Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What's Your Leisure Identity? Does it Bring You Into Museums?

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.

18 comments, add yours!:

Unknown said...

This so resonates with me, Nina. I am so "in" my marketing writer mode during the typical week, but I still take at least an hour every day to go for a bike ride or long walk etc. My leisure identity has to balance out my biz identity.. but I also like for my leisure identity to be the first thing people know about me... Thanks for sharing your take.

James said...

As a museum educator, this is really interesting, especially as we shift our department into a new direction. Obviously, it would be nice to offer a program that meets every need for people of all ages. But how long does it take to accomplish that goal? Years? And if it's not accomplished "correctly," then visitors can see right through it.

I work in a place that locals rarely come after their 4th grade spring field trip, but they're more than happy to refer out-of-town visitors here. My leisure identity is to be recharged, but also to have fun doing it in a new setting, experiencing something different along the way.

But it's easy to only offer programs that fit your own personal needs.

All this is to say that it's an extremely interesting thought, and it is challenging me to think less selfishly about the education programs I create...

J. said...

This blog entry was really thought-provoking for me. I was recently invited to join a group at our museum to rethink the visitor experience. My regular responsibilities revolve around taking care of the historical artifacts in our collection, so thinking more about what sort of experiences our visitors might be seeking, and how we can provide them, is something that I haven't really thought about before in a systematic way. I definitely want to check out this book!

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of Marilyn Hood's 1983 article "Staying Away" from Museum News, where she talks about frequent participants, non-participants and occasional participants. The non's looks for social interaction, active participation, and comfort in leisure-time activities (and tend not to find them at museums). Boy, a lot has changed since 1983! But still, the idea that museums can appeal to new audiences on the basis of what they value in a leisure experience (and this is different for everyone) still resonates. Thanks for inspiring me to think more about leisure values.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

It's interesting that you use some of your leisure time to write a museum blog rather than a rock-climbing blog.

Nina Simon said...

I was hoping to secretly do both at the same time without anyone noticing! More seriously, I don't much care for pondering the essence of climbing. I just like doing it. It's one of those little-talked-about aspects of flow experiences--they feel kind of mindless when you are having them.

Nina Simon said...

Also, if you are interested in receiving the extra copy of the book, please make sure that either your comment is linked to your name in a way that I can find you, or send me an email at nina @ museumtwo . com

Liz said...

I'm excited to see you talking about this, Nina. I saw John Falk present this book and the five different identities at the AAM conference this spring. Like James, I'm a museum educator and I thought it was a fascinating way to look at visitors and the reasons they come to museums. Falk made the point that it isn't enough to know why these people come to museums. We need to take this knowledge and create museum experiences that cater to each specific group, just like how you mentioned that you would enjoy a rooftop garden or sculpture patio. For instance, provide a highlights tour for experience seekers, a quiet gallery space for rechargers or talking points for facilitators.

The difficulty with this is that each identity has such different needs that it is hard to accommodate all of them within one museum. Unfortunately, I didn't get to hear the end of Falk's presentation because, as a student volunteer at AAM, I had other duties to attend to. I'd be interested to see what suggestions Falk has for creating meaningful experiences for all the identities.

bronwyn said...

Thanks for posting this and making me aware of the book, its now been added to my list of museum texts to get. I think it's really interesting to consider how museums can look beyond their traditional markets to capture all those different visitors needs and experiences.

I noticed that James commented on how his workplace rarely gets people after 4th grade. I work at a historic house with a similar problem - most of our visitors are primary school kids or international visitors. our local community doesn't visit because it just isn't what they are interested in and it doesn't connect with any experiences they are after. Because of this we are looking at how we can develop public programs that rely less on the historical stories of the building and more on the spaces within the building and the multiple uses of those spaces. We are looking at cooking and craft workshops, story telling, book readings, music making and a range of other things that might link into those desires and get people into the space without thinking about it as a museum.

I'll be very interested in reading this and seeing if we can look at ways to engage with and attract different identities through a range of programs.

Melanie said...

Thank you for your post! I have worked in Visitor Services for 6 years and the conversations I have with or overhear from our guests are fascinating, especially thinking about them in this way.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts. Your post made me think how, even in trying to be more customer focused in our work, we're often still too bound up in what our organizations are today. The conversation starts from the question, "What needs do museums serve today?" rather than from the question, "What are the most important needs and interests to the people in our community? And how can we create art-based experiences that best serve those needs and interests?" Without asking these questions we can end up putting tremendous effort and resource into changes that, in the end, don't make our institutions any more important to our communities than they are today (though the current patrons may be better served and more connected).


