How to create a better visitor experience

Lisa Baxter – supporter of art organisations and an expert on audience engagement.

An interview by Diana Fehr / November 2nd, 2020

With the use of her unique methodologies and approaches Lisa Baxter is able to align museums around what’s best for the visitor. Not only what they want, but also how exhibitors can take visitors to places they couldn’t possibly imagine and exceed their expectations, delight them and wow them, amaze and provoke them. She believes that creating and delivering genuine value to audiences makes good business sense. That value is … Experience!


Museo: How come you know so much about the audience?


Lisa: Because I am the audience, in the respect that I have my own audience experiences that formed me and made me want to be a part of this crazy world of arts and culture. Ever since I became an arts professional, I found myself tuning into the beauty and value of the audience experience, and throughout my professional life this has underpinned two core beliefs that are really important to me.

First, that the core product of the arts and cultural sector is not the art. What people are really buying into with their time, attention and money, is their experience of the art. 

The audience experience therefore is our core product and the art is one of the vehicles that delivers that experience. Experience, therefore, is what we are selling or being funded to present, and even though this is the case, we as a sector know very little about what audience experience actually is. I want to put that right.


The second belief is the primacy of ‘value’ over ‘quality’. Of course, quality is extremely important, but if what you offer isn’t valued by your visitors, no amount of quality is going to truly engage them, and therein lies the path to irrelevance. For me, the most important thing is to create value for visitors, and that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, not the creator. We need to understand what desired-for experiences visitors are drawn to, and what value they place on those experiences?

When I went freelance in 2000, I decided that these beliefs were my guiding stars and I invested in being trained and mentored in researching the dimensions of audience experience. For the last 20 years I have become well versed in those dimensions and what they mean to people. Now I help arts and cultural organisations to be able to have these kind of conversations with audiences themselves as a powerful act of self-determining what value they want to create, and for whom.


Museo: You said that “Many arts organisations are divorced from their audience“. What do you mean by that?


Lisa: With museums in particular, the main focus seems to be to encourage visitors to learn from objects. These objects are perceived as holding intrinsic value which the curator-experts are tasked with revealing. In some ways it’s as if the visitors are there for the objects, rather than the objects being there for the visitors. With this belief in the intrinsic value of the object comes the assumption that visitors ‘should’ come because these exhibitions are good for them, resulting in some museums operating from a position of institutional ego, based on the belief that what they do is intrinsically important.


In my view, what really matters is finding and supercharging the potential for fascination and connection between the objects and the individual visitor. To do this, you need to find the answers to questions such as ‘What is it about this object that will make the visitor shine? Captivate them? Move them? Truly engage and inspire them?’


Museo: And where do you see the biggest challenges? Are they embedded in the organisations or do they relate more to the audience?


Lisa: Despite museums wanting their visitors to have a very good experience, a significant challenge is that they still don’t really understand what visitor experience is. In fact, visitor experience rarely sits at the heart of practice. Very few museums have holistic visitor experience strategies or the processes with which to evaluate and shape those experiences. What they do have are expert curators with deep knowledge about specific subjects and who pull together objects and collections into exhibitions for people. We need a more human-centered approach that draws on visitor empathy and not just a deep knowledge of, and passion for, a particular subject.

Another challenge is that visitors are always changing and perhaps more so in the last 12 months. Customer segmentation systems and demographic information rarely keep up with the pace of change and don’t really tell you what makes visitors tick – what motivates them, what their need states are and what experiences they hope to derive from a visit. This means museums are largely operating from an incomplete set of knowledge.

Challenge number three is encouraging museums to think holistically. The exhibitions are undoubtedly the star of the show and the spaces in between regarded as a lesser cast member. I prefer to think of a museum visit as a string of pearls, and it is the string that holds everything together. I encourage museum professionals to look at the spaces in-between, appreciate the role and value of the string supporting the exhibition ‘pearls’ to create a seamless, holistic, brand experience.


To achieve this comes the final practical challenge of encouraging hierarchical organisations to work cross-departmentally in service of that holistic visitor experience. This is very different to the status quo where departments often work in isolation. Once they get started however, the initial discomfort disappears and it doesn’t take long for the penny to drop, but real change is still often slow to follow.

Museo: What do you think needs to be changed within the museums for the future?


Lisa: I think it is initially about how you train future professionals to work in museums. There needs to be a much stronger focus on the dimensions and value of visitor experience and how to research, validate and design those experiences from the visitor perspective. As I mentioned earlier,  there needs to be more collaborative practice and a holistic, rather than a siloed, approach to visitor experience development. Museums also need to look outside themselves and become experts in their community, so that they can really understand how they might become a more vibrant part of that community.


