Behavioural priming and museum visitation

Did you know that simply holding a warm cup of coffee in your hand when you meet someone can shift your perceptions of them? That you might judge someone as “having a “warmer” personality“, just because your first impression of them followed a shift in experience of physical warmth? In such cases, our understanding of that person has been primed by the physical conditions in which we encountered them; where priming is an “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus,” (Priming, psychology) or in which “the activation of one thought may trigger related thoughts.” (Priming, media)
(As if this isn’t a great reason to have first dates over coffee instead of alcohol…)

As spelled out in this article in the New York Times:

Psychologists say that “priming” people… is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

So I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during the last few days. How do museums prime their audiences and visitors for the museum experience? For having their minds opened, or even for knowing what is expected of them in the museum space? How do the sights, smells and sounds a visitor encounters upon arrival at your museum (or even before then) put them into the right headspace for curiosity and exploration, or learning? What role does a museum’s website play in this?

After a week of attending numerous museums, speaking with museum professionals, and participating in the immersive theatrical experience Sleep No More, my first impression is that I don’t think it’s something too many museums consciously pay attention to, or at least, not effectively or at a whole-museum level. There have been exceptions, however.

I’m going to start by talking about Sleep No More – a non-museum experience, but a worthy one that has already proved inspirational to other museum professionals. For those who haven’t yet heard of it, SNM is an incredible production (a dance? A play?) loosely based around Macbeth, which takes place over five stories in a warehouse (currently) in New York. The performance and performers move into and out of spaces in the warehouse, while you as audience (masked. Silent. Anonymous.) can choose whether to follow them, or instead pull apart and play within the fully-constructed and highly compelling ‘stage’ structure. The experience is hugely personal, layered, and thoroughly involving. It’s something I will no doubt refer back to in greater detail in coming posts. However, what I want to speak to in this case is the opening moments of the event.

The SNM experience starts well before the performance itself. For me it was with conversations with those who had been, but even without those, the line of people abuzz with excitement at the doorway to the building was more than enough to raise my heart rate in anticipation of what was to come. We were soon funneled down a long, dark corridor to enter the McKittrick Hotel; consistently being primed for the evening at hand, even whilst in the act of transportation from one place to the next. Then, almost directly upon entering, the audience (participants?) were greeted by staff and issued clear directions about the rules and the expectations of the night. Attendees were directed to where they needed to be, issued with masks to preserve anonymity, and briefed by two different actors/assistants about what the night would or could entail. All of this was done in character and costume.

Within the first ten minutes of arriving at the venue, I understood what was and was not allowed; was primed for the experience at hand in a way completely consistent with the coming performance; and all whilst building momentum and expectation for what was to come. And so when I found myself in a situation completely beyond my normal range of experience, I still felt completely and reassuringly safe, and pumped for the events at hand. My curiosity was piqued, my brain switched to ‘engage’.

In contrast, entering most of the museums I visited during the previous week was followed by immediate uncertainty while I tried to get my bearings and work out a) where to go and in what order, and b) what the particular rules were of each institution (was photography allowed, or not?). There was nothing to instantly prompt me to start my experience, or provide a scaffolding upon which I could begin construction of my visit – and I’m pretty comfortable in museums in general. But still, I was directionless, unclear about what I would, should or could see, and how to best go about that process.

The exception to this was at the Newseum. In the Newseum, there were ample greeters available at the door to meet me as I entered the space. When purchasing my ticket, the front desk attendant ran me through “the best way to see the museum” starting down the escalator to the bottom floor (helpfully signposted with a big “Start visit here” type sign), and then continuing up via the lift to the top, before winding downstairs again. I was directed to exactly where I could deposit my coat, and then shown the way to the “start” of the experience.

At the bottom of the escalator, I was again greeted and asked how long my visit was, whether I would be returning the following day, and whether I wanted to see a short video on the best way to experience the museum. Once the greeter found out that I could only attend that day, and only had a couple of hours, he pointed out to me what the likely highlights were that I might be interested in, and also ran me through what else was available.

It was a completely different experience from one I’ve had in entering almost any museum, and I found it hugely helpful. The advice was not prescriptive, but it helped give me bearings and allowed me to make choices about what I was most likely to find rewarding, given the short time period I had for visitation. As a form of priming to influence a response to later stimulus, I found it highly effective.

