Over the past half-century, museums have evolved from being predominantly cultural repositories to playing an important social role as venues for educational leisure experiences. Accompanying this development has been an increased emphasis on optimising the visitor experience. The physical context of the museum has long been recognised as an important facet of the visitor experience (Falk & Dierking, 2000). However, the way that visitors perceive and respond to different types of exhibition environments on a holistic level has received relatively little research attention until recently. A key limitation in advancing research in this area has been a paucity of methods for quantifying and analysing visitor perceptions of the exhibition environment beyond simple measures of satisfaction. In order to address this gap, this thesis describes the development of a model for characterising how visitors perceive different exhibition environments – Perceived Atmosphere – and relates it to different facets of the visitor experience.
As part of this study, a quantitative instrument known as the Perceived Atmosphere Instrument was piloted and refined. This allows the relationship between exhibition environment and visitor experience to be explored in greater depth. Development of Perceived Atmosphere was informed by environmental psychology, in particular environmental cognition, theories of spatial perception and the research field known as atmospherics (Kotler, 1974). Atmospherics is the study of the influence of retail environments and other service settings on customer attitudes and behaviour, and this study applied similar methods to a museum context.
Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected to explore and compare visitors’ perceptions of different exhibition environments at the South Australian Museum, a large natural and cultural history museum located in Adelaide, Australia. Qualitative data were collected through 12 pre-arranged accompanied visits to the museum, while quantitative data were collected from 602 visitors to the museum who agreed to participate in the study by completing a questionnaire that incorporated the Perceived Atmosphere Instrument. In addition, a small number of participants (n = 60) were unobtrusively tracked prior to completing the survey, allowing some preliminary analysis of the relationship between Perceived Atmosphere and visitor behaviour.
Factor analysis of the 30 semantic differentials that comprise the Perceived Atmosphere Instrument produced a four factor solution interpreted as Vibrancy, Spatiality, Order and Theatricality. There were statistically significant differences between galleries on three of these four dimensions. These differences were interpretable in light of each gallery’s physical characteristics, but also indicate that a space’s perceived affordances are as important as its measurable physical properties. Of the Perceived Atmosphere dimensions, Vibrancy is the strongest predictor of affective, cognitive and behavioural engagement. Spatiality is a predictor of a sense of relaxation in the exhibition environment. There is a negative correlation between Order and a sense of cognitive overload. These results show that quantifying Perceived Atmosphere in an exhibition setting is technically feasible, theoretically coherent and capable of providing novel and useful insights into the environment-experience relationship.
As well as advancing our theoretical understanding of the environment-experience relationship in the museum context, these findings make practical and methodological contributions to the field. The Perceived Atmosphere Instrument is a novel, easy-to-administer research tool that can be applied to a wide range of museum settings. The ability to characterise exhibition environments by their Perceived Atmosphere properties, in particular Vibrancy, Spatiality and Order, will be useful for exhibition planners, designers and evaluators.