The Holistic Museum Experience

The visitor experience is about far more than just seeing interesting exhibits. Every part of a museum shapes a person’s experience and memories of those experiences. This page provides useful information and ideas for improving visitor’s overall experiences at a museum.

The Pre-Visit and Post-Visit Experience

The Corning Museum of Glass website contains good examples of pre-visit and post-visit materials that provide visitors with background information about what they will see, what is expected of them as guests, and ways through which visitors can engage with the museum after their visit. The website also gives visitors the ability to deepen and further enrich their knowledge of glass through additional resources, making the museum website relevant to the visitor long after they exit the museum’s doors.

Pre-visit and Post-visit resources also benefit teachers by aiding them in creating objective-based field trips. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts provides teachers with field trip materials that prepare students for learning in the museum environment and focus their learning around specific objectives. Teachers rarely have the time or resources to take students on field trips these days, so help them make sure the trip fulfills their goals.

Museum Accessibility

In addition to the importance of Universal Design for Learning (discussed on the Programs and Outreach page) with regard to fulfilling your educational mission and making it possible for all visitors to learn in meaningful ways, your cultural institution must also be accessible to those with physical disabilities. The following is a list of resources to help ensure that your institution is accessible to those with physical and intellectual disabilities:

Museum Staff

Well-trained and attentive staff are important elements within a visitor’s overall museum experience, and staff-visitor interactions greatly impact visitors’ positive and negative memories about their experiences at a museum. This chapter from Nina Simon’s book, The Participatory Museum, provides useful insight into how staff can facilitate greater visitor engagement and be valuable educational and social assets to visitors.

Beyond the Exhibits: Gift Shops, Dining Services, and Lobbies

The following are resources for designing and running a successful gift shop:

  • Check out these retail guidelines for small museums from the Association of Independent Museums.
  • The Museum Store Association sets standards for nonprofit retail, and offers opportunities to its members to “connect, learn, and do business.” The regularly offer training webinars as well as national and regional conferences and events.
  • The Guardian newspaper published an article with advice from top UK museum retail experts on how to make your museum shop run more efficiently and effectively.
  • The Utah Museums Association has a list of 6 Great Tips for Running A Successful Museum Gift Shop that has great advice for any museum shop.
  • Keith Schneider wrote an article for the New York Times titled Adding Profits to the Gift Shop, discussing the role museum shops can play in a museum’s budget.

The Association of Independent Museums also offers a guide for designing museum dining locations called Successful Museum Cafes.

Read the article, “The Communicative Function of the Museum Lobby,” for information on how the lobby and visitor experiences are linked and how a lobby can set visitors up for success or failure.

This blog written by a professional museum planner provides interesting food for thought about how lobby designs play a role in molding visitor expectations and how lobbies can “captivate” visitors.


Regular evaluation is crucial for successful museum education programming. Evaluations will help you understand your strengths and weaknesses.

The Smithsonian Institution published this handbook after completing a national survey of museum education evaluation techniques. It synthesizes the results and presents them clearly and then, based on these conclusions, offers recommendations for evaluation programs in the future.

Data Collection Methods for Evaluating Museum Programs and Exhibitions” by Amy Grack Nelson and Sarah Cohn provides an overview of the data collection methods commonly used in museum-related evaluations.

A valuable part of evaluation, is learning from both negative and positive experiences visitors may have in your institution. Visitors of Color want to encourage marginalized groups to see museums as places of learning and belonging. They are also concerned with museums learning from marginalized groups based on ability, gender, sexual orientation, class and more, to create more inclusive experiences. Their website includes helpful links and PDFs for listening and observing for museums and their visitors.

Additional Online Resources

The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) in the United Kingdom offers “Successful Visitor Experience: Getting it Right”. Though the booklet is designed for UK museums, the principles, observations, and tips apply internationally.

Tom Hennes article, “Rethinking the Visitor Experience: Transforming Obstacle into Purpose” proposes increasing experiential learning and self-motivated activity as a way to further engage visitors.The National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center put together this guide, “Planning for Interpretation and Visitor Experience“. The document lays out how to create your interpretive plan, lists helpful resources, and offers general advice.

Antoinette Duplessis gave a talk on John Falk’s visitor identity related motivations in visiting museums. It provides an excellent, brief, summary of his work as well as providing an outline for a discussion of your organization’s specific visitor type.

Reorienting Historic House Museums: An Anarchists Guide is an article (soon be a book) discusses re-orienting visitor experience to historic houses to increase both visitor enjoyment and education. Through the use of innovative, if kooky, methods, the authors (and the sites at which they have tested their ideas) seek to modernize the historic house museum. One author, Frank Vagnone, has a website and blog with more ideas, stories, and discussions here.

Additional Print Resources

Dierking, Lynn. Questioning Assumptions: An Introduction to Front-End Studies in Museums. Association of Science-Technology Centers, 1998.

Falk, John. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press, 2009.

Falk, John and Lynn Dierking. Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press, 2012.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and Their Visitors. Routledge, 1994.

Loomis, Ross. Museum Visitor Evaluation: New Tool for Management (AASLH Management Series). 2007.

Weaver, Stephanie. Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens, and Libraries. Left Coast Press, 2007.

Wood, Elizabeth and Kiersten Latham. The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums. Left Coast Press, 2013.