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20/2 1977

Orientation in a MuseumAn Experimental Visitor Study


If visitors have trouble finding their way around museums and do not have the information they need to choose what to see, how can we expect them to use museum facilities in the best and most helpful way? Orientation to a museums environment is essential for a successful visit. Good orientation facilitates learning, appreciation, and exposure. Without a useful scheme for viewing exhibit halls, frustration, boredom, fatigue, and missed opportunities will result (Cohen, 1974). But how do we know what orientation systems will work? Until recently there have been few guidelines to help in designing an efficient and integrated system of orientation. We conducted a study designed to assess the effectiveness of different orientation aids and to develop an experimental procedure that would allow a comparison of how useful the aids were in assisting museum visitors. In looking at the problem of orientation within buildings, we saw the importance of linking information about the location of exhibits, other facilities, the visitors themselves, and so forth, to salient cues provided by the architecture (Ittleson, et al., 1974; Winkel and Sasanoff, 1966).



The research described in this article was conducted at the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution. Previous research in this setting (Cohen, 1973), along with anecdotal evidence provided by the museum staff, pointed to the existence of extensive orientation problems in the building. We were convinced that to understand the problems visitors were having, we had t o intervene in their actual visits to the museum; thus, we started a demonstration project to compare some commonly used devices-maps, signs, directories, and information people. Our experimental procedure focused on measuring various indexes of disorientation and how much selected aids could alter the indexes. Our objective was to discover which orientation devices, or systems of devices, were most helpful to visitors and what information was being communicated by each particular device.

Our conceptual framework treated orientation as multidimensional. Various test instruments, written and oral questionnaires, on-site observations, and sorting tasks were used to develop the data base. Random sampling techniques ensured objectivity in selecting experimental subjects. The results of the statistical analysis are summarized here. The method, instruments, statistical data, and further discussion are detailed in the original manuscript (Winkel and Cohen, 1975). Our first task was t o obtain baseline information concerning the effectiveness of the orienting devices already used in the museum, including directories and information people located at the major building entrances. These were then supplemented by specially prepared maps, signs, and combinations of maps and signs located at strategic points: the entrances, the central rotunda, a main hallway, and within one of the buildings wings. The area chosen for intensive investigation was the Physical Science wing on the first floor of the museum. This section of the building was complexly arranged, attracted many visitors, and provided an interesting diversity of exhibit halls. Using a combination of observations and interviews, we were able t o gather 21,000 pieces of data from July to November 1974. This period allowed us to sample different visitor populations-more in the summer than in the early winter, and a possible variety of backgrounds. For the first part of our research, we prepared special maps and put them at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the museum, at the entrance t o the Physical Science wing, and at two points within the wing. The maps detailed all the floors of the museum with the names


Tilted map is easily approached by many visitors at once.

Maps, this one at eye level, help visitors choose which exhibits to view.

Signs in the exhibit halls of this complex museum help visitors find their way.


of all the exhibit halls. The map of the first floor was enlarged and color coded, as were the other maps within the wing, to show the visitors which area was being represented. In addition, there were color photographs of all the exhibit halls on the bottom of the map panels. We had different map designs, but they were all based on letting the visitor come very close, so that a route could be traced with a finger if desired. One map design was a pedestal base tilting a map at a thirty-degree angle toward the visitor. Another was a large eye-level map. All maps were placed in the immediate path of visitor traffic for optimum use. In the second experiment, we hung signs from the ceilings at the exits and entrances of each of the exhibit halls in the wing. The signs contained information about the halls located straight ahead, to the right, or t o the left. Directional arrows on the signs next to the exhibit titles pointed the direction visitors should take. The shafts of the arrows were broken according to how many halls away the desired hall was located; two breaks indicated two halls away from the present sign. In the third experiment, we used both maps and signs t o measure the combined effectiveness of these devices. The fourth experiment tested the usefulness of having information people available t o answer questions. People wearing appropriate uniforms stood in the central rotunda and in several places in the wing. At other times, people were seated at distinctive booths in the same areas. Our final studies focused on the arrangement of the exhibit halls. Thirty-six were open at the time of the study, and we believed it might be possible to organize them into a smaller number of groups, each of which would contain a cluster of related exhibits. If the visitor perceived different areas as belonging together in some way, orientation problems could be reduced by designing directories and brochures listing each of the groups with an associated generic title, thus simplifying the amount of information about the museum that the visitor might need to remember.

