I spent last week on vacation in the High Sierras rock climbing. Between high-altitude hijinks, run-ins with wildlife, and very long days of hiking, I finished John Falk's new book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. In it, John provides a model for the museum visitor experience based on one fundamental idea: people visit and make meaning from museum experiences based on their ability to fulfill identity-related goals and interests. In other words, if you are a curious person, you will go to museums to learn new things. If you are someone seeking spiritual refreshment, you will go to museums to relax and recharge. Different people in the same museum on the same day can have very different experiences--and memories of their experiences--based on the personal context in which they enter.
John details five identity needs that are well-served by museums: explorer, experience seeker, recharger, professional/hobbyist, and facilitator. The explorer is a curious person who loves to dig into things. The experience seeker wants to see the icon, the superlative item or experience. The recharger wants a mental break in a relaxing setting. The professional/hobbyist has a very specific, directed goal for her visit related to her work or a focused hobby. And the facilitator wants his friends and family to have a good time. We all embody these identities at different times, but we may not perceive all museums as equally able to accomodate their associated needs. I might not go to a children's museum for a recharge, nor would I necessarily see myself as a good facilitator if I dragged my friends through a crowded mega-museum. John argues that the way for museums to succeed--in marketing, in programming, and in providing value to visitors--is for them to enhance and support accomodation for different identity needs.
John contextualizes this argument within a larger discussion about leisure and American life. He cites many studies showing that as people move up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we have transitioned from focusing on work (a means of survival) to leisure (a means of personal fulfillment). Also, as more people do work that is not physically taxing, the desire to "veg out" has faded and the desire to use leisure to improve our bodies, minds, and creative abilities has increased. The more we see our leisure activities as tied to our self-identity, the more consciously we choose what to do with our free time.
And this brings me back to the mountains. I've always felt slightly guilty that I don't choose to use my vacation time, or really any significant amount of my leisure time, to visit museums. I enjoy them when I visit, but they aren't the first thing that springs to mind on a Sunday afternoon. Reading John's book, I realized that while there are times when I want to explore, seek experiences, facilitate social endeavors, pursue hobbies, and recharge myself spiritually, I rarely see museums as places to do any of that. Additionally, I have other more central leisure identity needs--to be physically active, to take risks, to be outside, to make things--that are rarely accommodated by museums. I saw every part of our vacation through the lens of the book, and my climbing partner (a highly active and artistic guy) and I spent a lot of time analyzing the choices we did and didn't make and how they reflected our expressions of identity. We both love carrying all necessary belongings on our own backs, producing our own food and shelter, and using our physical abilities to propel ourselves into new, gorgeous situations.
We did stop at two museum-like places on our drive home: a photography gallery featuring images taken by a climber, where we pored over his photos and personal effects and compared his gear to our own, and a place that attracted us with a giant sign that read, "COME AND SEE HOW CHEESE IS MADE." In both cases, our identity needs were met. At the gallery, we were curious rechargers, connecting our own personal experience to some incredible art and stories. At the cheese place, we were experience seekers, and though the production values on the "exhibit" were lousy, we still enjoyed ourselves. But these two stops were each a blip on a much longer trip spent pushing ourselves physically and mentally in a remote and astoundingly beautiful place.
And so I came down from the mountains wondering what identity needs are not well-met by museums. Clearly the desire to be outside and take physical risks is rarely accommodated, especially for adults. Another thing museums lack is the ability to improve at a chosen vocation. Every time I go climbing or run, I have the opportunity to push myself and increase my skill level. I know there are some people who use museums as an opportunity to increase their knowledge, but there aren't many explicit measures by which a more goal-oriented person like me can perceive successive mastery. Finally, as a person who spends lots of my leisure time working on home projects and building whimsical things like ziplines, I note that museums are rarely places where (adult) visitors can make things, especially things that take time and matter to them.
My three priority leisure goals are to be outside, increase my physical abilities (usually in a social setting), and create fun and beautiful things to use. That's how I spend my out-of-work time. At the end of his book, John suggests that the way to bring in new visitors who are unfamiliar with museums is to demonstrate to them how the institutions can meet their explorer, experience seeker, recharger, professional/hobbyist, and facilitator needs. While I agree that we all have these needs, there are many people like me for whom these needs are not primary in their personal leisure profile. Yes, I use rock climbing as a way to seek new experiences, pursue a hobby, and mentally recharge. But those goals are secondary to the primary focus on physical challenge and achievement. And for good or ill, I see other activities, like reading and playing games, as a better way to satisfy my explorer and facilitator sides.
For me, a museum would have to be significantly different--outdoors, involving challenges, inviting me to spend my time working on something of value--for it to be my first choice during leisure time. In some ways this sounds impossible, but there are several small gestures that could get me in the door more frequently. Roof gardens and sculpture patios pull me into comfortable recharging spaces. A hackerspace or co-creation project would bring me in to work socially and actively on creating something for myself or for the community. Outdoor biking tours, games, or exhibits like the New York Hall of Science's mini golf course could attract my active outdoor side.
Museums are already successful at addressing the five identity needs that John describes. Is this enough? Should museums focus on supporting these five and hope that new experience seekers and explorers and rechargers will start to see the museum as a good place to accommodate their goals? Is it ok that that means that people like me still won't see museums as a priority leisure destination? Or are there other leisure goals that museums should consider accommodating? Would it diffuse museums' core competencies to provide experiences for people like me, or would it enhance their ability to serve the public?
How do you spend your leisure time? How does it reflect your personal identity? And where do museums fit in?
And one more thing: I have an extra copy of Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience to give away. If you think it would be useful to you, please leave a thoughtful comment with some kind of contact info and I'll randomly select a recipient to receive it by midnight, September 13.