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Inside the current issue:

Designed For, Not By:
The Visitor-Centered Environment

A Tool for Learning:
Envisioning the New Science Museum of Minnesota

Following the Flow

First Impressions:
Thoughts on Entering the Museum

Power to the People

Organizing Museum Space: Learning Stages as Physical Context

Access to Information: Wayfinding for All Visitors

Evaluating Ping!



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: March/April 2004
  March/April 2004 Dimensions
March/April 2004
Visitor-Centered Spaces:
How Physical Context
Affects Experience
Designed For, Not By: The Visitor-Centered Environment

By Jeanne Vergeront

You may have read an article recently about a new museum building, wing, or renovation. The piece probably began something like this, "Designed by [name of architect], creator of [list of architect's previous achievements]...," followed by a description of the structure, materials, and site.

Imagine if, instead, the article began this way, "Designed for hands-on learning, the new museum...," and went on to describe how a consortium of planners had organized the structure around such principles as coherent layout, minimized distractions, and good sound control.

Although the difference between "designed for" and "designed by" may seem insignificant, it represents a fundamentally different approach to museum design. Structures that are based on actual museum visitors—their backgrounds, ages, activities, and learning—are the result of careful attention to organizational and learning goals, developmental and physical needs and abilities, and the interests of real people. Such settings take into account not only how visitors will read signs and purchase tickets, but also how they will hear each another converse and how they will feel after three hours on their feet.

Container and contents

The physical environment—comprising three-dimensional forms, volumes, and objects, as well as sounds, smells, and other sensory information—is the grand container for our lives. It can engage or overwhelm, comfort or distress, confuse or give confidence, distract or compel attention. Whether we're doing the dishes, working at the computer, driving a car, passing through airport security, taking an examination, or visiting a museum, we are always in some place—and the physical environment is there as well, enveloping and shaping the daily and ceremonial moments of life.

Rochester Museum & Science Center
Visitors entering the atrium at New York's Rochester Museum & Science Center can quickly orient themselves to the museum's amenities.
Photo courtesy RMSC

Physical context affects our behavior, moods, and feelings from birth on (if not sooner). Research has shown that even infants use contextual cues, such as windows, as landmarks in moving through space. Internalized ideas of space acquired early in life remain with us, later affecting such responses as how we interpret an open door or how we maintain space between ourselves and others.

Nevertheless, we tend to think of environments as if they were a neutral backdrop to human activity, or we think of them in visual, physical, and stylistic terms—as dimensions, materials, architectural features—rather than as functional and experiential entities. Our focus is on the container and not its contents: people, with all their complex intentions, activities, and needs.

The physical context of a public space, such as a school or a museum, affects people directly and indirectly. When chairs are bolted to the floor, preventing us from conversing comfortably with others, the impact is direct. When ambiguous pathways fail to lead to an exhibit area, leaving it outside our experience, the impact is indirect. A fire door that blocks the shortest route through a building or doors that don't open as we expect them to don't just happen; they are the result of planning decisions, whether intentional or unintentional.

Environmental alignment

  Science Museum of Minnesota
Lower ceilings, defined areas, and borrowed light in the Collections Gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota create an intimate space for inquiry.
Photo courtesy SMM

A museum advances its vision, mission, and values (as well as its educational and financial goals) not only by playing them out through the full visitor experience, but also by supporting them with its physical environment. This is a continual process, requiring clarity around all dimensions of planning, whether for operations, exhibits, programs, or security.

Designers, educators, cashiers—literally everyone on staff—must examine combinations of ergonomic factors, such as scale and access, and architectural features, such as walls, windows, and doors. At each step, there is an opportunity to create a strong alignment between the visitor experience and the environment.

Planning for visitors can begin with direct physical support: the size of an elevator, the width of a corridor, the number of spaces a visitor must pass through to reach a given room, the density of exhibits in that room. Attention to these elements may encourage desirable behaviors or discourage unwanted ones. For example, Elizabeth Prescott's research on children's spaces indicates that wider pathways tend to encourage greater speed, while narrower pathways seem to deter rapid movement, encouraging visitors to stroll, look and pause.

Eliminating or reducing barriers is another way we can tailor the match between visitors, activities, and setting. By reducing noise levels, we help to decrease distractions and increase visitors' focus and concentration on reading signs, engaging with an exhibit component, or talking with family members. By opening doors, adding windows and carefully arranging large objects, we unobtrusively facilitate visual surveillance—allowing parents to watch their children more easily and security staff to scan the area more effectively. By basing museum spaces on simple geometry, with views of adjacent areas and unambiguous cues about orientation, we support wayfinding—allowing visitors to navigate space competently and safely.

