Key project information
2006 – ongoing
Visitor research receives funding from a number of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What can the British Museum learn from its visitors to create more impactful and effective displays?
The Interpretation Team helps visitors make sense of the British Museum collection by providing information that encourages people to actively engage and look more closely at objects on display in the Museum’s galleries and exhibitions. Developing effective gallery displays and special exhibitions requires deep understanding of visitors’ levels of knowledge, their motivation for coming and the way they behave during their visit. The Interpretation Team has been undertaking visitor research and exhibition evaluation since 2006 to help the Museum deepen visitor engagement with the collection.
Reports are undertaken annually and the Interpretation Team holds an extensive archive of visitor research and evaluation reports which it uses to support the development of the Museum and to improve the Museum visitor experience.
Find out about the latest project news.
About the project
For major gallery projects and special exhibitions there are usually three evaluation stages:
Front-end – when work begins on developing an exhibition or display, initial concepts and ideas are explored with key audiences. Front-end evaluation establishes visitors’ prior knowledge, experience and expectations of the subject covered by the exhibition or gallery.
Formative – when ideas for specific displays and associated interpretation within an exhibition are more advanced they may be tested with visitors. This stage of the evaluation process leads to iterative improvements.
Summative – after an exhibition has opened, research is undertaken to help inform the development of future displays and to establish how successful an individual project has been in meeting its objectives.
Each evaluation stage results in a formal report. Some of this evaluation is done in-house by the Interpretation Team while external agencies or freelance specialists are commissioned to undertake larger assessments.
The purpose of evaluation and visitor research at the Museum is to improve the British Museum visitor experience and generate learning and insights from each project to inform future exhibitions and displays.
Exhibitions and permanent gallery projects require huge investments of staff time and other resources. Visitor research and evaluation is performed to ensure that the full potential of each exhibition, display or project is achieved, and to help assess the reach and impact of the Museum’s public programme.
The Interpretation Team at the British Museum often presents findings from these evaluations at conferences and other events. The Museum’s evaluation reports are used by postgraduate students and academics, as well as British Museum staff. They are frequently cited in dissertations, articles and peer-reviewed publications because they provide robust insight into the impact of British Museum exhibitions and projects.
Visitor research and evaluation are ongoing at the British Museum. Each special exhibition or display poses different challenges and evaluation of each one generates unique insights. However, there are also some overarching findings.
Evaluation of older permanent gallery displays reveals that the average visitor dwell time is typically quite low, sometimes only a few minutes in duration. Most visitors only stop at a small number of objects in each display. Consequently, the Interpretation Team has structured new displays around a selection of gateway objects intended to capture visitors’ attention and to engage them with key themes, stories and collection highlights in each area of the Museum.
Evaluation of special exhibitions with an admission charge shows that they attract significantly different audiences to the permanent gallery displays and they have different motivations. The average visit length to an exhibition in the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery is usually between 70 and 90 minutes. Nearly all of these visitors carefully follow the show’s narrative, looking at most of the objects and engaging with the majority of the interpretation.
The Interpretation Team is continuing to investigate new ways to make engaging exhibitions and free collection-based displays that appeal to and meet the differing needs of visitors.
Formative and summative evaluation reports for major gallery projects and special exhibitions
A selection of reports are available below and others are available on request. These reports are often cited in peer-reviewed publications by British Museum staff, academics and other museum professionals.
- Report 1 – summative evaluation of the Manga exhibition, 2019
- Report 2 – summative evaluation of the I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria exhibition, 2019
- Report 3 – World Conservation and Exhibition Centre activity plan evaluation for year three, 2018
- Report 4 – summative evaluation of the South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition, 2017
- Report 5 – summative evaluation of the Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation exhibition, 2015
- Report 6 – summative evaluation of the Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam exhibition, 2012
Sex and sensitivities: exhibiting and interpreting Shunga at the British Museum
A chapter drawing on evaluation that informed the development – and captured the impact – of the British Museum’s 2013–14 exhibition, Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art.
Published in 2020
‘A bastion of colonialism’: public perceptions of the British Museum and its relationship to empire
Third Text, 33:4–5, pages 487–499
Published in 2019
A visitor-focused approach to interpretation and learning
An illustrated overview of the British Museum's interpretation and learning strategies for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World that opened at the British Museum in 2018.
Published in 2018