But beyond this, I think many of my responses (which were generally very strong, and quite emotional) to the objects on display in the Newseum were similarly in response to years and years worth of priming via media exposure to them. For instance, when I came across the fallen Lenin statue in front of the photograph of the same statue being tumbled, I instantly understood what I was seeing and its significance at a very visceral level. I could immediately connect this object with the event, its emotion and its importance, and bring all of those things into alignment with my own memories of watching footage of iconic statues falling. The story of the statue and the object of the statue were both far more significant to me for the deep way which they related to my earlier exposure to stimulus than they likely would have otherwise been. Something familiar in this object, and many others at the Newseum, triggered a very strong response for me, which I am intuitively sure relates – at some level – to the repeated priming and exposure I have had to the subjects/objects prior to visitation.

Piece of Lenin Statue from Fall of Berlin Wall

A study by Laure Zago, Mark J. Fenske, Elissa Aminoff and Moshe Bar supports this idea. They write:

Prior exposure to a stimulus generally facilitates its recognition in subsequent encounters. This experience-based phenomenon, termed priming, has been studied extensively and is believed to be one of the building blocks of learning and memory (Tulving and Schacter, 1990).

If this is the case, if visitors’ exposure to a stimulus before and whilst attending a museum influences a response to later stimulus, how can museums use this to create more meaningful visitor experiences? What can museums do, both on- and offsite, to activate and trigger responses in their visitors in the exhibition space? Can museums actually use this idea of providing prior exposure to stimulus online to facilitate a more instant connection or recognition of their objects on the museum floor? And is this something that museums already do when planning their exhibitions? If so, who does it well?

What do you think?

19 thoughts on “Behavioural priming and museum visitation

  1. I think you’ve hit upon such an interesting idea that so many museums have trouble figuring out–how to extend the museum visit beyond the museum space, both before and after one’s visit. Other than signing up for an e-newsletter or a membership, I can’t say that I ever recall my museum experience extending beyond my singular visit–I’d love to hear about examples from other folks!

    I do take issue with “embodied cognition” studies (warm coffee=warm heart), as a lot of these studies seem a bit superficial in that they offer no good theoretical explanation for this notion that there’s something inborn in humans that makes a direct connection between particular bodily states and cognition (though it would be cool if there were some gene-based explanation for this behavior in humans, no?). Nevertheless, I think you make a great point that expectations about visitor behavior (or lack of expectation) are sensed by a visitor as soon as they walk into a space. Almost immediately, it’s clear whether or not there’s the expectation that you’ll be quiet, make things, interact with others, etc. Personally, I think a lot of this stems from the fact that most museums don’t think acutely and carefully about what they want people to DO and FEEL when they come into their spaces–they simply think about the information that needs to be inculcated in the brain.

    Have you thought about how you want people to feel in the space you work in? What did you do about it? Do you feel like there’s a space for both “telling” museums and “doing” or experience-based museums?

  2. Suse—I really enjoyed this post. It’s relevant to a lot of things I’m thinking about especially in terms of the potential role of media in priming and framing the visitor’s experience. How can the work I do best reveal the many layers of stories surrounding the collection to build that deeper emotional relationship between the visitor and the artwork to pique curiosity? How do we help visitors make connections between iconic works for which they are well primed and lesser-known artworks that also have the potential to surprise and amaze.

    We’ve recently added videos with period music and art-making sounds into the European Decorative Arts galleries. Though we haven’t done formal evaluation, I can say anecdotally that I am transported upon hearing harpsichord period music wafting through the galleries. This is also one of the reasons 3D printing is so interesting to me—it provides an opportunity to activate more senses and stimuli.

    Generally, it seems that museums have better framed the experience for special and temporary exhibitions because there is more often some sort of framed narrative with supporting sub-plots. The priming process seems a lot more complex on the museum scale, especially in a large encyclopedic museum such as mine with myriad of interweaving narratives. Also, your point about guiding while not prescribing is so important. Exhibitions that force a video preview confine my attitude towards the content that follows. During MCN I was thinking about the metaphor of the hop-on hop-off bus where tourists can choose their own adventure within a structure of modular guidance. [Disclaimer: I have never been on a hop-on hop-off bus, but have heard wonderful reviews.]

