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Audience Research: Visitor Experience Study

[2012]
An audience research study for a natural history museum
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle, WA

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture contracted Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (RK&A) to conduct a visitor experience study to support the Museum’s new building initiative.  Data were collected at the Museum in 2012.  The study employed both standardized questionnaires and in-depth interviews, although this summary describes only those findings from the questionnaires given the distinct focus of the interviews in regards to the building initiative.

How did we approach this study?

RK&A used standardized questionnaires to collect general background information from current Burke visitors, including demographics and characteristics related to their visit to the Burke that day.  Furthermore, among the many questions that were included, there was a series of statements about Burke experiences, such as “Learning about Native and Pacific people’ history and culture” and “Using the museum as a community space where people gather informally together.”  Visitors rated these statements on a scale from 1, “Not important to me,” to 7, “Very important to me.”  A statistical procedure called K-means cluster analysis was applied to visitors’ ratings of all statements and, based on their ratings, grouped visitors into types.  The analysis is valuable because groups emerge naturally from the data and are based on visitors’ experiential preferences, providing a deeper and more meaningful way to think about visitors than through demographics alone.

What did we learn?

In terms of demographics, Burke visitors are somewhat typical of museum visitors nationwide, particularly in regard to gender and age, although about one-third of visitors are affiliated with the University of Washington in some way.  When they visit natural history museums, Burke visitors are most interested in seeing real specimens, art, and artifacts and watching a Native/indigenous artist demonstrate and talk about his/her art and cultural traditions; by contrast, interest in using technology in exhibitions is low.  From the K-means cluster analysis, three distinct groups of Burke visitors were revealed: Fans (53 percent), Luke-warms (30 percent), and Idea Seekers (16 percent).  Fans are enthusiastic about everything the Burke does (rating most Burke experiences fairly high), but placing most importance on “Seeing real specimens, art, and artifacts I have never seen before,” “Understanding the stories behind objects (where it is from / why it is important),” and “Having an educational experience.”  By contrast, Luke-warms are less enthusiastic about various Burke experiences (rating all experiences fairly low), although they place more importance on “Spending time with family/friends” than the other groups.  Idea Seekers are generally enthusiastic about all Burke experiences, but not more so than Fans, and place particular importance on learning experiences at the Burke.  Notably, the three clusters do not differ by gender, age, first-time or repeat visitation to the Burke, or membership status as one might expect

What are the implications of the findings?

In planning for experiences in the new building, the Burke should keep in mind visitors’ preferences for natural history museum experiences, including looking at real objects.  This finding suggests that the delivery of interpretation should not come between the visitor and the authenticity of the experience.  Additionally, the Burke must consider each of its three types of visitors: Fans, Luke-warms, and Idea Seekers.  It is likely that the Burke does not need to expend significant resources trying to accommodate Fans or Idea Seekers.  There is little the Burke can do wrong from Fans’ perspective, although care should be taken so as not to disenfranchise them as the Burke attends to visitors who fall into the other clusters.  Likewise, Idea Seekers, who value learning particularly through looking and seeing, seem to be visually literate and need little else to support their learning.  However, it will be important for staff to explore how to incite this Luke-warms’ interest in natural history and culture since they comprise almost one-third of visitors; Luke-warms are already in the building—presumably with people who have an affinity for the Museum and its offerings—so engaging them through their visiting companions may be one way to begin helping them feel more comfortable in the Museum and with the subject matter. 

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