Why do people visit a Museum?

Since I am working as a museum marketeer I always wonder why do people visit a museum? Why do people desire to go to a building and view different kind of objects? I don’t claim to have the total and complete answer to this question but I will try to shed a light on the motives and desires of museum visitors.

In one of my other posts I discussed what factors a Museum should consider to get the most revenues out of their entrance fees/admissions. This post about pricing policy is viewed from the supply side of the museum. But where there is supply there is also a demand. So what determines the demand for museums?(in random order)

1. The cost of visiting a museum, this contains

  • Entrance fee
  • Opportunity cost of time: when you have high income time is expensive. The time you are visiting a museum you could have worked and earned a lot more money. With a lower income time is less expensive.
  • The price of alternative leisure activities
  • Other costs of visiting like transport costs, parking costs.

2. Level of education/intelligence; the average level of education is generally higher in Art Museum, this level drops with History museums, and Science museums have the broadest appeal.

3. Contents of the exhibition (art matters). I have also written a post about that. But what a museum has on display matters for the demand.

4. The design of the building. Maybe not a major factor in considering the demand.

5. The provision of services like catering, museum shop, customer friendliness, hygiene.

6. Marketing & Communication efforts.

7. Satisfying visits in the past

But this list doesn’t really cut it for me. If the Mona Lisa was displayed in a barn, with unfriendly staff, for 30 dollars and little communication would people stay away? Some will but a lot will still want to see the real thing. It is a good list to consider when trying to make an estimate of the demand for museums. Or to optimize your marketing organization. But this list is more or less an observation of the behavior of the museum visitor.

I want try too look inside the head of the museum visitor…What drives him, why is his desire big enough to get out of his chair and wonder around objects of art. In a great book I have read ‘on desire‘ by William B. Irvine, he points out there are instrumental desires and hedonic desires. An instrumental desire is a desire someone fulfills to get to a hedonic desire. For example I want to drive my car to the Louvre to see the Mona lisa. The ‘driving of my car’ is an instrumental desire to get to my hedonic desire ‘seeing the Mona Lisa’. Mr. Irvine states that Instrumental desires are desired for the sake of something else. Hedonic desires are desired because I want to feel good or avoid feeling bad. So people visit a museum to feel good or avoid feeling bad.

What kind of psychological factors can trigger this feelings of good or avoiding bad. I have a theory about that. I distinguish two type of feelings: Personal museum feelings and Social museum feelings. Personal museum feelings are feelings you can experience without other people. To experience ‘Social museum feelings’ other people have to be involved. The museum visitor has a hedonic desire to experience at least a part of these feelings.

There are various different personal museum feelings:

  • Entertainment feelings, being entertained feels good, you feel joy and fun.
  • Educational feelings, understanding how things work, solving a puzzle, raises your self esteem.
  • Aesthetical feelings, the awe of seeing a great object of art, is uplifting, it stretches the imagination, it crosses a mental boundary. A colleague of mine said that Great arts gives him consolation. The beauty of the artwork makes live worth living despite all the troubles there are in the world.

There are also various social museum feelings:

  • Sharing feelings, Sharing the personal museum feelings with each other. A shared feeling deepens the experience of the feeling. Seeing the same beautiful work of art, and sharing that feeling enhances the aesthetical feelings.
  • Superior feelings, visiting a museum to impress people or feeling superior towards other people. Someone who has these kind of feelings may think “hmmmm, what a great painting of Willem de Kooning in his late period, I like it but my stupid friends probably won’t appreciate it”.
  • Inferior feelings, you go because your friends visited that exhibition and if you don’t go you can not join in the conversation.
  • Lethargic feelings, others decide for you to go, like in a school trip.
  • Landmark feelings, you must have seen ‘the venus de Milo‘ en the ‘Mona Lisa’ when you visit the Louvre in Paris or “this exhibition is a once in a life time event”.

What is the marketing use off all those feelings described above? Actually I use the three “personal museum feelings” in my communication strategy. Must we sell the exhibition like an aesthetical one or a more entertaining one. The social museum feelings are more difficult. This is because not all of them are positive feelings. But promoting the an exhibition as a ‘once in a lifetime event’ helps raising attendance or promoting a visit to the museum as shared experience probably also lifts up the image of the museum.