The following material summarizes some of the major findings of the investigation.

Baseline Conditions- Under baseline conditions existing before we started testing, where only the museum directories and information desks at the museum entrances were available to visitors, we found


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the following from interviews with visitors entering and leaving the wing: 1. Seventy-one percent of the visitors were unaware of the exhibits in the Physical Science Wing. 2. Eighty-six percent of the people did not have any understanding of what halls would be encountered as they moved through that area. 3. Sixty-six percent of the visitors did not feel they had entered an exhibit hall at its beginning. 4. Forty-six percent of the visitors did not think they had seen the entire wing. 5. Forty-one percent were forced to backtrack at some point in the wing. 6 . Thirty percent looked at exhibits they would rather not have seen. 7 . Thirty percent encountered difficulties finding their way back to the main corridor. 8. Each visitor missed an average of two exhibit halls that would have been interesting. 9. Most people wished there were some orientation assistance available. Maps and Signs-When we introduced maps, signs, and a combination of the two, we found dramatic changes from the baseline figures, as shown in the chart on page 89. We saw the following findings: 1. All devices used alone or in combination were effective in reducing the various indicators of disorientation used in the study. 2. The signs were most influential in assisting visitors. 3. The combination of maps and signs did not result in very substantial improvement in orientation compared to either device used alone. The maps were most helpful in the following ways: 1. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the wing as a whole. 2. Allowing visitors to see the most interesting exhibits, thus reducing the number of missed exhibits to an average of one per person. 3. Telling visitors what exhibits could be found in the entire museum. 4. Helping people decide how t o organize their visits or choose what they wanted t o see in the entire museum. The signs did the following: 1. Told visitors what sequences of exhibit halls could be expected as they moved through the area.


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2. Assisted people in reducing the amount of backtracking through


3. Allowed people to avoid uninteresting exhibits. 4. Increased the probability that people would know where one
hall ended and another began. 5 . Did not decrease the average number of interesting exhibits missed per person. The signs reduced most disorientation and should be considered the more effective of the two devices. A comparison of maps and signs indicates that maps are used to obtain an overall image of the area represented, not to find detailed directions. For example, visitors will use maps to help them choose which exhibits to see or facilities to use. People do not appear to recall map details and must rely on the signs to provide the additional information they seek once in the area. The signs are inadequate when the visitor requires an image of the areas layout because their information is so limited. These findings suggest that an integrated orientation system could usefully employ both maps and signs because in combination they reduce different types of disorientation. It seems that the cost involved in preparing maps and signs at strategic points is minimal, compared to the overall benefits that would accrue. If it were necessary to choose only one approach, an effective system of signs would be most desirable. Because the maps and to a certain degree the signs had complicated designs, we developed a series of interviews to evaluate their effectiveness. For the maps, we found the following: 1. Sixty percent of the visitors reported using them. 2. Eighty percent of those who used the maps found them helpful. 3. Ninety percent of users found them clear enough-not too confusing. 4. Maps were used mostly to determine which exhibits to visit and to provide general orientation within the museum. 5 . Visitors did not use maps conventionally-to determine routes from one area to another. Instead, they used them to get an overview of exhibits in an area and to make sure they saw the most interesting ones. 6. The most useful map component was the floorplan, which provided a sense of the museums organization. 7. Visitors would like maps located at different places in the museum. 8. Maps should be located at major decision points such as elevators, escalators, stairwells, and central areas leading t o specific sections of the building.