Museo: Can you give us an example on how you work to create a better experiences for visitors, especially in museums?

Lisa: An example is my work with the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Germany where I have worked on three different exhibition concept development programmes.

The first thing I do is tune the cross-departmental team into the intended visitor experience and amplify their thinking by sharing new frameworks around the different  dimensions of experience to support greater focus and clarity around the core value offer of the exhibition. We then create visitor profiles – called personas – by asking: ‘What kind of people might be drawn to this exhibition and why?’ We then work these profiles up into something more specific and contextualised by asking: ‘What might they want to do, think and feel? What kind of interactions might they want? Where is there potential to create points of meaning and connection? How might we exceed their expectations?’

Now we have what the museum wants for the visitor, and what the visitor wants from the museum. We combine these into a visitor experience blueprint that combines curatorial authority with a heightened visitor sensibility. This is very human-centred, empathic process that lays down the groundwork for exhibition concept design. This is where participants generate the ideas, concepts and prototypes using a combination of design thinking and creative problem solving to create exhibitions tailored to specific visitor types.


Museo: How would you describe the learning outcome for yourself?


Lisa: My learning outcome is how fragile curators can be in the very early stages of exhibition development because they are expected to be the experts and ‘know it all’. Questioning, probing and stress-testing their ideas from a visitor perspective at this stage can feel undermining and be perceived as a dumbing-down of their practice. To address this, I have become much more cautious in how I frame and facilitate the process with curators. That’s my biggest learning outcome.

The second learning outcome is to make it very clear that there is no hierarchy in my workshops. In the last workshop I ran with the Landesmuseum Württemberg, for example, we had everyone from interns to a small team of curators and the museum director involved. It was important that everyone felt empowered to take part fully in the process and speak their mind, and for the most part, they did.


The third thing I have learnt is the value of involving visitors early in the exhibition development process. When we worked on the ‘Fashion?!’ exhibition at Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, we brought in visitor representatives to help us develop personas and exhibition design concepts. This was a brilliant way of dismantling our professional assumptions – including my own – and giving us all a reality check. This is something I now want to do more often.


Museo: What role does digitalization play within the audience experience?


Lisa: Digital is interesting! It’s the sexy new toy even though much of it doesn’t have the requisite fidelity to create a truly brilliant experience. Virtual Reality is still quite clunky and often the technology can become the object of, rather than the means of delivering, the visitor experience. Lots is being invested in creating digital overlays and features which can be very exciting in themselves as standalone experiences, but very often they are simply ‘bolt-ons’ with no serious consideration given to how they fit within, and contribute to, the holistic visitor experience. This said, I am very excited about the potential of digital, but until it becomes thoughtfully embedded within an overarching visitor experience strategy, it will remain an interesting add-on.


Museo: Did Covid-19 stop you in your activities?


Lisa: It stopped me running face to face workshops as all my international travel was cancelled. This forced me to pivot and I adapted all my work to the virtual realm. I also spent time thinking deeply about what the sector needed. Where are the cracks. The gaps that I might fill. This has led me to collaborating with some inspiring international practitioners to develop three new programmes.

‘Breathing Space’ is a safe space for dangerous ideas, where peer groups of international arts leaders can look to the far future and think radical thoughts about what that future might hold for them and the sector. ‘#wecandothis’ is an innovation platform where we help arts organisations find solutions to pressing problems and challenges such as’ How do we re-engage more authentically with our communities post Covid?’. And the third is a performing artists professional developments programme called ‘Grow’ which encourages artists to explore how their purpose, practice, and audience experience interrelate and creatively explore alternative ways to earn money and become more financially resilient in the future. My dream is to create a similar version for curators focusing on how the bringing together of organisational purpose, empathic curatorial practice and experiential intentionality can create outstanding museum experiences for 21st century visitors.

Museo: So, this is what keeps you going?


Lisa: This is what keeps me going. The work I like best is when people say “Lisa, we want to change and become much more visitor focused, and we want you to help us do that”. Then, I will happily work with them to shift their perspectives, challenge their assumptions, train them to evaluate their offer from the visitor perspective and then co-create better, more appealing , meaningful, and relevant visitor experiences than ever before. That’s where I find my mojo.


Museo: Was there a highlight for you in 2020?


Lisa: Yes, but it is not a museum example. I am working on a programme in a small suburb of Bergen, Norway with a cohort of community and citizen representatives to explore how arts and creativity can contribute to community flourishing. We were working on developing a set of shared values when someone came out with ‘we respect and cherish diversity. Those words, ‘cherish diversity’, were for me one of the high points of the year, because it sounded so fresh, authentic and beautiful.


Museo: Thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts with me.

Images: Lisa Baxter