Finally, compensating for limitations of the physical environment can strengthen the match between content and context in several ways:

  • Bland or ugly spaces can be improved by creating a level of environmental complexity, such as alcoves or curving paths, to engage but not overwhelm visitors.
  • Distracting effects of an open plan can be lessened by adding visual barriers or reorienting an area.
  • Cognitive fatigue, a common experience in museums, can be relieved—as Gary W. Evans points out in his 1995 article "Learning and the Physical Environment"—by adding "elements that elicit attention without effort," such as running water, plant life, artwork, or animals in a healthy habitat. Such environments feel both safe and restorative.
  • Physical fatigue, the result of many factors, can be counteracted with appropriately placed seating. People like to sit down when they are tired; if no seat is available, they will find one (perhaps on an exhibit). William Whyte, who studied New York's plazas and parks in the 1980s, observed that the best form of seating is the movable chair: "Chairs enlarge choice," wrote Whyte, "[and] the possibility of choice is as important as the exercise of it."

Successful environments

Museum environments aligned with human activities and needs in the ways described above share certain attributes. They make visitors feel competent, comfortable, satisfied, and safe.

An example of a space that helps to orient visitors immediately upon arrival is the atrium at New York's Rochester Museum & Science Center. A lofty window wall floods the area with natural light while establishing the entry's relationship to the parking lot and neighboring buildings. Visitors can quickly scan the multistoried space to locate the ticket booth, the restaurant, exhibit areas, and other important amenities.

An example of a satisfying and comfortable space may be familiar to attendees of the recent ASTC Annual Conference in St. Paul. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Collections Gallery possesses a simple geometry on a personal scale. It is a relatively small, L-shaped space, with low ceilings, defined areas, and well-located artifact cases that create easy sight lines and manage attention and focus. A large window wall looking out into the central atrium provides natural light and orientation, but two doors control access and shut out sound from the larger space. Both directly and indirectly, this environment supports thoughtful browsing through the many collections on display.

  Houston Museum of Natural Science
"Fascination" elements like water, plants, and animals can help to relieve cognitive fatigue in the museum.
Photo by Jeanne Vergeront

An example of a restorative element now found at many science centers and museums is the butterfly garden. I recently visited the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The glass-covered, plant-filled space flows seamlessly into the outdoors, immersing visitors in a gentle butterfly world. Temperature, humidity, and controlled physical access create soft air and a quiet space. A curving path—punctuated with places to rest, running water, and changing views—broadens and narrows as it travels through the gallery. The variety of colors and patterns captures attention and fascinates, and the leisurely floating butterflies set a restful pace for the gallery.

In contrast, museum environments that fail to take visitors' physical needs and emotional responses into account can have quite a different effect, producing discomfort, disorientation, and frustration. Undoubtedly, we all have experienced some of the following: enormous, boxy galleries with no windows and seemingly no ceiling; spaces where a visitor can see half the exhibits and hear every other visitor at the same time; stand-alone exhibition components bathed in bright light but surrounded by dark hollows and passageways that make movement feel risky.

Most areas of most museums fall somewhere between these examples. But all museums have a rich array of resources at their disposal for engineering a better fit between the visitor's experience and the museum's physical context.

Creating environments that are both aligned with organizational purposes and designed for the many dimensions of the visitor experience is not easy. Our level of sophistication in defining, studying, and measuring the effects of the physical environment is still fairly rudimentary. But in spite of all we don't know and would like to know, we can, nevertheless, proceed confidently. The physical environment makes a real difference in our visitors' experience—their comfort, learning, sense of a good value, and memories.

Jeanne Vergeront, formerly vice president of exhibits and education at the Minnesota Children's Museum, is a museum planning consultant based in Minneapolis.

Recommended Readings

Cutting, Andrea. Orientation, Wayfinding, and Circulation: Survey of Literature. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society, 1996.

Evans, Gary W. "Learning and the Physical Environment." In Public Institutions for Personal Learning, edited by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1995.

Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969

Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter 2002). "Environments for Learning."

Loomis, Ross J. Museum Visitor Evaluation: New Tool for Management. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1987.

Prescott, Elizabeth. "The Environment as Organizer of Intent in Child Care Settings." In Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development, edited by Carol S. Weinstein and Thomas David. New York: Plenum, 1987.

Rand, Judy. "The 227-Mile Museum, or a Visitors' Bill of Rights." In Curator, Vol. 44, No. 1 (January 2001).

Whyte, William H. City: Rediscovering the Center. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

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