What do visitors want to know about objects?

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 01 May 2009

Spent a few interesting days with the folks from the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. We spoke about the kinds of questions visitors have about objects.

Across a few studies now I have found rather consistent questions that keep arising for natural history and anthropological objects.

From natural history specimens people want to know:

  • What is it: scientific name and everyday name/description
  • Where did it come from; when was it found; distribution
  • 'museum-y' information: how is it preserved; why is it in a museum? what is it used for? is it real?
  • What is it related to that's familiar to me?

From anthropology objects they want to know:

  • What is it made of?
  • How is it used?
  • What is it used for?
  • How often is it used?
  • What is the symbolism of it?
  • How old is it?
  • Is it still used today? If not, what is?
  • Who were/are the people and what are their stories?

The Harvard MUSE project (Museums United with Schools in Education) suggested a framework for classifying (and therefore writing labels about) artworks which I think translate across a wide range of museums:

  • Logical - how was the object made?
  • Aesthetic - how does it work together with other objects?
  • Narrative - what are the stories surrounding the object: social, historical and personal (I would also add perhaps scientifically for natural history objects)?
  • Foundational - what are the big philosophical questions that place the object within a context?
  • Experiential - what can be created in response to looking at the object (I would also add what new information, connections and meanings can be made in response to the object)?

While all the above are useful as ways of thinking about placing objects in physical exhibitions, they also have relevance I believe to how a museum might "display" their object online via their websites or through Flickr - perhaps a set of guiding principles??


Lynda Kelly - 9.09 AM, 08 September 2009
Thanks for your comments Catherine and Sarah. Just looking through some old reports and came across these two quotes that struck a chord: "It’s important to understand why [museums] have collections and research." {I'd like to know] "How the collection was collected - from ocean floor to museum floor."
Catherine Cooper - 4.09 PM, 03 September 2009
We did some similar work at the British Museum on what visitors want to know about objects. Our list was for cultural objects and was pretty similar - 'what is it?', 'how old is it?' and 'who did it belong to?' were certainly top. We also had lots of visitors wanting to know 'who discovered it and where?' and 'how did it get into the collection?', similar to the museum-y type questions you have under your natural history list.
SarahS - 11.09 PM, 01 September 2009
I'm at my desk at a museum in Devon, England, looking into the use of comments and tags on museum websites. Just came across Lynda Kelly's piece. We're busy writing new labels so it looks really useful. Easy to add this comment too. Thanks!

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