Thinkwell Group and National Museum of Natural History
Audience Research for Visitor Experience Master Plan

The Thinkwell Group contracted RK&A to conduct audience research to support the development of the Visitor-Experience Master Plan for the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).

How did we approach this study?

RK&A implemented a three-pronged methodological approach to address the distinct needs articulated by Thinkwell and NMNH for the Visitor-Experience Master Plan. All data were collected at NMNH in June 2016.  RK&A collected data through two interview instruments to obtain general background information about current NMNH visitors, including demographics and characteristics related to their museum visit.  RK&A also conducted observations paired with a follow-up interview to learn more about the experience on the second floor of the museum.

What did we learn?

The majority of visitors to NMNH are first-time visitors, and they spend between 1 and 3 hours at the museum.  Over 50% of visitors know that NMNH has research scientists on staff—the indication of this most often reported was seeing scientists working in the Fossil Lab, though other visitors mentioned seeing television programs or other media outside of the museum.  When asked specifically about crowding, 53% said crowding negatively affected their visit, especially in certain areas like Gems/Minerals, Butterflies and Last American Dinosaurs.  In looking at visitation to the second floor, we found that the median time spent is under 30 minutes.  Galleries with high visitation (Mummies, Last American Dinosaurs, Hope Diamond, National Gems) were not the galleries that had the longest stay time (Nature’s Best Photography, Eberly Minerals and Gems, Bones, Into Africa, Gem Store, Insect Zoo).  Visitors who enter from a north entrance are more likely to visit the north galleries and spend more time on the second floor overall. Specific places where data collectors observed large traffic bottlenecks include Mummies, Moon, Hope Diamond, National Gems, and Butterflies.

What are the implications of the findings?

First, visitors to NMNH have a certain amount of time to visit and cannot/will not extend their visit.  NMNH staff should plan for an entire visit to last 1-3 hours. Second, crowding and flow are challenging, so we suggest redesigning critical junctures (e.g., Mummies, National Gems) to improve flow.  Wayfinding is not as burdensome as flow, but enhancing flow could improve the visitor experience.  In particular, we suggest NMNH and Thinkwell discuss entry experiences to enhance flow across the second floor, since visitation to certain areas is limited depending on where the visitor entered the second floor.  Third, about one-half of visitors understand that NMNH conducts research—a very important message for the museum.  NMNH and Thinkwell could consider offering more opportunities to see scientists conducting research, for instance depicting them on labels, videos, and interactives to help emphasize this idea.

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