Understanding ISE Users

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Frameworks for thinking about visitors, audiences, and participants vary across fields and purposes. Recognizing the different ways we conceptual visitors can be informative as part of the front-end development of programs as well as later assessment. However, these paradigms can also limit or change the way we engage these audiences in unintended ways.

Findings from Research and Evaluation

What is Visitor Studies?

Foutz and Stein (2009) characterize the field of visitor studies as considering the benefits and uses of informal institutions in order to inform exhibition, programming, and education decisions. The kinds of learning that occur in ISE experiences are not limited to cognitive gains in knowledge and understanding; rather, they include a range of affective changes to attitude and emotion as well as potential psychomotor behavioral or skill-based changes.

Categorizing Visitor Motivations

Falk et al. (2007) and his subsequent works represent one approach to visitor segmentation within a variety of museum contexts. His identities are malleable and context-driven; in other words, a single visitor may express a different identity during any given visit, depending on the museum, they people they are with, or individual mood.

  1. Explorers are curiosity-driven with a generic interest in the content of the museum. They expect to find something that will grab their attention and fuel their learning.

  2. Facilitators are socially motivated. Their visit is focused on primarily enabling the experience and the learning of others in their accompanying social group.
  3. Professional/hobbyists feel a close tie between the museum content and their professional or hobbyist passions. Thier visits are typically motivated by a desire to satisfy a specific content related objective.
  4. Experience seekers are motivated to visit because they perceive the museum as an important destination so their satisfaction primarily derives from the mere fact of having “been there and done that.”
  5. Rechargers are primarily seeking to have a contemplative, spiritual, and/or restorative experience; they use the museum as a refuge from the work-a-day world.

Bond and Falk (2011) adds two additional categories to recognize a wider variety of cultural institutions, including memorials and culturally-specific museums:

  • Respectful pilgrims visit out of a sense of duty or obligation to honor the memory of those represented by an institution/memorial.
  • Affinity seekers are motivated to visit because a particular museum (or more likely exhibition) speaks to the visitor’s sense of heritage and/or personhood.

Dawson and Jensen (2011) and others offer critiques of this classification system, arguing “for a contextual turn that places visitors’ experiences within a holistic and long-term framework of individual life circumstances, relationships, and trajectories.”

Conceptualizations by Age and Development

Conceptualizing visitors by developmental stage is particularly common in the design of youth educational programming, but can also be applied in targeting specific subsets of adult or intergenerational audiences. However, this approach does not always allow for diversity in learning and cognitive skills, social interactions, and other important elements discussed in the CAISE Inquiry Group Report on Inclusion, Disabilities, and Informal Science Learning.


Emily Dawson & Eric Jensen (2011): Towards A Contextual Turn in Visitor Studies: Evaluating Visitor Segmentation and Identity-Related Motivations, Visitor Studies, 14:2, 127-140 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10645578.2011.608001

John H. Falk (2006):  An identity-centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49, 151–166.

John H. Falk (2011): Contextualizing Falk’s Identity-Related Visitor Motivation Model, Visitor Studies, 14:2, 141-157. Available online.