Eye-Catching Exhibits and a Model for Visitor Attention

Eye-Catching Exhibits and a Model for Visitor Attention

Possibly the most underappreciated aspect of museums is the amount of thought that must go into designing exhibitions. It is more than a matter of deciding what may be interesting to a potential visitor, and then providing content – there is an underlying psychological game being played, where the aim is to capture as much of a visitor’s attention for as long as possible. And yet, the topic of visitor attention is all too often a nebulous one, due to its vague definition coupled with a lack of real insight into what processes make its outcomes possible.

Stephen Bitgood’s 2010 paper An Attention-Value Model of Museum Visitors is an attempt to remedy this issue; in it, he presents a comprehensive examination of visitor attention, with an emphasis on museum and exhibition environments. Firstly, he attempts to give a precise definition of “visitor attention,” which encompasses all of its different aspects – in this, he acknowledges that attention is motivated by the interactions of several personal, psychological, and environmental factors, and the indicators of visitor attention differ depending on the “stage” of attention (more on this later).

Secondly, Bitgood provides his own model to apply to museum visitors, developed by himself and his colleagues over a decade of research. This “attention-value model” is, to say the least, extensive. Building on museological research from the past 80 years, as well as contemporary research in psychology, it works on the following two main assumptions:

  1. “Attention is a three-level continuum with a different combination of variables at each stage.”

  2. “The primary motivation for paying attention is perceived value (a ratio of utility/satisfaction divided by costs such as time and effort) of the exhibit element.”

The three distinct stages of Bitgood’s continuum are capture, focus, and engage.

  • Capture is the first stage, where a visitor’s attention is divided across a broad range of stimuli. An exhibit must be distinctive, accessible, well organised, and free of distractions if it is to be effective in catching the visitor’s eye.

  • Focus is the second stage, where the visitor’s attention is directed towards a particular element or object. Guidance is often required to help the visitor decide what is important – this can be done with identifying labels, familiarity of objects, etc.

  • Engage is the final stage, where the visitor connects with the exhibit on a deeper or more involved level. A meaningful processing of the experience occurs, which will generally differ from person to person. Desired outcomes often include learning, scientific reasoning, immersive feeling, emotional appreciation, etc.

Each of these is discussed at length, with Bitgood going over the many different components, indicators, variables, and explanatory processes of each stage. He also notes some practical design implications, and poses hypothetical questions that designers should ask when constructing their own exhibitions.

Bitgood has based this work around his attention-value principle. The idea is fairly simple – more attention will be given to exhibits that are perceived as having value to the visitor. This is presented as a ratio: utility (satisfaction/benefit) divided by cost (time, effort, money, etc.). Thus, a high value exhibit will have high utility and low cost. This is based on similar cost-benefit ratios found in biology, psychology, and economics.

I liked this article; Bitgood’s argument suggests a wide range of factors to account for when designing an exhibit. More so, his explanations for why certain responses happen gives context and rationale for certain design decisions – something that can only be helpful when applied to practical situations. The attention-value model looks like it has some real potential going forward for museum professionals and researchers - and for us in our construction of the Wai Ora, Mauri Ora exhibition at the Otago Museum. There are many things to consider, but even if we only took a few of this article’s ideas to heart, I think we could produce a much more effective end product.

Click here to read the full article by Stephen Bitgood.

Thumbnail Image :
By Connie Ma from Chicago, United States of America - Sue, the world's largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton.Uploaded by FunkMonk, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20207230

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