The (post) digital visitor: What has (almost) twenty years of museum audience research revealed?

Lynda Kelly, Australian National Maritime Museum, Australia


Audience research has been undertaken in museums and cultural institutions since the late nineteenth century, starting what is a rich and prolific field of museum practice that, so far, has focussed heavily on program/exhibition evaluation and market research (Kelly, 2004). In 1999, I began my doctoral study asking adult museum visitors what sources they used when searching for information and where they liked to learn. Apart from books, libraries, and museums, intriguingly this thing called "the Internet" started appearing in visitors’ responses (Kelly, 2007). This then sparked my long obsession with all things digital—there was something in this, I thought… After that research, I undertook a huge number and range of studies investigating use of the Internet and digital products, as they were (and still are) becoming significant ways for museums to engage visitors both inside and outside their physical sites to enhance their learning. These have ranged from museum visitors’ online behaviours, museums and social media, students’ views about digital learning, teachers and technology, social media and museum visitors, mobile visitors, user-testing, and trend analysis (Kelly, 2013, 2014, 2015a; Kelly & Breault, 2007; Kelly & Fitzgerald, 2011; Kelly & Groundwater-Smith, 2009; Kelly & Russo, 2008, 2010; Russo et al., 2008). To celebrate and mark twenty years of Museums and the Web, this paper reanalyses this body of work in the context of 2016 and reimagines who the (post) digital museum visitor might be.

Keywords: evaluation, audience research, digital visitors

1. Introduction

The earliest museum audience research studies were conducted in the late nineteenth-century, with one of the first undertaken with museum visitors to the Liverpool Museum, United Kingdom. Pioneering audience research was undertaken by Benjamin Gilman in the early twentieth century, focussing on the physical problems experienced by visitors when looking at poorly designed exhibits that he felt were meeting an aesthetic and curatorial prerogative rather than a visitor-focussed one. Gilman’s work also formed the foundations of what was to become a rich and prolific field of museum practice that focussed mainly on program/exhibition evaluation and market research (Kelly, 2004).

In 1999, I began my doctoral study asking adult museum visitors what sources they used when searching for information and where they liked to learn. Apart from books, libraries, and museums, intriguingly this thing called “the Internet” started appearing in visitors’ responses. Since that time, I have conducted a wide range of studies investigating use of the Internet and digital products, including mobile use and engagement. The first in-depth study researching museum visitors’ online behaviours I conducted in 2007, using the set of categories developed by Forrester Research (reported in Kelly & Russo, 2008). From that time, further research projects have included:

  • Social media and museum visitors (Kelly, 2013; Kelly & Russo, 2008, 2010; Russo et al., 2008)
  • Students’ views about digital learning (Kelly & Groundwater-Smith, 2009; Kelly, 2013, 2015b)
  • Teachers and technology (Kelly, 2014; Kelly & Breault, 2007; Kelly & Fitzgerald, 2011)
  • Mobile visitors (Kelly, 2013, 2015a)
  • User-testing, trend analysis, and revisiting Forrester’s online behaviour categories, with a focus on visitors to the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (Kelly, 2015a)

This paper reanalyses this body of work in the context of 2016 and reimagines the (post) digital museum visitor.

2. Doctoral research (1999–2004)

My doctoral research, completed in 2007, looked at adult museum visitors learning identities and whether a visit to a museum exhibition changed the way visitors thought of themselves as learners (Kelly, 2007). Both qualitative and quantitative methods were employed to find out how, and where, museum visitors learned. In the initial research conducted from 1999 to 2000, participants reported that the Internet was the primary way they accessed information when learning about something new. Several reported undertaking research by first using the Internet because of the ease of access: “… [I] see if there’s a related website or any information on it because it’s easy and accessible.” Respondents spoke about the Internet as being fast, usually accurate and immediate, something that they controlled, and a good starting point: … you can get so much information from the Internet … It’s been a very valuable first port of call… I think it’s a very enjoyable way to do it … I think you get immediate reward.

While these responses may now seem quaint, fifteen years ago people were still coming to grips with this thing called “the Internet,” and its potential for museum programs and exhibitions was only just beginning to be explored.

