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Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

  • 1.  Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-11-2017 10:43 AM
    In-gallery visitor flow observations at our museum have revealed that visitors experience the permanent collection galleries in an alternate flow-pattern than intended. At this time, we cannot manipulate the architecture of the space or re-hang the permanent collection and so have been brainstorming ideas that might remedy this, such as:

    A numbering system on entry panel wall labels or hanging from entryways
    Arrow-stickers on the ground (not ideal)
    Gallery numbers on the museum map

    Have other museums successfully tackled this issue? In general, do any forum folks have ideas about how to address this?

    Thank you!

    Lisa Simmons  |  Assistant Curator of Youth & Adult Education

    National Museum of Wildlife Art of the United States
    P.O. Box 6825, Jackson, WY 83002  |  2820 Rungius Rd, Jackson, WY 83001  |  307-732-5435
    Facebook  |  Twitter  |  Instagram  |  Pinterest  |  Tripadvisor

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 2.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 08:34 AM
    Hello Ms. Simmons,
    I think asking visitors to view any exhibit in any particular order is a very tall order. The best thing to do is make sure the exhibit works, no matter what order in which it's viewed. In certain isolated cases, you can guide the experience precisely, such as a narrow hallway that can only be gotten to in one direction, but mostly you just have to accept that visitors will not be herded. It's especially true of those who regularly go online, because the web is set up to be experienced buffet style.

    You should still be able to use most of your exhibit pieces, as long as they are not too obviously dependent on the preceding piece in the original order. We no longer can consider exhibits to be books on a wall. I'm not sure we ever could. The only group this approach ever appealed to was the Scholars, and we now know that they are a small minority. If we have flexible exhibits that can be experienced at all levels, from Streakers' to Scholars', we really have much more impact and relevance.

    I can certainly help with editing existing exhibit pieces to be more independent of a particular order, as well as suggesting inexpensive additions to that end. Good luck, this is a worthwhile challenge!


    Paul Pallansch

    Paul N. Pallansch
    Up-Close Realism
    Silver Spring MD

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 3.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 10:06 AM
    My question is what is special about the intended order for the exhibition, how does it improve the quality of the visitor experience?

    Corinne Flax
    Manager of School and Community Partnerships
    Bruce Museum
    Greenwich CT

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 4.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-31-2017 02:30 PM
    Hi Corinne,

    Thanks for your question. Our curator's intended visitor flow pattern corresponds with a specific timeline of the development of wildlife art, from European roots to the present. Unfortunately, the museum's architecture doesn't compliment a temporal installation. I understand that directing visitors to experience the galleries in a set way can be problematic. We certainly don't want visitors to think they are 'wrong' or to suggest that our way is the only way! We're hoping to use subtle cues and suggest a flow pattern through a numbering system on our gallery map, verbally on our audio tour app, and perhaps on the museum intro label. Any comments and suggestions are much appreciated.


    Lisa Simmons
    Assistant Curator of Youth and Adult Education
    National Museum of Wildlife Art
    Jackson WY

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 5.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 09:26 AM
    Lisa, rather than being a problem that you can solve, "unintended visitor flow patterns" are part of the reality that we have to adjust to and design for. Beverly Serrell's book Paying Attention: Visitors and Museum Exhibitions (published by AAM) is an excellent source on the ubiquity of such patterns. Remember that the patterns you're concerned about are "unintended" and dysfunctional only from the point of view of the museum. In my article "Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor"(Curator 47/4, October 2004, pp. 389-412) I showed that from the point of view of the visitor, such patterns can be seen as intelligent responses to the challenges of the exhibit environment, in service of the interests of the individual visitor. In the long run, we will all be better off for learning how to design exhibits to accommodate the way visitors actually behave, instead of trying to engineer their behavior into conformity with the way we would like it to be.

    I will send you a pdf of my article. Best of luck with your project--and congratulations on working in such a beautiful place!

    Jay Rounds
    E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies
    University of Missouri-St. Louis

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 6.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 09:34 AM

    Does your visitor get directional information from an admissions attendant first? Can they get a map of the gallery with a "start here" that matches a "start here" sign?