9. Maps placed at directional choice points within the wing were not consulted with any frequency. 10. Visitors did not find photographs of representative exhibits in the wing helpful or necessary. For the signs, we found the following: 1. At least ninety percent of the visitors noticed the signs, used them, and found them helpful. 2. Visitors used signs primarily to find paths to interesting exhibits. 3. Signs were not helpful in determining the overall layout of the wing, finding specific exhibits, or returning t o the main corridor (this was expected; the informational content of the signs was limited). 4. Visitors did not understand the meaning of the broken shafts on the directional arrows, indicating the number of halls to be traversed. 5 . Half the people realized that an arrow to the left or right of the exhibit title indicated a left or right turn. Orientation systems using maps or signs require simple design formats. Some of the additions to our maps (arrows and photographs) were neither necessary nor helpful. Symbols whose meaning is not clear simply confuse the visitor. One of the consequences of this is that alternative design schemes should be carefully tested prior to their introduction on any large scale within the museum.
Further Assistance- Although our experimental devices were effective in reducing virtually every index of disorientation, visitors still felt a need for further assistance, no matter which devices were introduced. The combination of maps and signs yielded the fewest numbers of requests, even though forty percent of the visitors said they wanted more guidance. Brochures were most commonly mentioned under all experimental conditions. It appears that visitors have an insatiable demand for orientation information; they do not really need it, but apparently they feel more secure if there is redundancy in the information system. This desire should be weighed against the alternative of overdesigning an orientation system, where the aids might intrude on the exhibits that should form the core of the museums function. Some aids were frequently mentioned as desirable alternatives, but guided tours, information desks, and museum directories did not receive much support. We conducted a separate series of studies to determine how often some devices-directories and people at desks located at the entrance to the museum and information people stationed at various places within the wing at desks and on foot-were actually consulted by visitors. Our observations showed the following: 1. More visitors used the maps than used either the information desk or the directory at the museum entrance.


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Floorplans of the first, second, and third floors of the National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution (the basement, not shown here, contains the exhibit "Suiting Everyone"and the cafeteria).



2. The information desk at the entrance was used more often than the directory (perhaps simply because the desk was physically more prominent). 3. The questions asked of information people were different from those leading to the use of maps, and therefore the former should be seen as complementary to the latter. 4. Having information people at various places in the Physical Science wing was not effective. Whether they were seated at a prominent booth or were standing in the hall wearing a bold identification badge, they were rarely approached. 5. When visitors did ask questions of the information people located in the wing (well into the interior of the building), they usually wanted to find the cafeteria or another Smithsonian building, or they asked for a brochure. 6 . When information people were present inside exhibit halls, they were asked questions about content, not orientation. 7. Visitors were more likely to go t o a map than t o an information person for directions at the entrance to the wing. We conclude that orientation people are only helpful at museum entrances, not within exhibit halls.
Groups of Exhibits-The next series of studies concentrated on the possibility that the thirty-six exhibits in the museum could be grouped into a smaller number of clusters of related displays. If the groupings could be identified, brochures, directories, and similar devices could be designed so that the generic title associated with each cluster could be prominently listed, thus organizing the exhibits the way chapter titles organize a book, and simplifying the visitors recall problem. To accomplish this task, we used the interest ratings people assigned to each of the thirty-six exhibits both at the beginning of the visit and at the end. Then, through an examination of the intercorrelations among the exhibits, we discovered the following:
1. The most prominent grouping, in terms of visitor interest at the beginning and end of the visit, consisted of technology and engineering exhibits: nuclear energy, mathematics, iron and steel, electricity, petroleum, civil engineering, heavy machinery, and light machinery. 2. A second set was armed forces history, including armed forces, ordnance, and merchant shipping. 3. History of medicine included medicine, health, dentistry, and pharmacy.


