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What I Look For In A Museum Visit

by Tobi Voigt, Detroit Historical Society on

What I Look for in a Museum Visit is an on-going series in which museum visitors of all ages, backgrounds and interest levels are invited to share their thoughts on what they enjoy most (and least!) about museums.

Today’s post was written by Andy Wilson, a retired physician and avid lifelong learner from the metro Detroit area. He and his wife Mary are avid travelers and they seek out museums wherever they go to learn more about the places they visit.

What Do We Look For?
We look for docent guided tours. A docent can mitigate many issues of organization, complexity, or scale by distilling down the information and guiding interpretation. The anecdotes usually provided, and the fact that the docents themselves usually have specialized knowledge, contribute enormously to our experience. In some museums, like the Motown Museum [in Detroit, Michigan], the docents are the experience.

If a museum is self-guided, help with a plan of attack is helpful. Wayfinding can be an issue in large or complex museums, so user-friendly maps are a plus.  We prefer it when the physical layout takes us in sequence through the subject, or when “bite sized” pieces of the subject are offered in thematic groupings. An account of how the subject evolved is helpful. For example, the National Museum of the US Air Force [near Dayton, OH] leads their visitors past sequential examples of aircraft to illustrate the evolution of powered flight.

Interpretation which is available on multiple levels from overview to much more detail is attractive. For some of us, there cannot be too much detail on subjects of interest! I recognize the limitations of space and so forth, but detail, when sought, is nice. The Hall of Flame Fire Museum in Phoenix offers binders that visitors can carry around their object/machine intensive facility. These offer in depth information on all of the equipment and can be read in detail or just skimmed.

Audio and video aids can be effective, but there is no substitute yet for the written word. It is difficult to idiot-proof audio and video aids, but the motion-sensitive television screens that began playing when we approached them in the Musical Instrument Museum [in Phoenix, AZ] were spectacularly effective.

I love a good gift shop. I will define “good” as offering imaginative stuff (coffee mugs, t shirts, hats, etc) along with publications on the subject of the museum for further education.

What do we avoid?
The bottom line is that a below average museum is better than no museum. All museums have something to offer, although sometimes that something is an urge to speculate on how the place could be improved. Cluttered display cases full of stuff that do not tell a story and are there just because someone donated objects are a turn off. Please, no more two headed kittens in formaldehyde! At times, a single entity can be totally fascinating in and of itself.  For example, the Pantheon in Rome or a meteor crater, but usually an uncoordinated display of stuff or an artifact in splendid isolation is not inspiring.

What could be done better?
Museums could do a better job of updating exhibits and information as knowledge on a subject evolves. Coherent sequencing/wayfinding is an area for improvement in most museums I visit. I also would like to see more docents in more settings in museums.

What ensures a return visit?
A good museum of almost any sort will often have us return to have friends and family share that great experience. We have been to the Motown Museum five times and counting. We also return to a museum if we have not seen it all on one pass, such as the Vatican Museum. If the subject is of ongoing interest to me and I continue to educate myself on the subject, I will return to get more in depth exposure, like I do with the Detroit Historical Museum.

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