As part of the study, a quantitative survey of Sydney residents in 2004 found that while books and libraries were cited as the most common resources for learning (90 percent of those sampled), yet one unexpected finding was that just over half the sample (54 percent) rated the Internet/websites as very important for learning. At the time, it was felt that this finding was surprisingly lower than expected given that the majority of those interviewed in depth reported that they used the Internet as the first way they accessed information when learning about something new, being convenient and easy to retrieve information when compared with other places. Again, it was felt that these results could be explained by the very strong opinions expressed in the interviews about the range, depth, reliability, and credibility of information on the Internet that, for the time, were quite negative: “ … you type in a word and you get ten to fifty thousand options to look for so it’s a good tool, but … [rolls eyes].” It was suggested that certain characteristics of the Internet had the potential to change how people learn and therefore their expectations of museum learning experiences. These include the freedom to choose pathways through content, being user controlled, opportunities for interactivity, and enabling the provision of up-to-date content that is easily changed in response to external events.

3. Researching digital “typologies” (2007 and 2015)

In 2007, Forrester released a seminal study of people’s online behaviours (Li, 2007). Based on extensive surveys of US adults and young people, six typologies of online users were generated. These were:

  • Creators who create and upload assets online such as Web pages and videos
  • Critics who comment on blogs and other sites
  • Collectors who collect information for later use
  • Joiners who are primarily active on social networks
  • Spectators who are passive users
  • Inactives

Based on these results, I decided to see how these typologies related to museum visitors by surveying 2,006 adults about activities they were doing online in order to generate similar typologies relevant to Australian audiences. An important finding from the surveys was that significantly more respondents who visited museums participated at higher levels across all activities sampled. This was particularly noticeable for activities that could be classed as “two-way,” such as reading customer reviews/ratings and commenting on blogs. A subsequent in-depth study that unpacked some of these findings showed that:

… the typologies were not mutually exclusive and are often influenced by life stage and personality. Users move in and out of categories depending on their age and personal/social circumstances, as well as their levels of comfort with using technology. It was also found that people had either a one-dimensional relationship with the Internet, using it as a transaction or information source, or a two-dimensional relationship that was more about participation and exchange. (Kelly & Russo, 2008, p. 86).

In 2015, as part of user testing for a new experience at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (ANMM) and a curiosity to see what (if anything) may have changed in that time, these questions were repeated with an online sample of two hundred respondents across the Sydney region. They were asked a series of questions about their online behaviour, which were then grouped into the Forrester categories and compared with the 2007 data (Kelly, 2015a). Table 1 shows the main differences between the samples.

  ANMM 2015 (N=754) 2007 data (n=2,006) Forrester (US) 2006
Creator 12% 15% 13%
Critic 18% 21% 19%
Collector 5% 9% 15%
Joiner 18% 12% 19%
Spectator 41% 43% 33%
Inactive 2% 26% 52%

Table 1: Forrester typologies and museum visitors–then and now

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, results are fairly similar to the 2007 research, except less were categorised as “Inactive,” which is not surprising given how the digital domain has moved on in six years. Reflecting on these findings, I would have expected higher results for those classified as “Creators” and “Joiners”—why this didn’t eventuate is an interesting potential area for further exploration. Or maybe we don’t change as much as we think?

4. Digital learners: Students and their teachers

Thomas and Seely Brown (2011) discussed the ways that learning is fundamentally changing, as it is “… taking place in day-to-day life through the fusion of vast informational resources with very personal, specific needs and actions” (p. 31). They note that learning now bridges the public world, one that is information-based and shareable, with the personal and structured world of the individual. Museums have always catered well for educational audiences—both school students and their teachers. It was the leading educational theorist John Dewey who recognised the importance of museums as learning spaces for students, suggesting that schools needed to be more like museums and then developing designs for learning spaces that were a hybrid of both (Hein, 2010).