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4. Women visitors grouped the first ladies gowns, Suiting Everyone (located in the basement), the dollhouse, and ceramics. 5. Visitors tended to see the museum primarily as one of technology and engineering, not as one that illustrates the culture and history of the United States. 6. Most of the exhibits on the third floor were not perceived as having any related themes or goals. Exhibit clusters were difficult to identify in this area. 7. Two factors can be used to define groups of exhibits: location and interest in the exhibit. People tended t o remember and be most interested in the exhibit they saw first. These findings suggest that the exhibit halls on the first floor could be identified in directories and brochures as distinguishable groups, but because many halls on the third floor do not have thematic unity, the museum would have t o give careful consideration to a more coherent arrangement of halls before giving titles t o these areas. The whole problem of the relationships that exist among exhibit areas from the visitors perspective is a rich source for future exploration. It is not necessary to argue that exhibits should be arranged according t o the perceptions of either the visitors or the museum staff. By knowing how people perceive these relationships, it is possible to develop exhibition and education programs that challenge the visitor and are sensitive to the types of association people often make. We found a general feeling on the part of visitors that the museum specializes in science and industry, not history and technology; they often call the museum by the wrong name. This could be because they have visited science and industry museums, but have never before heard of a history and technology museum. The museum might alleviate this confusion more successfully by advertising its exhibits and goals, stressing the duality of technology and history. Minimum advertising would be a campaign within the building, which could be enhanced at the building exterior or in the press and other media.

The findings we have described are based on randomly selected samples. There was remarkable consistency in the demographic characteristics of this group of people (Wells, 1969). Briefly, we found the following: 1. Visitors (other than schoolchildren, who are not included in this measurement) are relatively young-most from eighteen to thirty years old.



2. At least seventy percent of the visitors over high school age have
some college education or are college graduates.

3. At least forty percent had visited the museum before, but not in the last year.

4. Slightly more males than females comprise the visitor population. (This finding should be accepted with caution because it is possible that in family groups males were more likely to answer questionnaires, even though we tried to have them avoid this tendency.)

We have already summarized the results of our comparisons of orientation aids. We believe that our findings can be applied to the development of other orientation media. For example, systems based on audiovisual techniques-which are often expensive-will encounter special problems unless care is taken t o organize the information they contain so that visitors will have a clear and succinct image of the museum and its collections. These images must be matched to the design and layout of the building. It is also imperative t o recognize that people have limited memories; when confronted with a mass of stimuli from a strange environment, they only remember the most salient, and then not for any prolonged period. This implies that an effective orientation scheme must provide for memory lapses through the use of redundant cues at major decision points in the museum. Otherwise, the effectiveness of any approach will rapidly dissipate over the course of the visit. In general, it is possible to see that diverse strands of evidence point to the complexity of museum orientation. Commonly used techniques are not interchangeable in their effects. Some locational aids are used more frequently than others, and the uses t o which they are put are quite dissimilar. Each contributes to a different aspect of locating oneself in space, and it is essential that any orientation scheme be carefully tested and orchestrated in such a way that visitors can enrich their experience and make the most of their time while in the museum.

Cohen, Marilyn S.,The State of the Art of Museum Visitor Orientation: A Survey of Selected Institutions, Office of Museum Programs, Smithsonian Institution, 1974. - Facility Use and Visitor Needs in the National Museum of History and Technology, the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Psychological and


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Sociological Studies, Office of Museum Programs, Smithsonian Institution,

Ittieson, W., H. Proshansky, L. Rivlin, and G. Winkel, An Introduction to Enuironmental Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974. Wells, Carolyn, Smithsonian Visitor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution,

Winkel, Gary, Marilyn Cohen, Richard Olsen, and Frederick Wheeler, The Museum Visitor and Orientational Media: An Experimental Comparison of Different Approaches in the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of History and Technology, Office of Museum Programs, Smithsonian Institution, 1975 (available for $4.00 from Environmental Psychology Program, City University of New York Graduate Center, 33 West 42nd Street, New York,NY

Winkel, Gary, and R. Sasanoff, An Approach to an Objective Analysis of Behavior in Architectural Space, Architecture/Deuelopment Series, No. 5 , University of Washington, Seattle, 1966.