The Current Value of Visitor Research in Museums: An Analysis of the Historical Development of Visitor Research and Its Present Use
The most pressing issue facing museums today is audience engagement; and like any community, the museum audience is made of a diverse array of groups all with different wants and needs all necessitating investigation. In order for museums to ensure that they are engaging with their various audiences in the most successful way possible and to realize which audiences they are underserving, conducting visitor research is imperative. Visitor research is an active component of the museum process, as it engages the audience directly and incorporates their views into the practices of the museum. Research is an indispensable tool for museums allowing them to build organizational and program planning grounded in an understanding of the museum's audience and what has been proven to be successful. It is a learning tool and the organization emerges with more knowledge, self-assurance and the ability to improve in the future. It is increasingly agreed that visitor studies are important to understand how the museum communicates and the return on the investment (time spent and financial) is clear; the information can be used to build a stronger case for support and definitively proves successes and failures. Funding organizations, for example, typically require some sort of evaluation of a project's effectiveness to justify future funding. Focusing on the visitor's needs does not mean pandering to the visitors but opening up the process to incorporate what visitors already know and build upon it in the exhibition's message and delivery method, still allowing the museum staff to make the final decisions about the exhibit's message, layout, content, etc. But in today's museum culture it is no longer enough for the museum to exist as a place of contemplation and learning, museum exhibits are expected to be interactive and engaging and to have the ability to prove this effectiveness in measurable terms. Visitor research can provide institutions with invaluable information on their audiences which can be used to better the institution, increase its funding, and prove its indispensable place in its community. As Diane E. Ragsdale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation observes, "it's time for the arts to stop waiting for people to find us, to appreciate us, and instead move toward them; seek to understand them; break into their hearts and minds - in that order."1 This thesis aims to explore these issues, focusing on the history and development of this type of research, common methods used in the market and audience research field, and explore three case studies which track the evolving use of this type of research. 1. Pitman, Bonnie, and Ellen Cochran Hirzy. Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2010. Print. 215 .