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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 2|October|1999


Students visiting museum in Sydney.


The Devoted Visitor and the Visit without Walls


by Jamie McKenzie

Note: First presented at a conference sponsored by Museum Victoria in February of 1999, this paper provides the basis for a keynote to be presented at MCN (Museum Computer Network) in October. Web site

(About the Author)

Schools and museums would both like to encourage attendance. We share a commitment to the concept of "devoted1 visitors" - the ones who come back frequently (and voluntarily) because they just cannot stay away - who sign up to become members or regulars - who line up early before the doors are open and stay late after most people have headed for home.
This article explores the possibility of increasing the number of devoted visitors by taking advantage of digital, online resources.

Visitors, Guests, Members and Regulars

We can hardly be satisfied with the visitor2 who passes through our doors "once in a lifetime." We are looking for more commitment and more staying power. We hope to witness visitors returning dozens of times, bringing friends and family to enjoy the magic within our walls and not just lining up for blockbuster shows. We yearn for the devoted visitor who appreciates our regular collections, exhibits and events.
We wish that a larger percentage of our visitors would become devoted and ardent members of the museum community. To reach this goal, we consider how digital resources and the visit without walls might extend, deepen and enhance the museum experience.

The Power of Metaphor to Fuel Invention

When new technologies come along, it is tempting to view their potential contribution to an existing institution such as a museum or a school in conservative terms. It is difficult to step outside the institution long enough to entertain the possibilities fully. We end up with incremental changes. We make adjustments. The new technology is soon twisted and shaped to conform to the "way things are spozed to be."
Metaphor can help us sometimes move beyond such thinking to consider more dramatic possibilities. Given the potential of online exhibits and digital resources, perhaps we can create a whole new breed of passionate visitor, one who visits the museum in many different ways, enjoying a 24/73 taste of the exhibits and treasures electronically as well as many "walk in" visits to the museum building itself.
There are many different metaphors we might entertain as we think of what these new resources might do for us . . . how they might help to enhance our definitions and our visions.

 shopping mall
 grocery store
 amusement park

The Museum as Restaurant, for Example . . .

I have asked museum planners to think of a favorite restaurant - one to which they return as often as once a month. What builds loyalty and keeps folks coming back time after time? What special traits does this restaurant possess? What special features and behaviors?
Two different groups on two different continents named the following features:
Factors Encouraging
Return Visits

to Restaurants
. .
. Museum 1 Museum 2
cleanliness 3 .
convenient location 5 25
quality of food 11 25
value 6 20
service 5 16
atmosphere 3 16
byo 0 15
friendly staff 7 12
no smoking 0 10
consistency 1 7
always different 0 6
same menu 0 6
parking 0 6
not too noisy 2 4
loyalty 4 3
changes menu 0 2
smoking 0 0
neighborhoodly 2 .
decor 3 .
full bar 1 .
kid friendly 1 .
cheap 8 .
relaxed 4 .
live entertainment 2 .
The devoted visitor to a restaurant expects that many essential qualities of dining will be delivered consistently, predictably and with quality. Some aspects may be surprising, but only in a pleasant manner. The devoted visitor to a restaurant wants to be fed well in a comfortable setting with a reasonable but not overwhelming amount of choice. The return visits, apparently, have much to do with predictability and fulfillment. The diner has an appetite for experience as well as food. Clear away the obstacles if you want me to return. Hassle free dining!
How can we relate this restaurant consideration to Web design and virtual museums? How much do museum sites change? How familiar are they each visit? Are we seated quickly? (allowed to feast without delay?) To what extent does the site offer comfort and predictability? Can we find what we are really looking for rapidly? Is there a new menu, a new look and a new selection each time we visit with a new floor plan and new signage?

Advantages of Online Digital Learning

Great User Interface
Availability of Powerful Tools
Down Home Feeling
24/7 - Freedom from Time and Space Constraints
Freedom from Conventional Wisdom

French children
at play.
For the first time, really, we can say to museum goers, "Have it your way!"

When visitors come to the marble museum, we prepare pathways for them. We order the events and the displays in a sequence that makes sense to the professionals. For some visitors, this is off putting. The entire museum experience may feel somewhat overwhelming to some visitors.

"Am I doing the right thing? Should I read everything on each of the labels? Should I remember that date?"

While some physical museums allow for more hands-on exploration, more wandering and more experimentation, online experiences may support even greater personalizing and adapting of the experience to match personal styles and preferences.

Visitors may select a role or a style preference when they arrive that may shape the path offered them, or they may create an entirely new path for themselves, stepping across a meandering flagstone pathway that twists and turns through a labyrinth of treasures.

Some will hop, some will skip and some will jump. Others will crawl.


Norwegian children
at play.
Tom March, a Web designer and educator in New South Wales, formerly an instructor at San Diego State, has created a promising example of how visitors may interact with a collection, rearranging the elements, adding their own comments and making their own version of a mini museum. Take a look at "You Choose" at at Art's Eyes, an online exhibit funded by Pacific Bell.







While most museums are reluctant to share their full collections in either the marble museum or the online version of the museum for one reason or another, the online museum of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums proudly announces that it makes available 70,000 images from its collection for online enjoyment.

