An interview by Diana Fehr / January 5th, 2020
Dr. John H. Falk is Executive Director of the „Institute for Learning Innovation“ and Sea Grant Professor Emeritus of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University. He is known internationally for his work in the area of museums visitor experience and free-choice learning within museums and other educational public spaces. Falk has authored more than two dozen books and over two hundred scholarly articles in the areas of learning, biology and education, as well as museums experience. He was recognised by the American Association of Museums as one of the 100 most influential museum professionals of the past 100 years and by the American Association of Museum’s Education Committee with its highest award, the John Cotton Dana Award for Leadership.
Museo: You have written many books, including museums and the museum experience. Now you are working on a new book with the working title „The Value of the Museum Experience – Enhanced Well-Being“. What exactly is it about and what is the idea behind it?
John: Like many of my earlier book this new book is also about the museum experience, but with a particular focus on the value that museum experiences deliver to the public.
For my whole career I have been trying to understand the following: „Why do people go to museums and what value do they derive from those experiences?“ For most of this time I was thinking of museums as primarily educational institutions and therefore, my research on this topic, including the hundreds of interviews I conducted, were all viewed through a learning lens, albeit a very broadly defined notion of what constitutes learning.
However, when I tried actually step back and analyze my and others’ data, and really think deeply about how people value museums, I came to appreciate that education and learning alone did not fully capture why and how the public values museums. I now believe that the value that museums create for the public is enhanced well-being.
Museo: What do you mean by „museums enhance well-being?“
John: Already 15 years ago I understood that underlying learning was a deeper purpose, learning was a vehicle for building and supporting one’s self/identity. In writing the book „Born to Choose“ I discovered that there was actually still another, even deeper life-purpose that underlay self/identity; that purpose was enhanced well-being. Learning is a means for building self/identity and self/identity is a means for insuring enhanced well-being.
However when I refer to „well-being“ it is important to appreciate that I am defining well-being in a very particular way. I am NOT using the term in a purely psychological sense, as it has become popularly thought of as a synonym for happiness, but rather am defining it from an evolutionary perspective. Specifically, I view the perception of well-being as the evolutionary mechanism we, and all other forms of life, have evolved to provide survival-related feedback; feedback that, in a Darwinian sense, allows us to assess the „fitness“ of our actions. For example, humans have evolved emotions like joy and pain which provide us useful feedback about our actions. We learn to avoid things that cause us pain or make us feel bad and to seek out situations that made us feel happy, loved or respected; all these feelings correlate with (historic) patterns of enhanced survival
What does all of that have to do with museums? People go to museums, because it enhances their ultimate fitness, as perceived by the individual as enhanced well-being. People say things like „museums relax and recharge me“ or „I can learn about myself, satisfy my curiosity, or build stronger bonds with my loved ones.“
All of these reasons related to specific examples of enhanced well-being. What I try to do in this book is not only call out this important value of museums, but specifically define and measure it. Ultimately, I even put a dollar value on the enhanced well-being that people derive from their museum experiences so that the value of museum experiences can be directly compared to other life experiences.
In short, my book is attempting to reframe and redefine how we should think about museums and the experiences they provide.
Museo: What you are saying is that we have to rethink museums – so how should we do that?
John: How people receive their education and their leisure experiences has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. People find watching movies about other people quite satisfying. 15 years ago it was only possible to watch movies at the movie theater, but now you can watch movies online, which is how a lot of people currently consume most if not all of their media. The point is that the specific ways by which people seek to enhance their well-being has changed, but not the purpose. People are still looking for ways to enhance their personal, intellectual, social and physical well-being. Therefore, the tactics need to evolve, but the fundamental goal, or strategy if you like, needs to stay the same.
And this is what I believe this book provides. It clarifies what the core public value strategy of museums has been and should remain – enhanced public well-being – but highlights how museums need to adapt, and potentially even radically alter the tactics they employ in accomplishing that strategy if they want to remain relevant and sustainable in the future.
Museo: Do museums need to redefine their public offerings, and if so, what would that look like?
John: As one of my colleagues recently said, „I find that museum people seem to be more in love with their product than they are with their customers“, which means that their exhibits and programs are their products and services, but this shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to deliver products and services that meet people’s needs! Therefore, the answer to your question is that we have to find out what people need, meaning discovering how to enhance their personal, intellectual, social and physical well-being.
With that information in hand, then museums need to design and deliver products and services that meet those needs. I don’t have the answer to what that looks like. Historically it was exhibitions and programs, but these traditional products and services may have reached the end of their useful lifetimes; the time to figure out what the next generation of museum products and services is now!
Museo: But what we can do is be sure we are asking the right questions?
John: That is absolutely correct! I can tell you the questions you need to ask, if the goal is to meet an increasing number of people‘s needs, to diversify your audiences, then you need to understand what people find satisfying and well-being-enhancing. One thing that this exercise will make clear is that although people may have a wide variety of interests, and preferences, underneath the surface, all people have very similar needs. In reality everybody desires enhanced personal, intellectual, social and physical well-being. The challenge is how to deliver those needs in ways that satisfy each individual’s unique requirements.
