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Social Influences on the Visitor Museum Experience
Jacksonville State University
Only recently have researchers begun to sys-
tematically study the impact of group influences
on museum experience. Prior to 1975, there was
little overt interest among researchers in attempt-
ing to measure the social processes involved in mu-
seum settings. However, by 1980 a number of re-
ports included data on group influence (e.g., Ben-
ton, 1979; Borun, 1977; Cone & Kendall, 1978;
Diamond, 1980; Lakota, 1975; Linn &Thier,
More recently, Falk and Dierking (1992) and
Dierking and Falk (in press) have summarized the
literature on group influence and attempted to give
proper emphasis to the social aspect of visitation.
Falk and Dierking (1992) devoted a chapter of their
(The Museum Experience)
to the social con-
text of the museum experience. In another publi-
cation, Dierking and Falk (in press) reviewed
studies dealing specifically with family behavior
and learning in museums. These attempts to sum-
marize the literature are important because they
emphasize the importance of these processes on
The purpose of this current short article is to
outline some of the variables (both group-related
and exhibit-related) that seem to play a role in
social learning in museums. There will be no effort
to repeat the efforts of Dierking and Falk; readers
are encouraged to seek out these references.
Group variables include those that originate
from the quality or number of people within the
group or from the combination of variables. Note
that the categories below are not always mutually
1. Gender of child. A
child's gender may play a role when
exhibits provide an opportunity for gender-typical behaviors
(e.g., Kremer & Mullins, 1992). For example, Kremer and
Mullins found that boys were more likely than girls to mimick
shooting actions and sounds at a water jet exhibit. Linn and
Thier (1975), on the other hand, reported that girls often
chose hands-on science activities requiring neatness.
Gender of adult.
Female adults were observed to take a
caretaking parent role while male adults were more likely to
act as leaders (Diamond, 1980; 1986; McManus, 1987).
When females were with other adults, they were more likely
to act in an exploratory manner. However, when female
adults were with children they were the least likely family
member to select an exhibit (Diamond, 1986).
3. Composition of group
(combination of age and gender).
Fathers were observed ignoring their daughters (Cone &
Kendall, 1978). Bitgood et al. (1993) found that the viewing
time of adults was correlated with who they were with -
other adults or children. This relationship was further com-
plicated by the fact that some exhibits are preferred by adults
and others by children.
child's presense would increase the
viewing time of adults at the child-preferred exhibit. In
another study, Wagner and Massey (1991) found that chil-
dren were more likely to role play at an exhibit when with
other children than when they were with adults.
Size of group.
Individuals may behave differently in small
groups than in large groups. For example, there maybe a ten-
dency to spend less time at exhibits (Bitgood, et al., 1993).
Ages of individuals.
Two types of age differences are
likely to be important: (a) child versus parent; and (b) devel-
opmental and physical stages of development. Clearly,
adult-child differences have been repeatedly noted. Adults
read more labels than children (Diamond, 1986); children
interact with animals and games more than adults (Rosenfeld
& Turkel, (1982); children are more likely to manipulate
exhibits than adults (Diamond, 1986; Koran, Koran, &
Both individual and group agendas are likely to
have an impact on visitors. If the agenda of aparent is to teach
a child about science concepts and the child's agenda is
simply to have fun and purchase something from the gift
shop, a conflict is likely to occur.
Style of parenting.
Benton (1979) reported that the
leadership style of the family was related to the amount of
time on discipline versus the amount of exhibit-directed
Families tend to cooperate in their
learning strategies(Bitgood,etal.,1993; Hilke,1988). Groups
composed of only adults, however, tend to adapt more
personal strategies for acquiring information —i.e., reading to
themselves (Bitgood, et
Studies demonstrate that the design features of
the exhibit play a critical role in understanding how
visitor groups behave.
Opportunities and type of participation.
more likely to touch and manipulate (Diamond, 1986; Koran,
et al, 1986).
Bitgood et al. (1993) found that
visitor dyads behaved differently from one exhibit to the next.
Adults viewed text-heavy exhibits longer than children;
children spent longer than adults at an exhibit that allowed
playing musical instruments.
Relative amount of text and objects.
Bitgood et al. (1993)
found that, as expected, text-ladened exhibits were more
popular with adults than with children. Further, adults with
other adults spent longer at such exhibits than adults with
Configuration of elements.
The physical configuration of
exhibit can have
effect on group behavior in several
ways. An exhibit designed such that only one person can see/
interact limits social contact. An exhibit designed such that
individuals must be tall enough to see will filter out young
children and wheelchair users or result in parents lifting chil-
dren to get a better look.
In addition to the standard measures of visitor
studies (stopping, viewing time, etc.), outcome
measures in the area of social influence have at-
tempted to document the social nature of the visit.
Thus, there is
attempt to document verbal ex-
changes (e.g., asking for and giving information)
and nonverebal influences (who leads the group,
who pulls the group away from the exhibit). Per-
haps these social measures should become routine
data collection in all studies.
A better understanding of social processes in
museums is necessary in order to better design
informal educational experiences. Given the di-
versity of group patterns, the task of designing
informal learning within a social context is a chal-
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Intergenerational interaction in
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Measuring the immeasurable: A pilot
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