Identity and id

Identity and id

noun (psychoanalysis). the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest.

Today, we talk about museum visitor identities and their motivations. Let’s open up Falk and Dierking’s book, The Museum Experience Revisited (2013), at chapter two: “The Personal Context; Identity-related motivations”.

Decoding Museum-Goer Motivations

Why do people visit museums? The categories of motivation suggested by Falk and Dierking, in line with other primary literature, can be summarised as:

  • Relaxation

  • Activity

  • Consumption

  • Learning

It is important to note that the boundaries are blurry, just as the modern age smudges the line between work and leisure. Seeking knowledge and the expansion of one’s own mind and worldview is becoming more common in the general populace when choosing how leisure time is spent, and museums can provide an answer to this growing desire.

In order to understand and tap into the underlying motivations of museum-going, it must be seen as a mechanism for satisfying personal needs (the exception being school and university groups with no choice in attendance). Considering the museum context offered to the visitor, and the time of day, week and year that the visitor attends the museum, offer hints as to their reasons for visiting. 

Leisure-Time Currency

Potential visitors calculate the value of a museum experience when deciding whether or not to visit - will it “maximally benefit” them and their family or group? Identity-related motivations come into play here, and the authors give examples; the desire to be a good partner/friend/family member, staying abreast of current knowledge, and cultivating an identity as someone who goes to museums and engages with such content.

Falk and Dierking assert that two things must happen for a visitor to choose to attend a museum in their leisure time:

  1. Visitor and/or group of visitors has a social need they want to meet. 

  2. One member remembers that a museum might be a good place for this need to be met

There is a weighing-up of relative costs and benefits when choosing where to go to meet this need. The cost of abstract things can be called “value” - what value will going or not going provide to the visitors?

Suggested Costs:

  • Money, not just in terms of admission fee but in terms of money spent on food, gift shop items, travel and even accommodation if travelling from out of town. As admission fee might be the only gate to the museum experience and 83% of average museum visit cost comes from other factors, there is not much gate-keeping based on socio-economic demographic.

  • Time, including convenience, is also a cost. Travel time is considered, and amount of free time to spend is an influencing factor.

Suggested Benefits:

  • Physical: comfort, refuge from weather, a place to be, a location to wander, food to eat, toilets to use.

  • Psychological: occupation, learning, entertainment, attraction, excitement, engagement.

  • Social: relaxation space, a good meeting setting, child-friendly facilities, a place to meet new people.

How these different costs and benefits weigh-up in peoples minds is a personal thing, unique to each individual and depending on their own needs, values, and priorities.

Identity - The Many Faces of Visitors

The following “identities” are suggested by Falk and Dierking”:

  • Explorers

  • Facilitators

  • Professionalists/Hobbyists

  • Experience Seekers

  • Rechargers

  • Respectful Pilgrims

  • Affinity Seekers

Falk and Dierking caution that these are simply different hats that one person may wear at any given time, and at any one time may wear multiple. Considering these identity-related motivations is important when understand reasons behind visitor attendance.

Virtual museum visits

An interesting aspect focused on briefly by Falk and Dierking is the motivation behind visits to a museum’s website, or the online collection of knowledge provided by a museum. The primary reasons for visits were offered as:

  • Gathering information for a real-life visit

  • Casual browsing

  • Finding info for own research or required research project.

I found this an interesting aspect of this chapter as it is not very extensively discussed, indicating to me that they had less knowledge at the time surrounding online museum-visitor interaction. This has, of course, changed extensively in recent years as well, with the dominating rise of the internet and smartphones.

The following quote, however, struck me as unsound, or if a sound argument at least an unhelpful and irrelevant one:

“Independent of platform, the reasons given for accessing the internet included: to surf just for fun or to pass the time of day, to do research for a job, to look for information on a hobby or interest, to “answer a question”, and/or to do research for school or training. The above uses of the internet rank as some of the most popular activities to do online - only getting news and using e-mail rank higher. These numbers emphasize that the motivations of the virtual museum-goer are very similar to those of the general internet visitor - enjoyment and information seeking.”

(Falk & Dierking, 2013, pg. 51)

This statement struck me as a broad generalisation, and I would be interested to discuss with the readers their - likely more extensive and coherent - thoughts on museum-visitor interaction online, with regards to internet-use motivations.

The Deterrents

Race and ethnicity, especially in United States, was listed as factor in what may make one less liekly to visit a museum. This may relate to socio-economic status correlated with race and ethnicity, cultural norms and priorities, or levels of ownership, comfort and feeling of belonging in what is primarily a european-centric construction in the Western World.

Socio-economic status is put as the most referred-to determining factor of museum visiting behaviour in most other places in the world. Free entry is all very well, but having the time, the ability to travel, the means to be away from home and probably eat out, and having to feel socially presentable, are all factors that are still determined by socio-economic status. 

These alone are not enough to define why people do or don’t go to museums, however. 

Personal beliefs and values, such as that leisure time should be spent in free-choice learning, are better predictors, and not correlated with race or income strata. Personal history is incredibly important in predicting: extra-curricular activities as a child, including specifically museum attendance, increases the likelihood of visiting in later life. 

It is important to note that everyone has social needs that they are trying to meet, and many of us have the same set of needs. However some of us perceive that the museum can meet those needs, while for others it is not their first go-to. History and experience with museums and similar things predicts whether you think a museum is a good option to satisfy these needs.. 

It is incredibly important to consider the above factors when untangling a visitor’s motivations for behaviour and their resulting interaction with a museum, if we are to create successful museum experiences for everyone. This is demonstrated in the case study outlined near the end of this chapter, detailing some formative study done by a US art museum, who were planning to try attract more African-American visitors by displaying African art thought to be more relevant and interesting to them. The formative analysis indicated that content had very little influence of likelihood of visiting, and that the entrenched attitudes and generational experiences of museums eclipsed any good intentions of more targeted marketing towards African-Americans by the museum. It became a success story only because they were willing to try other methods and pursue the ones proven to reach the demographic they wished to become more open and attractive to. Breaking down historical barriers takes time, thought, effort, and relationships, and is not for the un-dedicated. 

This article has impressed upon me new concepts: that museum visiting is something that arises out of a person’s social needs and identity-related motivations, which are viewed through a lens of culture, history, education and social status. These lenses are hugely crucial in determining museum visiting behaviour but are complex and not easily pinned down. As much as possible, to the extent of our abilities and knowledge, they  should be taken into consideration when designing exhibitions or running GLAM institutions. 

Know your visitors. What are their identities? What are their motivations? What are the needs they are trying to satisfy? And how do these things relate and affect each other? Remember that there are no true defined categories. They are messy, individual and human, and the borders are blurry and overlapping. 

Falk, J., & Dierking, L. (2016). The museum experience revisited (Chapter 2). London: Routledge.

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