I can give you an example. Many current museum users see museums as great places for supporting the well-being of their children. However, if I am a recent immigrant, who loves his kids and, like all parents wants them to do well, I am likely to not think of museums as a place that can help me accomplish that goal. This is not because museums cannot be helpful to this immigrant, but because there is nothing in this immigrant’s past experience that suggests that museums might be helpful. In this case the museum should ask itself „How can I meet the needs of the people who want to do something good for their kids, but don‘t consider museums as a first place reference for well-being and integration?“
You have to keep in mind that the decision of whether or not to go to a museum is not based on demographics, but on whether or not the individual perceives that the museum meets their needs. And this has everything to do with the individual’s lived experience and history. Every person bases their choices, including whether or not to use museums, on their prior, lived experience, and how that past experience intersects with the current realities in their lives. Therefore, museums need to be aware of the how people outside their sphere are dealing with and have experienced the world and be willing to adapted their offerings to this reality.
Museo: Do you imply that museums should shift their focus from the objects to the people‘s needs and the relevant issues on an ever-changing world?
John: Yes – if we look at the most successful companies like Microsoft or Apple, we can see that they are continuously striving to improve their existing products as well as create new ones. However, the underlying goal of all their products actually does not change, in both these examples, the primary goal is make it easier and more productive for people to communicate. In other words, the real value of their products lies not in the hardware but in the intangible assets that hardware creates; the value lies in the experience created by the product rather than the plastic and metal contained in the product.
However, the quality of experiences created by museums is exactly what has long been undervalued by the public. This perception of lack of value has been perpetuated by the (understandable) desire of museums to keep their admission prices as low as possible. The average admission price for museums is about $10 (U.S.), which doesn’t come close to reflecting the actual value or the costs that museums incur by setting up an exhibition. Now the question is „What is this experience worth?“ and „How much are people willing to pay for these admissions?“ and this is what lies at the core of my work. I collected data from the populations of five different museums; an art museum, a history museum, a natural history museum, a science museum and a zoo, from the US, Canada and Finland and I discovered, by asking the right questions, that people value a museum experience somewhere between $200 – $1.500 (U.S.).
Museo: But isn‘t it a risk, that higher valued experiences are limited only to people who can afford high admissions?
The other really interesting discovery I made was that lower income people actually rate museum experiences as more valuable to them than do people with high end incomes.
This means that one way an institution can increase the value of the experiences they provide to the community is by working to bring in more people from low incomes, because, proportionately, low income individuals derive more value from their experiences than do people with high incomes. Obviously, low income individuals do not have the resources to pay for such experience.
This then represents a major argument for why museums should receive support from governments and foundations to make their exhibitions more accessible. By making museum experiences more broadly available to the public, everybody in society can derive the value of enhanced well-being. The bottom line is that currently museums deliver far more value than they cost, which means they are a good deal for funders; it means government money is being well spent.
Museo: How should museums develop more meaningful experiences?
John: You must begin by taking a visitor-centered perspective. In my new book I define 9 general principles which I believe can, and should be applied to the development of quality museum experiences.
It all starts by appreciating that the museum experience is cyclical and continuous, beginning long before an actual use and ending long afterwards. So step one is to „recognize reasons for using“, which is basically to understand what the goals and the values a person might be seeking in a museum experience. The second is related to the first principle „allow users to own the experience“ in starting by addressing their „priorities and needs“. Next you need to „make the experience comfortable and convenient“ by anticipating their needs and making their visit as easy, comfortable and desirable so that they feel welcome. You must always strive to „surprise and delight“ your audience so that every experience becomes unique. Make it possible for people to come not just once. „Give users a reason to do it again“ and in order to do that you need to „connect the museums experiences to people‘s lives“ and their future. After they finished the experience you need to „keep giving“ by adding value and continuing to connect with the visitors, because well being persists and builds over time. And finally „support sharing“, which means making it easy for people to share their experience with others including future users.
Museo: You wrote your book during the pandemic and it is based on how museums worked (pre-pandemic). How do you put it in perspective to the future?
John: Yes, I am painfully aware of the fact that I wrote this book under an extremely unique time in history. What I am writing about is the way museums worked and yet I am trying to write a book that will be useful to people in the future. I think that all the pandemic has done is make it more obvious how unclear the future is for museums. But it is probably the best guess that this pandemic and the events surrounding it will, more than anything, merely accelerate changes that were happening anyway. I have said for years that I was concerned about the sustainability of current museum practices, such as the over-dependence on costly, functionally one-size-fits-all exhibitions, and I think that’s even more true now. This industrial-age approach likely peaked a decade or two ago and is likely to only further decline in both popularity and value in the coming decades. The time has come to radically re-envision and/or radically redesign how museums seek to satisfy the public’s well-being-related needs.
Museo: What is it that keeps you going during these special times?
John: I always sort of say that I am a pragmatic dreamer, a sort of a cynical optimist, so I believe that I have my feet firmly on the ground and always see the glass half full, but am painfully aware of the challenges that lie ahead. I know that museums are likely to face considerable trials and tribulations in the next several years but I also believe a brighter future with greater opportunities is possible. I feel positive about the ability of the institutions I work with, like museums, to make needed changes and adapt to these trying times and I am committed to do what I can do to help create a better future. This is what keeps me going!
Museo: Thank you for this interview and for giving us insight to your next book.
Images: John H. Falk, MuseoSpace