Museum Practice chap 22: ‘Visitor Studies’ by Lee Davidson

In this chapter of my new book Museum Practice, my colleague Lee Davidson looks at the topic of visitor research, something that has been referred to already in a few chapters earlier in this blog. Davidson points out that visitor studies is developing as a “more methodologically and theoretically sophisticated sub-field of museum studies.” “The key to its future, she argues, “is to maintain a strong dialogue between theory and practice, with museum practitioners and university researchers working together to build a culture of reflective practice and critical museology for the visitor-centred museum”.

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Davidson reviews the brief history of visitor surveys and other forms of research, and the more recent qualitative methods employed to find out what the visitors do, think and feel in the museum, and then the numerous uses to which this information can be put internally, not just in areas like marketing, education and public programmes but also collection development, visioning etc. Indeed visitor research has become an integral part of museum practice across the board which underpins what the institution does not just by testing whether its work is effective or not, but by furnishing information about users and what meanings they make from their experiences.

One important area she touches on is exhibition evaluation, a critical if misunderstood aspect of exhibition development which can help guide and refine the process of making exhibits. Another crucial topic to watch in future, she argues, is virtual visitors, the question of how to measure and analyse those who do not come through the door but via the website, or Facebook page. Since museums are not just bricks and mortar, but digital entities, finding out more about visitors to these elusive spaces is essential for museums to remain relevant.

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Dr Lee Davidson is a senior lecturer in the Museum and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include leisure (history, theory and contemporary practice); visitor studies; narrative research methods; tourism and natural/cultural heritage. She has published research articles in Visitor Studies, the International Journal of Travel Research and Leisure Sciences, as well as contributing a chapter to Intangible Natural Heritage (Routledge, 2012) and co-authoring Serious Leisure and Nature (with R.A. Stebbins, Palgrave, 2011). Recent projects include the development of a national visitor research framework for New Zealand’s museum sector (in association with Museums Aotearoa), and a transnational, collaborative study of Te Papa’s exhibition E Tū Ake: Standing Strong on tour in France, Mexico and Canada.

See her blog Museums and International Touring Exhibitions here:

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About mccartco

Conal McCarthy has published widely on the historical and contemporary Māori engagement with museums, including the books Exhibiting Māori: A history of colonial cultures of display (2007) and Museums and Māori: Heritage professionals, indigenous collections, current practice (2011). His new book is Museum practice (2015) in the series International Handbooks of Museum Studies. This edited collection includes chapters on many aspects of current professional work from audience, leadership and policy to collections, exhibitions and conservation. His next book co-authored with Bronwyn Labrum of Massey University will explore history of/in museums.
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