Since 2007, several studies of digital use have been undertaken focussing on students and teachers which give rich insights into how much, and how little, their views of museums and digital platforms have changed. Teachers that participated in these have consistently shown they reinvent themselves, recognising the potential and also the risks of digital technologies both for them as a professional development tool and for use in the classroom (Kelly, 2014; Kelly & Breault, 2007; Kelly & Fitzgerald, 2011; Kelly & Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

For example, work with primary and secondary teachers in 2009 found their focus was mainly on the mobile Web and wireless schools, with the understanding that they and their students no longer needed to be tied to a classroom or even to their own school environment. Teachers felt that there was a stronger trend of students valuing their social networks and peers rather than “experts,” coupled with a recognition that teachers are no longer “repositories of information” but are facilitators of student learning, in a more equal, two-way relationship. They were noticing (and were rather frightened!) that students expect instant feedback, as they are used to this in their digital lives, and that students want to learn using physical and online sites that are interactive. While they saw resistance among teachers who fear change, they all recognised that change would be coming and they needed to get on board!

At that time (2009), access to computers and the Internet was variable, although it was commonly agreed that most, if not all, students and teachers did have some form of access. Many were using wikis with their classes and also invited parental involvement in this. Primary teachers recognised that they were now dealing with “digital learners”—those in future who will never have not had their hands on something that doesn’t plug in—and that their students were usually more “tech-savvy” than them. They felt that multitasking would become more acceptable in the future as students access and use different devices/tools in their learning, with social and collaborative learning fast becoming the norm. They also could see the end of “rote learning” as students wouldn’t necessarily need to retain/remember information because they could just go back and access it again. A final reflection from all teachers in this study was recognising the inevitable shift from a “one-to-many” form of teaching to a “many-to-many” approach and a more equal relationship between teacher and student.

A series of focus groups held with teachers in 2014 saw two noticeable changes since 2009. First, teachers spoke about a broader range of social media platforms they used in the classroom. For example, this exchange occurred between two teachers about using Pinterest in the classroom:

T1: We’re making Tashi the movie. So we’re finding resources for Tashi. And someone had made a Tashi Pinterest board. So my class parent and I are both on it. So she added stuff to that board just how to make Tashi hair and things like that. We also use Pinterest for our school fete ideas for fund-raising, like making jars of things.

T2: like getting ideas from it as well. Just if we’re doing a book study or something, I just type it in and all of a sudden

T1: There’s so much stuff, isn’t there?

T2: all these great ideas come up. It’s amazing.

Second, the power of social media in their own professional development, as in this teacher talking about Twitter as a professional development and networking tool:

I don’t know if you guys have spoken much about Twitter. We run a Sunday night chat on Twitter [#aussieED chat] and in six months, it’s become the biggest Australian educational chat and we’re really proud of that. With that, it’s made my job so exciting. I’m learning what teachers are doing in the UK, the USA, Venezuela, all over Europe and really trying to get connections with Asia now, especially with the cross-curriculum priorities coming out; and from that learning, I’ve been able to really push my kids about nurturing creativity and—but at the same time, how they then from what they’re exploring and achieving, they’re happy to write about it, talk about it, and sharing that learning and connecting with classrooms all over the world really. So, yes, that’s what I’m loving in the last year. It’s just made my job so exciting.

I have worked with many students from the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools since 2003, primarily via Kids’ Colleges and the Coalition Annual Conferences (for more information about the Coalition and its work, see Kelly & Groundwater-Smith, 2009; Kelly, 2015b). Throughout this time, students have demonstrated being totally engaged learners with interesting, and honest, perspectives on how museums could be better serving their needs, both in a physical visit and through digital technologies. Students attending the 2013 Coalition conference were asked their views about what they thought twenty-first-century learning looked like from their perspective. When thinking about the nature of education, they stated that:

  • Education has always been changing, yet still stays the same: in the future they will still be covering basic subjects in the syllabus
  • Social roles in education have changed: classes and teaching are now “gender neutral,” with the “Imperialist culture” no longer the dominant force in providing information
  • Having an education is still highly valued: school is still an important place to develop life skills
  • Although the school environment has remained pretty much the same, there are still classrooms and uniforms, the teacher is a respected role model, education today is more tailored to everyday life, solving real-world problems
  • The kind of critical thinking they are taught will change: for example, we won’t need to solve maths problems, anymore but social subjects will become more important
  • Plagiarism could be more of a problem
  • “Memorisation” and rote learning will be less valued

