to stick to it’s mandate? How much commercialism is too much? And when does a historical organization begin to lose it’s credibility?

History in the Making.

Following the recent election of Barack Obama, The Smithsonian in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has taken steps to persevere items from Obama’s campaign. The museum has suggested that it intends to recreate one of the field offices from the campaign in a future exhibit.

I think that this was a very proactive decision by the Smithsonian. The election of an African American president was both a monumental and historic event in the history of the United States. And the immediate decision by the Smithsonian to create an exhibit around this election suggests an understanding that history was indeed in the making during the Obama campaign. Not only does the immediate collection of potential artifacts suggest an understanding of the historical significance but it suggests a desire to represent the past in a truly authentic way. As the CBC story suggests, the Smithsonian has collected items such as whiteboards, strategy boards election maps etc. All of which could have been reproduced to some degree or perhaps collected after the fact, but the Smithsonian took the immediate initiative to collect all these seemingly insignificant items, which suggests a larger significance of the exhibit and the election itself.