    Our exhibit gallery entrance became an exit when our exhibits were replaced last year. We have a prominent "exhibit exit" sign, but as we all know, people have a tendency not to read signs. The exit opening is large and the gallery entrance is underneath a mammoth skeleton, so we don't have space of a conspicuous "exhibit entrance" sign. Our place is small enough that our admissions desk is in direct view of the entrance / exit, and visitors are directed accordingly. "Walk under the mammoth skeleton" has a certain memorable ring to it, but that doesn't mean people don't slip by the attendant or on family member isn't listening for directions and walk in the exit. We have put up a stanchion to deter visitors from entering the exit, too. Our galley is unidirectional, so once headed the right way, the problem is solved.


    In the grand scheme of things, does a visitor lose context / information when they are "lost" and not following the planned gallery floor plan? If they don't, then it might be less of a problem then you think. Ultimately, it's the visitor experience that is important. If you still get good reviews when a visitor goes the wrong way, the problem doesn't sound too egregious.


    Alan Goldstein, Certified Interpretive Planner

    Interpretive Naturalist

    Falls of the Ohio State Park

    201 West Riverside Drive

    Clarksville, IN 47129-3135 USA

    (812) 280-9970



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  • 7.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-31-2017 02:42 PM
    Hi Alan,

    Thanks for your comment on this thread. Yes, our visitors do get directional cues from our visitor services staff when they first enter the museum. I like your idea of using the gallery map as a way to suggest a particular flow. We do plan on reprinting our gallery guides with a numbering system on the map as a 'suggested' way to experience the collection.

    We are also planning on experimenting with stanchions as the museum architecture doesn't support a temporal installation well. We hope to monitor visitor flow and see if it makes a difference!

    You also pose a great question in - does it really matter if they don't experience the galleries in the intended way? Perhaps we can integrate this question into our in-gallery visitor survey that we'll soon be carrying out. And our Trip Advisor reviews are great so perhaps visitors are perfectly happy with the flow pattern? All great things to think about!


    Lisa Simmons
    Assistant Curator of Youth and Adult Education
    National Museum of Wildlife Art
    Jackson WY

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 8.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 11:55 AM
    Lisa, I would focus on "take-away" messages instead of a path. What do you want the visitor to learn. Then design-think the best means of achieving this. It may require creating or replacing vinyl text panels on the walls. It may be that the visitor is not understanding the big-idea that ties all artifacts together. Once this becomes clear they may then recognize the intended order. 
    However like others have mentioned here, you cannot make a visitor take a path. You may create an information architecture that helps them quickly identify an order but this is merely an invitation. If their curiosity doesn't want to go; you cannot force it. You can only help the visitor's decision making process easier with proper design. 

    Stay away from arrows that is the graphic language of fire exists and airport terminals. 

    Regards Mariano

    Mariano Desmaras
    Creative Director
    Museum Environments LLC
    New York NY

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  • 9.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-31-2017 02:46 PM
    Hi Mariano,

    Your comment about arrows is spot on. I do believe we will stay away from using arrows as directional cues. Thank you!

    I also appreciate your comments about not forcing visitor flow and more deeply considering the general take-away message. 


    Lisa Simmons
    Assistant Curator of Youth and Adult Education
    National Museum of Wildlife Art
    Jackson WY

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 10.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-12-2017 01:26 PM
    I am facinated by this question and challenge. Children's Museums tend to think of unintended visitor flow very differently (pun intended)
    I'm curious as to what the learning might be in why visitors are engaging in alternative ways. Is there something that is drawing them and is that constructing a different or deeper engagement? Is it telling a different story from a unique perspective?

    Truly curious to hear more on this topic.


    Sandra Bonnici
    Associate Director of Education, Diversity and Inclusion
    Madison Children's Museum
    Madison WI

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  • 11.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-24-2017 05:15 PM

    Underlying the discussion in this marvelous thread are several basic assumptions that museum professionals make about visitor behavior. Research has helped clarify or dispel commonly held notions about visitors' interests, motivations, time, and values. Below are some that I believe are worth focusing on.


    --Assume that visitors are there for the first time and do not have any special interest, knowledge, or training in the subject of the exhibition. Assume they do have some interest―after all, they are there. But they are not specialists. "I'm just interested."


