Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museum Visitors

Visitors at Melbourne Museum. Photo: Meredith Foley.

How Museum Visitors Became Consumers, Culture Com, 28 August 2015

Currently, in forums that host discussions about how museum professional practice conditions the behavior of visitors, especially with regard to engagement, the question has been posed: how are visitors being thought of by museum personnel in this age of marked concern with branding, marketing, and audience development and the generative relations among these promotional tools. In the following I briefly relate my understanding of how the visitor in the last generation has undergone a subtle transformation into an autonomous consumer within a particular art museum I believe is representative of global shifts in the museum field, and I offer some explanations for why this change has occurred.

A Personalized Visit

In my recently submitted doctoral thesis, Museums, Discourse, and Visitors: The Case of London’s Tate Modern, I demonstrate that a key way to understand changes currently occurring in and to museums and with the behavior of museum visitors is to examine how the visit, that is the theorized interaction between the visitor and the museum, is currently being rhetorically reformulated. Through my research, which primarily focuses on the Tate galleries, I found that the museum visit is being conceptualized as a personally customizable experience focused primarily on meeting the needs and desires of the visitor. A visitor-oriented, personalized encounter with the museum is a relatively new occurrence. It differs markedly from the visit one would have expected to have a generation ago—which would have primarily been understood as a learning opportunity. That kind of visit was founded in a once dominant educative museology, which primarily regards the visit as an instance of information transfer from the curator, regarded as an expert and educator, to the visitor figure regarded as an ignorant student.

In contrast to this, a visitor-centered idea of the visit, or a ‘personalized’ visit is oriented towards meeting the individual and varied needs of visitors. This personalized visit appears in the discourse around public art museums such as Tate Modern, being expressed by influential actors who shape this discourse: critics, curators, academic researchers, consultancies, museum directors, and government agencies. Based on the Tate Modern museum as a case study and the primary source of empirical evidence, my research demonstrates the appearance and evolution of this visitor-centered visit in and through Tate. I show its origination and development by tracing the conceptual evolution of the visitor figure through implicit accounts of the visit associated with Tate Modern. The accounts are located in academic studies, historical records, marketing reports, advertisements, and the public discourse convened around Tate Modern’s opening thematic displays that served as an extension of Tate’s marketing and audience development program.

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