Accompanying visitors at the Natural History Museum

To assess what future audiences might enjoy as part of museum visiting, this project started by looking into existing studies exploring how current audiences experience museums and heritage organisations.

Two initial workshops were held at the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, during which teams from the museums illustrated how they conduct audience research and researchers from the University of Exeter presented on business modelling based on the visitor experience, and the use of ethnomethodological-oriented methods in other projects (e.g. the EU-funded VISTA AR project and the AHRC-funded Performance at Tate project).

It is common practice in museums, galleries, heritage organisations, and in many other experience-based organisations, to use ethnographic methods to study audience behaviour.

Visitors and exhibits in Hintze Hall, Natural History Museum, London, including a blue whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling.

Ethnographic methods are also widely used in the study of mixed reality. For example, the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham has devised a series of ethnomethodologically-informed methods, including a technomethodology [PDF], which are aimed at assisting researchers at the Lab to understand the challenges in the design of specific human computer interactions.

It therefore seemed that the project could start by conducting an assessment of the current visitor experience at the Natural History Museum by using accompanied visiting.

Accompanied visits use some ethnographic strategies to observe what visitors do in museum, galleries or other heritage organisations. During an accompanied visit, a member of staff accompanies one or more visitors, either observing them or engaging more directly with them, while annotating spontaneous behaviour and conversations. It is known that accompanied visits are a great way to give voice to visitors and are particularly useful when studying groups from under-represented backgrounds (Haywood 2018).

On this occasion the museum audience research team had asked project members to look into what the museum experience was like for families and adults under 35, what people did, whether there were moments of confusion or obstacles and barriers, and to reflect about what conclusions and lessons could be learnt from this experience that could be applied to the project more broadly.

Visitor at Natural History Museum, London, viewing text and information panel on human sex cells.

I accompanied a couple, a man and a woman, in their late twenties. They had both visited the museum as children but had not returned for a number of years.

They first headed to the human biology exhibition where I first noted that they did not take photos, though they did buy a souvenir.

I did not have permission to photograph the two visitors, but had permission to capture generic visitor behaviour, and found this was usually consistent with the behaviour of the two visitors I accompanied.

Visitors at Natural History Museum, London, including information panels and two dinosaur skull exhibits.

It was noticeable that visitors often struggled to get close to the exhibits due to the large number of people in each room, which often resulted in moving more quickly than anticipated to another exhibit, or even a different room.

Visitors at Natural History Museum, London, viewing marine vertebrae exhibits.

One of the visitors I accompanied was interested in seeing the marine vertebrate gallery and looking at the dinosaurs, and so both visitors spent a long time in the marine vertebrae exhibition, reading the interpretation carefully, often discussing specific artefacts with each other.

Visitors at Natural History Museum, London, viewing and photographing T.rex exhibit.

Once they reached the roaring T. rex animation, they stopped, observing that the exhibit offers a photo moment, but then they walked quickly through the remaining dinosaur galleries as they had to leave to for a meeting.

Visitors at Natural History Museum, London, viewing exhibits.

Other groups, accompanied by other project members, showed some interest in sensory experiences, and younger people especially liked touching exhibits.

As Dani Parr found by following her group, audiences ‘expect to learn every time they come to the museum’. In fact, for all groups, there was an expectation to learn, to see something new, and a great excitement about interactive and responsive exhibits.

Exhibits at the Natural History Museum, London, including blue whale and rhinoceros.

The only two ‘wows’ in my group occurred, respectively, in the Hintze Hall, when the whale was first spotted, and when I explained that the aim of the project was to experience a dinosaur in mixed reality.


Naomi Haywood (2018) ‘Accompanied Visits as a Tool to Understand Visitors’ Experiences: A Critical Reflection and Proposed Typology’, Visitor Studies, 21:1, 135-147, DOI: 10.1080/10645578.2018.1503876

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