Volker Schönert has been conducting visitor researches for more than 20 years. He studied sociology, politics, and statistics. For the first time, he began working on visitor research and evaluation at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. At that time, this area was little known and accepted in Germany. In the early 2000s, a visitor research and evaluation department was established at the Jewish Museum in Berlin because the director was a New Zealander, where visitor orientation and visitor experience is a central part of museum work. Volker has been a freelancer for several years, now working as a staff member at the Natural History Museum in Berlin.
Germany and the visitor researches
In Germany, typically, the museums are public-funded by the state, the provinces or the cities. Of course, there are private museums, such as the museums of car factories, which are very successful (e.g. BMW, Mercedes, Porsche). These places also receive a few hundred thousand visitors in a typical year. There are also smaller private museums, such as the DDR Museum in Berlin, which is very popular among tourists.
Visitor research studies have been carried out in Germany since about 1970, but in the last about 20 years, this area has become more widely accepted. Museums also have had to respond to changes in the world, which has led to visitor research also starting to evolve. In Germany visitor research is now taking a similar path as it used to be in education departments, which are now entirely accepted but have been a novelty for a few decades.
There are already institutions where visitor research and evaluation positions have been created, and more and more studies are being done on this subject. Volker Schönert said the quality of these researches is still low compared to, for example, that made in Great Britain, but they are working to improve it. To increase the level and make visitor research available to as wide a range of museums as possible (not just for large museums), they want to set up a German visitor research network in 2021 on the model of the British Visitor Studies Group.
Visitor research in the Natural History Museum in Berlin
Volker Schönert works in the Museum and Society Department of the Natural History Museum. In this department, more than 60 people work, Volker is in charge of conducting visitor research and evaluations, and another staff member is doing educational research.
Before COVID-19, the Natural History Museum in Berlin had approximately 700,000 visitors a year. It is now a rapidly evolving museum. Within a few years, they want to be one of the world’s leading natural history museums, so it is fully understood how important it is to gather and evaluate information about visitors and exhibitions.
When Volker started working here, there were no concrete plans for visitor research yet. The tasks performed took one step after another. A visitor monitoring system was first established. It means that visitor data is collected on the museum on tablets throughout the year. Now their sample size is so large that the survey is representative. They know who comes to the museum and also who doesn’t. Thus, it is already possible for them to target non-visitors and invite them to the Natural History Museum.
What they are still dealing with is the evaluation of special, modern exhibitions. Here, visitors are examined and whether the exhibition itself works the way it was dreamed of. For example, they look at what the visitor experience is like or whether visitors know all of the museum’s offerings. In Germany, most of all evaluations are summative. It means that they are made when the exhibitions are ready. According to Volker, this is not a good direction. If we want to make an effective evaluation, we would have to change it, for example, a formative evaluation would be much needed.
In addition to the use of questionnaires, qualitative methods are also used in research at the Natural History Museum, e.g. focus group interviews, test visitors. During the conversations, visitors from different backgrounds (e.g. older people, families with small children, people with lower education level, etc.) are examined about the cognitive understanding of the special exhibitions, the feelings evoked by the exhibition or just how many texts they read. It is exciting for the museum to get to know these different opinions and impressions.
Currently, the museum is preparing to learn about digital visitors through a more extensive questionnaire survey of who is listening to their podcasts, who are taking digital guided tours, or who are the social media followers (e.g., TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter).
Visitor research during the pandemic
In June 2020, at the time of the museum opening after the first lockdown, visitor research was conducted at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Although the museum was open, they had to introduce a lot of rules. At first, only 500 people could be admitted a day, and then they could be raised to 1 000 all day. No groups could come to the museum to ensure that there was enough space for every visitor. Exhibition venues that were too narrow were closed, as were interactive and multimedia stations.
This way, the experience was much smaller than usual. People had to wear a mask, keep a distance, go a designated route, and buy tickets for a specific time window in advance.
Acceptance and satisfaction with these security measures and restrictions were examined using visitor research. In the middle of the visit, people could fill out a questionnaire. The museum received more than 1,000 responses. The visitors held security measures to be suitable. The experience was lower than usual, interactivity and digital applications were lacking. But the visitors were understanding and grateful that they could at least come to the museum.
How is the relationship between museums and visitors changing as a result of the pandemic?
Volker Schönert said that studies show that approximately in 2 years, in terms of visitor numbers, we will return to the place where we left before the pandemic. There will be those who will have a more challenging time coming back to the museum because the vaccination will still take time. Even vulnerable groups still need time to move out again, and school groups are busier with learning than with other programs.
Finally, Volker mentioned as a change that the role of digital offerings would increase. In the future, when planning a new exhibition, we will have to think not only about physical spaces but also about digital spaces. According to him, separate digital offers should also be developed, not just put a picture at a time on the internet. Digital offers are part of our lives, and for the museums it’s not a question of whether we should do them. We need to respond to the world, and with visitor research, we can examine how successful our responses have been.
Photos – Museum für Naturkunde
Portrait – VisitorChoice/Volker Schönert