Sunday, January 16, 2011

Customers, Learners, Citizens

Visitors, audiences, guests, customers, clients, patrons, users, the public. How do you or your museum refer to the people it serves and hopes to serve? 

Articles, blogs, conversations, and even mission statements suggest there is little agreement about this important term among museums. In fact, labels are often used interchangeably. This might imply that it doesn’t really matter what we call the adults and children who walk through the doors, enroll in classes, become members, shop at the store, explore exhibits, and visit our websites.

In fact, what we call our museum’s public beneficiaries really does influence how we think of them, plan for them, serve them and our communities, and even assess our impact. “Visitor” might have the lead as a standard term, but with major shortcomings. It is not only impersonal, but it also lumps together millions of people into one undifferentiated mass. It implies a temporary relationship with someone who will be leaving soon. Finally, it ignores the vast number of people who may not physically come to the museum but who have an interest in and a relationship with it. Teachers and school administrators, volunteers, partners, funders, business leaders, neighbors, and taxpayers are only some of the stakeholders who don’t fit the label "visitor."   

Visitor is not so much a wrong term. It is simply inadequate. The lively, exciting activity around audience conceptualizations seems to suggest this as well. (Falk, J. 2006;  Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Pekarik and  Mogel. 2010.)

Somewhere between a one-size-fits-all category of visitor and a research-based audience segmentation is a view of museum visitors as:

  • Customers
  • Learners
  • Citizens
While very basic as a taxonomy, this nevertheless focuses on the person, engages with museum practices, and aligns with most museums’ broad strategic interests. It also accommodates the very real possibility that a person might be a customer, a learner, or a citizen at various times during a museum visit depending on their interests, choices, and activities.

Considering the particular roles and associated interests of customers, learners, and citizens opens the possibility of relationships with them that are more personal than abstract and that may be on-going. It places people in the social context of museums. And it facilitates understanding, describing and assisting people in what they hope to accomplish by connecting with the museum.
  • Customers purchase memberships, attend events, shop in the store, and use websites. They are interested in friendly service, personal satisfaction, a good value, comfort, easy navigation, and a positive experience. 
  • Learners visiting exhibits, participating in a program, or upgrading skills expect rich accessible content, opportunities to apply existing skills and experiences, or appreciate art. They may want to learn together as a family or provide a learning experience for their children.
  • Inspired to serve their community, eager to expand or share skills, or acting on a long-standing interest, citizens may be volunteers, participants in research, advisors, advocates, or enthusiasts. They bring energy, expertise, and goodwill that help a museum strengthen its community connections.
Getting to know and plan for customers, learners, and citizens suggests new contexts and practices. We tend to construct a context that takes into account qualities we attribute to someone in a particular role. So distinguishing among roles is likely to sharpen awareness of expectations and associated contexts. Alternative assumptions, approaches, and practices may come into play along with new resources and studies.

  • Customers. Satisfying customers brings to mind ways to be helpful, the importance of taking the extra step, and the potential of an on-going relationship that serving visitors does not. Two decades ago museums experienced a surge of awareness around satisfying customers. Meeting or exceeding their expectations became a priority. Subsequently, customer service procedures were developed, staff training was implemented, and satisfaction levels are measured and tracked. Lobbies increasingly offer designated lines (i.e. member express), food and other amenities, and activities to engage children while parents purchase tickets. A reputation for exceptional customer service builds a valued brand and good will that benefits a museum for years.
  • Learners. Imagine the discussions, questions, and choices a team planning an exhibit for learners would have compared to the same team planning an exhibit for visitors. To plan for learners, a team might develop a definition of learning. It might identify attributes like curiosity, rich experience bank, or creative, that learners bring to the objects, images, text, media, and activities a team will shape into an exhibition. The team could use generic learning outcomes or content-based frameworks to frame learning goals and evaluate the exhibit’s impact, just as it could design exhibits using research on the connection between family learning and exhibit characteristics. The more developed a view of the learner a museum has, the more fully it is able to deliver on a promise of learning value.
  • Citizens. Museums invest significant resources in developing partnerships, growing networks, delivering programs in the community, and reaching new audiences. These are long-term efforts and a challenge to sustain. Engaging citizens in this work, however, can shift resources and results. Whether they are neighbors, hobbyists, volunteers, activists, artists, inventors, or scientists, citizens bring high levels of motivation and commitment. Moreover, their experiences, expertise, and perspectives are assets that help the museum serve its customers and learners more effectively, expand its cultural knowledge, research a pressing local issue, or bring the community into the museum. While listening, nurturing relationships, and building trust take time, authentic citizen engagement goes directly to a museum’s aligning its interests and assets with its community’s priorities.
Everyday, museums open their doors, look sharp, eagerly await and welcome visitors. If, however, a museum were to focus on serving its customers, inspiring learners, and engaging citizens, it could accomplish this and more. A museum could also help itself become a recognized and valued asset in its community.
  • Falk, J. 2006. An identity-centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal. 49/2: 151-164.
  • Pekarik, A.J. and B. Mogel. 2010. Ideas, objects, or people? A Smithsonian exhibition team views visitors anew. Curator: The Museum Journal 53/4: 465-483.
  • Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Re-conceptualizing museum audiences: Power, activity, responsibility. Visitor Studies: 13(2): 131-144.


  1. Thanks for this clear and cogent post. I'd argue that we can all be several of these at once, and from a Maslow perspective, you may be first a customer, then a learner, then a citizen. You can't learn happily if the bathrooms are dirty and the staff are mean, and you don't want to engage as a citizen if there isn't worthwhile content around which to participate.

  2. You're right, Nina. Recognizing the fluidity among these roles is important. They are not mutually exclusive, but more like 3 dimensions at play in a number of ways. You might be a customer, learner, citizen in quick succession; all at once; or over time moving from primarily a customer, to a learner to a citizen.