SomedaysSarah said...

As a grad student in Museum Studies in Japan, I love reading your blog as it gives me a glimpse of the debate and current-ness of many of the topics I'm most interested in. I need this partiularly because many of those subjects (visitor services and museum education especially) are still very new (if not nearly non-existant) here.


Jessica said...

Are you familiar with Chip Conley's book Peak? He used Maslow's hierarchy to reinvigorate his business model. He runs a hotel chain in SF and creates hotels that are "identity refreshers" for different target customers. Similar ideas about customer/audience experience, but Falk seems much more person-focused and applies it directly to the arts. Sounds like a good read!

Thomas Mackie said...

RE: What is your Leisure Identity?
I have been thinking about the various features over museum visitors and education recently published. Your article just sent to me by e-mail, brought this to the front. There is a trend being promoted ever since Joe Pine drafted his ideas of Museums as a part of the “Experience Economy” and then used that model for all museums. This view weakens the distinction that should exist between a museum and a commercial venture that features museum like activities. It is a fallacy to expect to be enough for all people. However, it is enough to be excellent at meeting your own mission. By this I mean a well crafted and complete reason to be. It requires a flexible attitude toward visitors to meet what needs you can, but not to change their mission.
The various types of visitors that do exist often come to us in mixed clusters The mission, nature of the collections, and managerial realities create real limits to what types of experiences can or should be offered. Museums and cultural groups must cluster their offerings with different museums and partner with friendly for-profits. Museums play a part in their community to reach the whole person but should not try to do so themselves.

Tom Mackie, Director
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
Lincoln Memorial University
Harrogate TN 37724

Emma C. said...

I guess my leisure identity is outdoors and physical-focussed too - this is what really seems to recharge my energy. So, like you, it isn't that often that I'd choose a museum as the first place to go for my leisure time, although the museum might be a stop-off on a bike ride or something.
But I do volunteer, at a maritime museum, in my leisure time, as a crew member on their working vessels, and sometimes in the workshop painting. Because it is physical, does challenge me, and there are chances for self-extension (e.g. you can get sea time for a professional maritime ticket), I keep coming back. But this is as a volunteer, rather than a visitor.
However this same museum (NZ National Maritime Museum) has great interactive opportunities for kids through an education programme, and adults as visitors can go out on the boats, but the opportunities are more limited for really extending yourself as a visitor. But I think many visitors would love to do more, and as crew I always get heaps of people who would like to help raise sails, learn to coil rope or whatever.
So, I really enjoy reading your ideas about getting people to be active participants in museums - as I think people are often looking for more of that when they visit. I think more local people (rather than tourists) would become more regular visitors to museums if their leisure needs were met!
P.S. Are you still coming to the NDF? If so, I hope you get to spend a bit of your leisure time in the outdoors when you're in NZ!

Nina Simon said...

One of the interesting things that came up in John Falk and Beverly Sheppard's book Thriving in the Knowledge Age was Beverly's realization, while running a historic site, that members wanted to get to do all the cool stuff that volunteers and staff do. So they were actually able to offer programs where visitors paid to learn more about the work staff are paid to do! We need more maritime centers where visitors can hoist the sails, more historic sites where they can chop wood, etc. My partner is from a farming area and he's always shocked that urban people will pay to pick their own fruit, but what's leisure to one person is work to another. There's a good article on these differences here.

And yes, I will be in NZ for NDF and my partner and I are planning ten days in the middle for tramping - very exciting. He had knee surgery in April so we are thrilled that he will finally be able to join me back on the trail.

Nina Simon said...

Thank you all for your comments, and congratulations to James, whose name I randomly picked out of a bowl this morning. James, I will email you to find out where I can mail the book!

And I'm definitely going to check out Peak - that sounds like a really interesting read. Thanks, Jessica, for the recommendation.

And Leslie, if Marilyn Hood's article is still accessible somewhere on the web, I'm sure many of us would love to see it.

Jerry said...

I just finished reading John Falk's inspirational book. I work for an organisation who looks after 5 heritage sites. I will be certainly be looking at the extent to which we meet the needs of the 5 identity types defined by Falk.

I have recently read that some museums make the mistake of trying too hard to be all things to all people. I think the beauty of Falk's model, however, is that it should be possible for most museums to provide something for each of them.

On the other hand I would not see a museum as a "failure" if they did not, for example, provide outward bound type activities when these are better supplied by other organisations...this does then bring us onto the role of the museum, which I agree can be as narrow or broad as you care to define it!