Overall, these students recognised that there is a more positive culture of learning with them taking more responsibility for their learning and enjoying it. However, they did feel a need to integrate learning and education within their world, which is increasingly a technological one. Given this, their views about technology were very insightful. They felt that new technologies provide them with new ways of learning, breaking down perceived “borders.” They reported that it is easier now to find answers to questions, with access to the Internet and mobile apps enabling broader research. They believe that increased use of social media will result in changes to face-to-face communication as more and more of their conversations take place online. One interesting question posed by the students was whether the skill of handwriting will become obsolete in the future as people switch from taking written notes to using the latest tablet or other mobile device. Some of their thoughts included:

  • Now we can just look things up on our iPads: this allows us to be independent learners and collaborate with our peers.
  • In the olden days they had to write by hand [but for future learning] they will make a copy and paste pen so you don’t have to write anything.

Compare this with what students had to say in 2007 (Kelly & Russo, 2008) when asked to complete the sentence: “Not being able to access the Web is like not being able to ….” They were quite horrified at the thought of not having Internet access, likening it to not being able to breath, live, eat, talk, socialise, get access to water, as well as “Travel around the world, explore my inner self or broaden my horizons” (Kelly & Groundwater-Smith, 2009). In this particular study, one interesting finding was that the students had mixed views about a museum’s general presence on social networking sites used at the time, such as MySpace (remember that?!), and content-sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr. Yet, on reflection, several students felt that the museums should utilise social spaces in a number of unexpected ways, for example showing movie trailers of upcoming exhibitions and events, and even developing a page for a number of animal species as a way to promote the their work in a fun and lighthearted way (activities that museums now do routinely):

I think it would be interesting to set up a MySpace type profile for the different specimens, and use this to provide information. It would allow you to make it visually appealing with bright colours, and even movie and music clips. This would appeal to young audiences.

They were asked to complete the sentence: “If the Museum were a website …” and, again, their responses almost ten years ago reflect the platforms available at the time, with a certain prescience about the types of online experiences museums now offer as a matter of course:

Have a link on your website called “scientists are people too” and have a character version of a scientist and maybe try and portray their quirky ways.

If the museum was a website, it could be either boring or fascinating depending on the way that designers approached it. For a younger audience it is crucial to break up the factual information, and present it in an interactive, appealing and creative way. It would be important to have it set up by a representative of the target audience, as “second guessing” often proves inaccurate.

5. The (post) digital visitor…

We return to 2015 and three qualitative and quantitative studies undertaken to test out visitor responses to a range of proposed digital products for a new experience, Action Stations, being developed by the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (Kelly, 2015a):

  • User-testing with forty participants (twelve general groups of families and couples; eighteen teachers; ten museum volunteers) to feed into interface development for a proposed interactive table
  • In-depth interviews with twelve member families and their children (total of twenty-eight individuals) looking at a potential mobile app and their use of technology, including device ownership/use
  • An online survey of two hundred randomly selected people living in the Greater Sydney region who had visited a museum/gallery in previous twelve months, focussing on online activities/behaviours and device ownership

Taken together, findings from these studies caused me to rethink how museums could be engaging audiences digitally across two key areas: mobile products and post-visit experiences.

I found that device ownership and use varied dramatically, more so than when I first started tracking this in 2007 when mobile usage was dominated by Apple’s iOS system (especially in Australia). The challenge of developing content across multiple platforms (Apple, Android, and via the responsible Web) has influenced and continues to influence choices around providing applications via a store or through mobile websites. In this study, those that wanted an app feel that it is expected these days and enables them to control the levels and types of information accessed. For those that did not want a mobile app, responses ranged from not having a suitable device, not being confident in how to download an app, not wanting to “clutter” up their device, and concerns about effects of downloads on their data usage.