    --Visitors arrive with a limited amount of time and attention to devote to viewing the exhibit. Spending a brief amount of time (less than 20 minutes), stopping at fewer than half of the exhibit elements, and feeling overwhelmed by too much to see or do are common behaviors/feelings when exiting an exhibition. "I just breezed through. There's so much to see. I'll have to come back." But they probably won't or can't.


    --Assume a continuum of interest that visitors bring with them that can be encouraged or discouraged by the designed environment of the exhibition. Assume that most are "strollers" who have the potential to pay attention, become more engaged, and spend more time if/when/because you have planned, designed and prototyped exhibit elements that are likely to provide personally meaningful experiences (benefits) for the effort (cost) required.


    But back to the question at hand: how to get visitors to enter the exhibition at the beginning instead of the end when the architecture or traffic flow intuitively directs them otherwise? Previous comments in this thread are helpful when considering the answer.

    • How important is it to the visitor experience to follow the intended pathway? If it's not, don't worry about it.
    • If it is, use all the cues at your disposal to communicate where the entrance is located, e.g., signs, arrows, visitor service people, maps, stanchions, walls, banners, floor treatments, lighting.
    • Feeling lost is not an option for visitors who use, like, or need orientation. Give people the most effective directions possible to allow them to know what the intended path is, and then let them decide for themselves.
    • Research has shown that many visitors' exhibit experiences are confusing, frustrating, effortful, or missed due to poor orientation―physically, psychologically, mechanically and/or conceptually. Lack of orientation is the most common complaint or reason in recommendations for improvement in summative evaluations of exhibitions.
    • Questions lurk in the backs of visitors' minds in the exhibit environment, such as, Where should I go? What do I do here? How does this work? What's it about? So what? Exhibit planners need to address these questions with context and designs that intuitively provide the answers and let visitors choose which ones they want to engage with.
    • Suggested routes do not force visitors to take them. We need to give visitors ways to make intelligent choices about where to spend their precious time. We need to be transparent about our hopes and intentions so that they can satisfy their own.


    And finally, a plug for the Big Idea. Visitors can use an exhibition briefly, out of sequence, and incompletely and still get a sense of what it's about and why it might be important if the exhibition is planned with an underlying and meaningful thesis statement. The natural behavior of visitors is best accommodated by exhibitions that are not too big and are held together conceptually and contextually by an idea of importance to the intended audience.

    Beverly Serrell
    Serrell & Associates
    Chicago IL

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 12.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-25-2017 03:33 PM


    Thank you for a this fascinating thread. For 25+ years I have been sending my college art history survey course students to the museum to write a paper. I have kept it open-ended in that they can write about any object they wish in the content area we are studying. The students have a wide selection of museums from which to choose: nearby Princeton University museum, or nearby NYC and Philadelphia. I enjoy hearing from the ones who report that they ended up selecting something completely different than what they set out to write about and my personal favorite is hearing from students  that they needn't worried about what object to write about because the object had selected them. I love it when the art objects turn the tables on the viewer! 

    Terri McNichol
    President, Ren Associates; Developer imaginement®
    Independent Scholar,
    Telephone +1.609.371.5354
    Cell +1.609.638.5878
    recent paintings:

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  • 13.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-26-2017 02:52 PM
    ​Hi, Lisa!

    Thank you for starting this thread!  Getting to think about this, and reading the comments from several "big names" in the field...this is like participating in a seminar!

    So, to echo some questions:  why was the originally planned flow-direction "intended," the way it was?  and,  have y'all found any reasons that the visitors are "naturally" or "intuitively" flowing the way they are?


    Joe Elliott
    PhD student
    Galveston TX

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 14.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-27-2017 11:14 AM
    I always want to ask whether the visitors got it wrong or the exhibit designers got it wrong.  If you design an exhibit that has only one path that visitors must follow, there should be very clear and unambiguous signage and structure that leads visitors on that path.  But we know that many visitors rebel against linear exhibition experiences no matter what we do,  and prefer to explore at their own pace and in the order that they choose.  One answer to this problem is to design exhibitions that don't require one set pathway and that allow visitors to choose different ways to experience the content.  That way visitors can't be "wrong" and curators won't be frustrated.  

