What do we call them?

How do we name the [non-specialists that use museums]? Are they the audience? the visitors? The users? Or guests? And because language shapes thought, and influences our communications with colleagues, what does this mean?

So here’s a start to conceptualise this – super personal, no broad sampling base but interested who else sees this (or disagrees!)

We call them…* Who do I hear using this term? What can it imply that’s positive What can it imply negatively?
Audience Marketing, exhibitions, Education/Learning Lots of them 😉



Might applaud

A homogenous mass – not individuals.

Museums broadcast ‘at’ them

Visitors Exhibitions, marketing, Commercial Individuals and social groups. Feels ‘real’ Fleeting and not engaged in depth
Users Digital Purposeful, driven, knowledgeable Self-centred. Get it and leave, rather than browse and linger


Guests Customer service, tourism specialists Museums should be good hosts

We might know their names.

Focus on ‘basics’ such as toilets, signage

Being welcoming is ‘enough’

Not here to learn/engage

Customers Commercial, customer services They can help the museum financially.

We can use service industry practice

If they aint spending money we don’t care about them. Don’t value (free) web offer

*let alone what they call us!

Some terms are preferred and socially encouraged by managers / CEOs. This can be brilliant – an org that depends on immediate financial return for its survival might do well to think of everyone as a customer.

But there are hidden downsides too. ‘What are we offering for our customers?’ doesn’t sit in the same conceptual field as ‘how are we serving our audiences?’ A team with too many terms will confuse itself. I have seen confusion between exhibition and digital teams with the word ‘users’ – user doesn’t really make sense to the showcase layout designer.

Personally, I hate hearing visitors referred to as ‘customers’, I think because in my ideal world all museum services are free and bountiful and everyone wants them. Hippy, yes. Though this is a rational overlay on something deeper I can’t articulate.

‘Guests’, however, has made me think differently. The implied obligation to host well forces a focus on the most basic Maslowian needs during exhibition development. I recently used an unexpected underspend to buy seating; I think that was influenced by thinking of ‘guests’ not ‘visitors’.

I don’t necessarily think the museum world needs to agree on one definition – the diversity is good. But I do think we need to be more aware of how we speak of visitors (my preference!) – and what that may imply to others.


One thought on “What do we call them?”

  1. Thanks for raising this Paul. Language certainly does shape thought, and it’s an important point to make.

    Initially the idea of visitor jumped out to me as the best catch all term (whether digital or physical) but after looking through the table I questioned why ‘user’ only relates to digital. In libraries user is often used for any digital or physical visitor, and I’m partial to the idea of ‘museum user’. The uses may be many or varied, but to me user suggests a purpose that the museum can help reach.

    As for guests- it leaves me feeling like staff ‘own’ the institution and anyone else is just there temporarily. It doesn’t gel with what I think a museum should be trying to do, which is create a sense of ownership and belonging.

    Also, do we then need to consider a distinction between local and non-local users of a museum (i.e. residents of the state in which a museum is funded)? Or is that a question for another blog post?

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