In my post the other day I worried about ways to reach and meet non-traditional audiences. The literature on contact zone theory is relevant there and is hotly debated. Literature on meeting and exceeding the needs of existing audiences through conventional exhibits, however, is deep, and is not usually drawn upon by the history museums I know.

This literature regards audiences. I’ve noticed that when traditional history museums think about audiences, they tend to think of them in market segmented terms. Local, or visiting from out of town? White, or black? School groups, or heritage tourists? Donors, or visitors? These categories are more useful in marketing decisions and reporting, but usually don’t figure into the development of interpretive methods in exhibits and programs.

Visitor studies research, based on years of data collection, tends to categorize visitors not as market segments, but on identity and behavior patterns. Discerning predictable identities and behaviors can help exhibit developers design with the visitor in mind.

John Falk, for instance, notes five identity-related visitor motivations that draw audiences to museums and serve as the framework through which they experience exhibits: explorers, facilitators, experience seekers, hobbyists, and rechargers. The trajectory of the museum exhibit can be shaped—from the moment a person decides to visit a museum before the weekend—to attract and feed that visitors’ sense of identity, and therefore provide a satisfactory experience.

Andrew Pekarik, head of the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis has lead in the development of another predictive model of visitor behavior within exhibits. In a series of articles with co-authors, Pekarik describes the IPOP framework: Ideas, People, Objects, and Physical. People visit museums and exhibits with an expectation to have a meaningful response to ideas, a person/human connections, objects, or somatic sensations. Exhibit designers must incorporate each of these items into all aspects of an exhibit in order to attract and engage multiple visitor types. (See another description of IPOP here.)

For exhibit designers this means placing the visitor at the center of the development by considering what likely visitors will pay attention to, what he or she does in exhibits, and how that person responds to exhibit elements. And in the spirit of this series of posts, that means sublimating a curator’s academic thesis to visitor accessibility. As Pekarik notes, this visitor-centered exhibit development process,

“takes the emphasis away from the experience preference of the key decision makers and allows more room for the diversity that exists within the staff as a whole as well as within the audience.” (Pekarik, et. al, 2014)

An exceptional exhibit, however, will not only attract and engage visitors, but will flip them—produce “a strong reaction to a different type of experience than the one that generally drew them.” Visitors that have been “flipped” consistently report exceptional experiences in museum exhibits. (I should note that where academic advisors tend to expect classroom-informed pedagogical goals of gain in historical thinking skills, these reactions studied by evaluation professionals tend to be emotional, reflective, relational, and action-oriented…in addition to intellectual.)

What, then, are the ideas, objects, people, and somatic sensations that are going to attract, engage, and flip visitors in the aforementioned exhibit that I’m now calling The Civil War in the Community of Nations?

I’ll steal directly from Jean-Francois Leger’s case study of IPO (before Pekarik added Physical to the framework) applied to the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s exhibit Vodou for this exercise. This doesn’t work very well without some idea of what artifact collection or specific stories we are working with, but this is how I’d start thinking about it.


The first pillar of the Civil War in the Community of Nations visitor experience stimulates visitor reflection. Visitors will be led to a series of provocations to cause them to think of the Civil War not simply an American internecine conflict, but rather as part of the tensions within the Western world around the consolidation of liberal governments and burgeoning of nation states based on ethnic nationalist solidarity.


The second pillar of the visitor experience is an encounter with European, American, and Asian journalists, diplomats, statesmen, and writers—for instance William Gilmore Sims, Guiseppe Mazinni, Karl Marx, August Willich, and Hong Xiuquan—who worked to define the liberal nationalist sentiments in the old and new worlds. These individuals’ stories will be relayed in first person textual, digital, video, and material formats, and will draw visitor attention to the personal and political stakes in Nineteenth century liberal revolutions.


The third and final pillar of the experience is appreciation for the ideals of political revolutions as expressed in physical representations of liberal nationalism and other artifacts representing the lives of the people that visitors encounter. (Yeah, this description is lacking compelling examples.)

Really recommend you look at Leger’s case study. His Vodou exhibit seems extraordinary, particularly the “Thresholds.”

Anyhow, at this point, our team would make certain an IPOP element is represented in each thematic element that emerges from front-end evaluations. But that’s not as easy as filling in the blanks. Sometimes an artifact may represent an idea; sometimes you don’t have a person to represent a story. That’s where curatorial creativity and prototype evaluations get to work. (Compare this mathematical fidgeting with Steven Lubar’s ecstatic description of Richard Rabinowitz at work in “Curator as Auteur.”)

Anyhow, we have the topic that academics are excited about. From there, however, the iterative process of prioritizing stories, objects, ideas in relation to anticipated visitor expectations will need to take over, and that will fundamentally reshaped that academic thesis. Hopefully, for the better.

Works Cited:

Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA.: Left Coast Press, 2009.

Leger, Jean-Francois. “Shaping a Richer Visitors’ Experience: The IPO Interpretive Approach in a Canadian Museum.” Curator: The Museum Journal 57(1): 29-44.

Lubar, Steven. “Curator as Auteur.” The Public Historian. 36(1): 71-76.

Pekarik, Andrew, and Barbara Mogel. “Ideas, Objects, or People? A Smithsonian exhibition team views visitors anew.” Curator: The Museum Journal 53(4): 465-482.

Pekarik, Andrew J., James B. Schreiber, Nadine Hanemann, Kelly Richmond, and Barbara Mogel. “IPOP: A Theory of Experience Preference.” Curator: The Museum Journal 57(1): 5-27.


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