    Many years ago, I realized that the cafeteria line ( a linear way to select lunch) was giving way to islands and stations.  If patrons preferred to choose lunch in this more random environment, it made sense that they would also choose to experience museum exhibits in a less linear fashion.  

    Museum exhibitions seem more and more akin to websites with random access and multiple access points rather than a sequential book-like narrative.  Especially as we look toward younger generations of visitors, we need to rethink our need for a linear sequence and consider the needs and preferences of visitors.  

    It might be interesting to survey your visitors and find out how they are using the exhibit, what they are taking away and whether there are other ways to enhance their visit, rather than simply directing them along the intended path. 

    Barbara Franco
    [Harrisburg] [PA]

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 15.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-31-2017 02:56 PM
    Hi Beverly,

    Many thanks for your detailed comment! I will bring your traffic flow questions/comments to our curatorial staff so that we can discuss in detail. I particularly like your comment that exhibit designers should "provide the answers and let visitors choose which ones they want to engage with". That Big Idea plug is an important one. Thank you. It is something we need to evaluate more deeply and perhaps reaffirm through gallery labels and on our audio gallery guide (still a work in progress).


    Lisa Simmons
    Assistant Curator of Youth and Adult Education
    National Museum of Wildlife Art
    Jackson WY

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 16.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-27-2017 10:17 AM

    This is an interesting problem. My company mostly designs interpretive museum experiences, and in some cases the visitor flow is controlled by the architecture. This type of control is helpful in communicating the interpretive message in the most effective fashion to visitors when a chronology is involved. In other instances it is less important, and visitors can select their own route of exploration without diminishing the effectiveness of the interpretation. In your case it sounds like there is a route through your museum that you believe is the most beneficial path for visitors to take. Given that you are not able to control the path with architecture, lighting, or signs, I would suggest focusing on the brochure map idea you mentioned and tying that to simple signs. Depending own how the brochure is designed and written, you could make your desired route through the museum the most attractive. Numbers on a map in the brochure tied to small images of the items related to those numbers, and a simple number placed near the object on display might help. The map should also include the suggested route clearly demarcated with arrows or a route line. If you are so inclined, you might also make the map more of a treasure hunt or simple game, as long as it is not tacky or off message. 

    It all comes back to what some others here have referenced-The Big Idea. What is the overarching message that you are trying to communicate to visitors? What ties everything together? Once you have worked that out, you can take that compact and concise message and use it on the cover of the map brochure, and on the intro panel to the exhibit. You can also suggest the route (both in the brochure and intro panel) that visitors should take through the exhibition and tell them why this is the best way to experience the exhibits. Of course, it will also help if staff reinforces the message. 

    And finally, this approach will only work if the graphic design of the brochure, signs, and numbers is appropriate, creative, and effective. If you have extra lighting fixtures or the ability to adjust and refocus existing fixtures, you might also be able to reinforce the intended flow by highlighting the featured objects in each gallery. 

    Good luck with implementing your solution.


    Michael Hanke
    Exhibit Designer
    Design Division, Inc.
    Hadley MA

    AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, Baltimore, May 16-19, 2024, click to learn more

  • 17.  RE: Unintended Visitor Flow Pattern

    Posted 10-30-2017 10:37 AM

    Yes, at Taylor Studios we have worked with clients who have had these same problems. All of your recommendations are great ones - exhibit numbering, arrows, etc. We have also used strategically placed free-standing signs and kiosks to subtly direct visitors and force flow. Even overhead banners that help direct flow! Finally, we always stress interpretation being at the core of everything - so we've worked with clients to meld together the different gallery areas and different exhibits thematically, so that as visitors view any part of the room they are drawn naturally to content / themes in other parts. Perhaps calling out artifacts / exhibits / displays seen across the room, linking them together. This way, no matter what order visitors view the exhibits, they will still come across with the same overall messaging - and you won't have to re-do the order and move everything! :)

    Let me know if you need any further help or suggestions!
    Betty Brennan and Chris Brusatte

    Betty Brennan
    Taylor Studios, Inc.
    Rantoul IL