What sparks a Visit to a Museum?

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!

How did your last visit to a Museum begin?

I’m not talking about when you walked through the doors to the enthusiastic welcome of someone at a front desk. I’m talking about the moment you decided to go to a Museum.

For me, my last museum visit began with a with a gap in my social agenda. My parents were visiting us in Philadelphia for the weekend and I needed an activity to fill the gap between when the college basketball game ended and our dinner reservation. Enter the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A museum that I had been to before, and based on positive experiences, thought my parents would enjoy. It was a quieter, more relaxing activity compared to the high intensity of a live sporting event.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Great Stair Hall and visitors in one of the galleries.

Museums are incredibility interested in why people choose to visit their institution. In fact, museums have done a lot of thinking about what motivates visitors to walk through their doors. Without diving too deeply into theory, scholars have identified a few different “categories” of museum visitors. A leader in the field, John H. Falk, proposed five identity-based categories – explorers, facilitators, professionals/hobbyists, experience seekers, and rechargers. (Interested? Learn more here or check out The Museum Experience by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking or Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by John H. Falk)

For example, my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art was primarily socially motivated. I could be considered a facilitator, where the focus of my visit was enabling the experience, and learning, of my family.

A visit to a museum is deeply personal. Everyone has unique interests, motivations, and concerns. My family’s visit was also formed because of a positive previous experience I had and my interest in art and art history. Knowing what motivates you to visit the JMM isn’t about fitting you into a category. It’s about having a better understanding of your needs and how to support you during your experience. Learning about you, helps us tailor your experience. It helps us enable you to make connections to the stories we are sharing. Ideally, it also helps the experience continue after you have left our building.

Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World. The Walters Art Museum. Acquired by Henry Walters with Massarenti Collection, 1902.

My next museum visit came from an evening conversation. My husband and I were discussing the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This conversation led to some google searches, which landed us on a Wikipedia page. On the page was a thumbnail image of a painting by Maerten van Heemskerck that portrayed the ancient wonders as the backdrop for the abduction of Helen by Paris. Intense searching to identify each of the wonders in this painting commenced.

The Second Floor of the Walters in the Chamber of Wonders, with Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World hanging on the wall.

It was then that my husband realized the painting that we had never heard of before was the Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World located at The Walters Art Museum. They have a great online collection with detailed information and even where the painting can be found in the Museum. We couldn’t believe that we are lucky enough to have this painting in our own backyard. Rather than look at pixels on a screen, we will be visiting this painting in person to continue our conversation.

So, what about your next Museum visit? How will it begin? What will motivate you?


jewish museum of maryland

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