Tellingly, many respondents raised the question about why they should have an app when museums already have the objects there: “I prefer to have the physical, non-tech experience especially at a museum rather than a tech one.” Across the families interviewed, there were mixed views about whether an app was needed, required, or even expected, but if one were to be provided it must be easy and intuitive to use and integrated with the experience while extending it to provide rich content, games, etc. This study was also quite gendered in visitor responses, with mothers in particular wanting “screen-free time” for their children and thinking a museum visit was a great way to spend time together away from devices (television included). Some of their comments included:

  • Where does the experience start and end between the 3-dimensional experience and the 2-dimensional experience of the device?
  • Will the app undermine the element of surprise/ what’s to surprise when you get here? Do you get something unlocked when you get into the Wi-Fi environment at the experience?
  • I wouldn’t bother unless my kids ask me—it’s just another thing on my phone.
  • I wouldn’t want to encourage bringing a device [as] on a day we’re out away from screens.
  • I’d rather see the thing rather than a screen.
  • I don’t want to waste five minutes downloading something that I don’t know we’d like, especially when I’m with the kids.

Many would prefer the museum to focus on the pre-visit experience, giving them the information they require beforehand: “We’re exhausted after the visit—but before the visit is critical.”

Those that did want a post-visit experience felt that it could extend the visit, allowing them to focus on real objects while they’re at the museum and then read more at home. A wide range of activities were suggested, including more in-depth content, adult content for those who visit with children and couldn’t have their own experience while at museum, “curated links,” and unlocking special content when you get home. Some mentioned the idea of social connectivity; however, they recognised that two-way conversations usually happen on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram rather than a museum’s website, and that’s where they would usually expect to go to make these connections.

The overall feeling from these studies was that the physical visit was the key—they couldn’t see what would attract them in a post-visit digital experience, and they are really just too time-poor to bother: “For us it’s about the experience on the day. Once I’m home I move on to other things.

6. Looking to the future: The (post) digital visitor

Elaine Gurian (1995) wrote about the “blurring of the boundaries,” predicting:

In twenty-five years, museums will no longer be recognisable as they are now known. Many will have incorporated attributes associated with organisations that now are quite distinct from museums … The process has been and will continue to seem gradual and inevitable (p. 31).

Prensky, who coined the term “digital natives” (2001), outlined how learners have fundamentally changed due to widespread access to digital technologies:

Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. … A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century. Today’s students—K through college—represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.

Museums have always seen themselves as educational institutions and have utilised digital technologies in their activities for around forty-five years (Jones-Garmil, 1997). Din and Hecht (2007) remarked that:

… as technology’s effect on museums’ business processes and strategic planning grows, staff need to understand the role of technology even more urgently. The training in specific technical skills is still important, but the focus should now be on understanding the conceptual underpinnings of technology in the museum. (p. 16, emphasis added)

In 2016, the era of the (post) digital visitor, an appreciation of technology is still required. However, the focus now needs to shift to creating strong synergies between the physical, online, and mobile experiences, while understanding how audiences are interacting, behaving, and learning across these three spheres.

Visitors have long expressed their views of museums as places for rich social learning. As museum professionals, we need to understand and appreciate that museum audiences are better connected, more informed, more engaged, older, more culturally diverse, well travelled, and more interested in ideas. New modes of learning, as Prensky (2001) alluded to, will include swiping and scrolling and visual learning through active photo taking and sharing. Visitor relationships to information will be more fleeting and ephemeral, and they will be more distracted as information overload becomes a real struggle. The (post) digital visitors will be mobile “hunters and gatherers,” accessing information wherever they are and at whatever time of their choosing and increasingly used to seeing and reading content on a small screen. They will be “information agnostic,” not necessarily caring where their information comes from, as long as they get it instantly and delivered directly to them. Finally, the (post) digital visitors will not be necessarily tied, as Gurian (1995)  notes, to “traditional forms of cultural transmission” (p. 37), and will be relating to museums in two-dimensional ways as active participants, rather than passive receivers of content and information—in this they will be architects of their own learning.

Digital educator Professor Stephen Heppell observed that this is the most exciting time to be working in education given the opportunities afforded by technology, and this rings true for museums, too. Reallocation of resources, different mindsets, and providing access for staff to a range of technologies to play around with are ways museums can encourage staff to embrace change, learn from it, and ultimately provide visitors with better participatory and two-way learning experiences, wherever they happen to be.


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Cite as:
. "The (post) digital visitor: What has (almost) twenty years of museum audience research revealed?." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 16, 2016. Consulted .