Visitors have enormous choices. They can go to the search part of the imagebase and enter words and concepts that create mini collections.

Interested in various artists' use of the color blue?

A collection of 977 thumbnails is swiftly available.

Interested in Monet's water lilies? The museum's single painting is a mouseclick away. And the visitor may choose to ZOOM in on the painting to see details more clearly.

Try a search on any subject you choose by clicking here

This is not to say that visitors to marble museums have no choices. Indeed, they do. But the richness and variety of the electronic collection along with the control granted to the visitor far exceeds what can be replicated within the walls of a building where the vast majority of the collection must remain safely underground in storage.

from Time

There was a time, not so long ago, that banks and stores and museums were open mainly from 9 to 5 five or six days a week. Now we can do our banking 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and most of our shopping, too. If the purpose of museums is to support learning, as opposed to visiting, then we can see that online exhibits support the notion of 24/7. The new museum goer is able to enjoy the exhibits and treasures from the comfort of home or the convenience of the work place. The heritage is but a mouseclick away.

A second related characteristic is the richness of the collection available to the electronic museum goer. Not much need to worry about providing sufficient wall space for 70,000 images.


It is tempting to explain collections to visitors. We grow accustomed to seeing visitors walking through blockbuster shows with tape players leading them from painting to painting, telling them all about the objets d'art. And this is a choice many visitors make freely. They want to know what the experts think Van Gogh had in mind when he painted the sky with lots of stars in it.

At the same time, the narrative voice can intrude at times and take away the pleasure of interpreting or experiencing the art or the artifacts first hand. Online exhibits can provide alternative viewing options to support whatever style matches the museum goer's purpose. The Web site can provide the equivalent of the guided audio tour or it can put the visitor in the role of exhibit designer. Instead of a single label next to each item, there could be a dozen icons, each of them representing a different point of view or interpretation.

Just as the Impressionist movement challenged the Academy and moved on to become mainstream art, museums must be cautious to allow for multiple view points and perspectives. Online exhibits make this diversity practical.

Great User Interface

The marble museum presents fewer possibilities for user interfaces4 than online exhibits and exploratoriums, although Intel is exploring the possibilities of "wired visitors" equipped with laptops as they wander through the halls.

Once a museum goer arrives at an online museum, what are the user interface choices and special features?

The Thinker, featured above as a great example of choice, also wins high grades for its ZOOM feature that provides the visitor with dramatic control over the viewing experience.

What are the features of a great user interface?

  • User friendly
  • Intuitive
  • Requires little training/learning to use
  • Maximizes viewing area
  • Gives viewer many options
  • Supports exploration
  • Allows juxtaposition

Perhaps it is asking too much, but I keep waiting for the user interface that will support the kind of juxtaposition described in considerable detail in this month's article, "Students in Resonance." If we could easily place images and objects side by side, we could provoke the cognitive dissonance required to fuel fresh thinking.


Availability of Powerful Tools

While some online visitors may wish to do no more than view objects, others will have greater expectations. They may wish to work with, interpret and manipulate objects and images on their screens as well as "in their minds' eyes."

Museums that provide QTVR (QuickTime VR) make it possible for the visitor to rotate an object or scan a 360 degrees panorama.

For an extensive list of examples, click here.


Down Home Feeling

Some observers of the museum experience have commented on the off putting nature of marble buildings and the museum "scene."
Online exhibits may be tasted and enjoyed in the privacy and comfort of one's own home. No guards, no chatting cognoscenti and no crowds.

The ultimate test of an online experience is whether or not the visitor becomes a devoted user of the site because they leave feeling satisfied and fulfilled after each experience. Fulfillment describes a high level of contentment, the gratification that might result from a wonderful meal or a spectacular concert.



How many images and how many objects are available? How easy is it to find just exactly those items one is seeking?

Too many online museums offer even fewer items than their marble museums. There may be thousands of items crated in the basement that rarely "see the light of day." What a loss. What a waste. Why not digitize them and share them?

Fulfillment will depend, in part, upon the quality of the searching experience. If the museum does an inadequate job of combining meta data with items, abundance may be frustrating to the visitor.

Depth is real only when the data mining tools and infrastructure are provided to support successful searching.




1. devoted
1. Feeling or displaying strong affection or attachment; ardent: a devoted friend.

The American Heritage® Dictionary
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2. visitor
Visit (vîz´ît) verb
visited, visiting, visits verb, transitive
1. a. To call on socially: visit friends. b. To go to see or spend time at (a place) with a certain intent: visit a museum; visited London. c. To stay with as a guest. d. To go to see in an official or professional capacity: visited the dentist; a priest visiting his parishioners.
The American Heritage® Dictionary
3. 24/7
Twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. The new standard and the new expectation for service. To be contrasted with the "banker's hours (9 to 3, M-F) of the 1950s.

FNO Press® Dictionary of Trendy Terms©
4. user interface
The window provided to a computer user through which she or he may view and explore content. It is more than just a frame. The user interface includes all of the user controls and special features that allow this viewing and exploring to be more or less interactive.

A good user interface gives the viewer tremendous control over the viewing experience and does so in a comfortable manner.

FNO Press® Dictionary of Trendy Terms©

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Icons from Jay Boersma. Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
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