In the recent issue of Curator there is an interesting and empirically well-founded paper on visitor experience of exhibitions, entitled IPOP: A Theory of Experience Preference. It lays out a typology called IPOP of what draws people to exhibitions – Ideas, People, Objects and Physical. The authors claim that
an individual’s relative attraction to the four IPOP dimensions influences 1) what that individual pays attention to, 2) what s/he does, and 3) how that person responds.
One of the interesting things the authors point out is that people often rate their experiences the highest when they have what is called a ‘flip’ experience, meaning that they are normally drawn by, say, Ideas, but are then ‘flipped’ by the strength of eg the object experience in the exhibition:
We believe that when an individual has the kind of experience that s/he is generally drawn to, that person is likely to feel a sense of satisfaction, since expectations will have been met. But when that person has an additional unexpected experience in a dimension that s/he is not generally drawn to, that experience will seem particularly meaningful and memorable.
I think this effect is something we have been more or less consciously experimenting with in past exhibitions, and might be part of the reason for the success of eg Split and Splice. It might be a useful tool for understanding visitor experiences and what makes particular exhibitions tick.
Anecdotally, I find that this sort of unexpected museum experience can be quite profound – when, say, finding encountering aesthetic qualities of scientific objects or deep ideas in seemingly mundane artifacts. And trying to give visitor something to flip out about seem like a worthy goal.