Do museum visitors learn?

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Today, the increasing intersection between leisure and learning time both in tourism and at school, has widened the are of museum functions, that now range from cultural promotion to the integration of educational activities. In this new scenario, however, efficient tools are needed to analyse the impact of what is offered by museums, going beyond the traditional systems used to assess customer satisfaction. For institutions organizing exhibitions or managing museums, as well as for public institutions funding and supervisioning museums, it is not sufficient anymore to know whether visitors have appreciated a certain exhibition or collection, whether they deem appropriate the price paid to visit it, or whether they have perceived the museum staff as sufficiently helpful. New questions have become central for museum managers and curators: what are the motivations and expectations of visitors? Do visitors come to enrich their knowledge or to have fun? And most of all, what do they ‘take back home’ after the visit in terms of learning?

The book “Andare al museo. Motivazioni, comportamenti e impatto cognitivo” (“Visiting Museums. Motivations, behaviour and cognitive impact”), edited by Renato G. Mazzolini and recently published, tries to gives an answer to such questions. It presents the results of an empirical research aimed at analysing the expectations of visitors approaching museums and exhibitions and in particular the benefits they receive from the visit in terms of learning, stimulus to visit other museums or to gather further information, changed attitudes to science, history and art. Visitors of three museums and of three temporary exhibitions were interviewed before the visit, after the visit and three months later, for a total of around three thousand interviews.

What are the main results? Consideration must primarily be given to the fact that there are various types of visitor: those who are highly motivated, who know what they are going to see and are already informed, and the more “casual” visitors, who simply want to while away some time or please a family member. Indeed, people rarely go to the museum alone. Group visitors make up the great majority of visitors to museums in the Trento area. And informal channels (friends and acquaintances) are also the main way people hear about a museum or exhibition. There are then the “occasional” visitors, and the “regular” ones who often visit a certain museum. The most significant aspects regarding impact, especially in the short and medium-term, seem to be linked to factors away from the visit itself; in other words, those who learn the most from the museum visit are those who are more prepared beforehand and have strong educational motivations. But the main result is undoubtedly the conclusion that, by combining the skills of different scholars (sociologists, historians and psychologists), it is possible to create the means of evaluating the museum offer. These could allow its impact to be continually monitored, thereby helping to improve its effectiveness with regard to institutional aims. Such means are indispensable if Italian museums wish to measure up to European models, not only in terms of quantity but also quality.
Just to give an example, the Science Museum in London has a staff of five people employed solely to monitor the impact of the collections on visitors.

It is hoped that similar experiences can then be studied, also on a national scale, in order to open up a debate involving scholars, museum experts and institutions.

“Il Sole 24 Ore”, 22 April 2002.