    Thank you!

  3. I agree many museums don’t seem to consider ‘preparing’ the visitor. My favourite recent experience was at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart.
    I arrived by boat on a 30 minute trip from the city centre. This is followed by a climb up outdoor stairs to the top of the building (where the entrance is located). Plenty of greeters are on hand to let visitors know where to go and what is expected, and they suggest starting on the lowest floor – which meant descending by a spiral staircase (or a lift, but I chose the stairs) into the bowels of the building and a cavernous space carved into the rock. This descent into the dark interior of the building is perfect for a museum focusing on sex and death – like a descent into the unconscious mind,

  4. I love that you took this way beyond the basic customer service concerns.

    You’re right. Orientation, welcoming, getting into “engage mode” is a deeper, more complicated, more intellectual and emotional thing than the basic idea to make sure your security officers are polite.

    At the last museum I worked at, the first experience you had through the door was the need to let security search your purse and x-ray it… and you had to throw away that warming, emotion-altering coffee. You weren’t even sure you WANTED to get past security to experience what lay beyond but you couldn’t decide from the door.

    1. Ha, Erin! Visiting so many museums in a short period of time whilst in the US recently was the first time I’d been exposed to this in a really noticeable way. There were times when I’d made it in through the security that I realised that I wanted to go and do at something outside in the middle of my visit, but I really didn’t want to have to go through the hassle of security twice – so it absolutely altered my behaviour. I gather it wasn’t always like it, however. Only since September 11? Hmm.

  5. This is a subject close to my heart – messages we send visitors through design cues and other priming are central aspects of the visitor experience. Indeed, another way of framing my PhD research question would be in terms of the “priming” effects of different exhibition environments. My research is not looking at museum entrance statements per se (at least not yet), but it’s something I’m always mindful of in my own experiences. (I’ve ranted on my blog on more than one occasion about places who have got it wrong!)

    I’ve seen research into website design based in similar principles as those I’m applying to exhibition environments, although these studies are primarily focused on e-commerce. But I could probably dig up some references if you’re interested.

      1. @Catherine – there is a whole body of literature broadly called “atmospherics”, that dates back to Kotler (1973). Just to pluck out a couple of examples:

        A recent (2010) example for websites is
        “Atmospherics on tour operators’ websites: Website features that stimulate emotional response”
        (that was just the first one that came up on a search of my Mendeley library)

        Here’s another one from the leisure sector
        “Atmospherics and consumers’ symbolic interpretations of hedonic services”

  6. Similar (IMHO better) than the MOMA mentioned by Mike Jones, above, is the experience at Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan- well worth a google, and definitely a visit if you’re ever in the area.

    1. Hi guys
      I’m interested(researching) in the way ambient light in museums impacts on the aesthetic reading/apprecitation of art works….how the ambient light in which the work is created ”matches’ or not the abient light in which the work is installed/displayed and aligns to the creative intention of the artist. any ideas or leads very appreciated.

  7. I have been quite active in training my museum volunteers to greet and offer help when people come to the museum. It helps that we are also a Visitor Information Centre but even still if someone is coming into the museum we offer a map and the help of a guide if they want. It’s surprising that people assume that there are additional costs for a guide and are pleasantly surprised when we say it’s all part of the service.

    There is a payback… It’s amazing to see the amount of positive comments in our visitors book – I am so proud of them! But it also provides a wonderful extra layer of interpretation of our exhibits which makes the visitor experience all the greater

  8. Auckland Airport has made good use of this in their recent upgrade. The long haul international flights arrive at the end of the main building and arriving passengers move along three consecutive moving walkways. Each now is surrounded by New Zealand imagery and plays a different background iconic NZ sound – summer cicadas, rolling surf and forest bird song. After a long flight it makes for a very pleasant arrival and it’s a lot less brutal than going cold into immigration / security.

    Museum entrance atriums could do more along these lines.

    1. That’s really cool Paul. It’s interesting that they’ve used sound within this. I find sound such an effective way to create space and shape mood. It reminds me of going to a theme park when I was growing up, and the areas you lined up in were always themed to match the ride. So the Space Probe ride entry was made to look like a space station, so that even when you were stuck in line for half an hour, there was still a sense of anticipation building that countered the long wait.

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