Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


A Survey of Characteristics and Patterns of Behavior in Visitors to a Museum Web Site

John Chadwick, Ed.D., Institute for Learning Innovation, USA and Patricia Boverie, Ph.D., University of New Mexico, USA


As the growth of the World Wide Web changes how people access information and spend their leisure time, museum professionals need to learn about their new audience coming through the electronic doors just as they attempt to learn and meet the needs of those who walk through the physical doors of the museum. Most of the literature in this area is of a philosophical nature. There are no empirically based studies on the nature of the Web as an informal learning environment and the similarities or differences between the different types of visitors.

At the closing plenary session of the 1998 Museums and the Web conference, Greg Van Alystyne from the Museum of Modern Art called an online a museum a parallel museum. The results from this study support the notion that some of the behaviors observed at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History Web site seem to parallel some of the behaviors other researchers observe in museums.

Again, during the 1998 Museums and the Web conference, attention has been focused on answering the questions of who is using museum Web sites, why are people using museum Web sites, and what are the behaviors and characteristics of the online visitors. Following the conference Lynn Dierking (personal communication, April 28, 1998) wrote:

We need to understand the relationship between web site users and museums visitors. Are they the same people or do they at least share similar values and expectations for how they want to spend free time? There is some sense from preliminary data that they do share some characteristics such as high interest in the topic they are pursuing and a desire to get more in-depth information but more studies are needed.
According to Falk and Dierking (1998) individual interest is one of the major factors that influence a visit to a museum. "Personal history and values play a major role in museum-going as well. On the whole, individuals who go to museums have explicitly chosen to attend not because of some theoretical interest in learning, but out of a concrete interest in a particular area or areas of learning, whether science, history or art" (CD-ROM). To further complicate matters when dealing with individual differences and hypermedia in museums, Falk and Dierking (1998) contend that the use of multimedia in a museum setting is highly self-selected. However, "It is important to note, of course, that in each of these studies there were also a number of visitors that spent a great deal of quality time interacting with the media elements. These results support the notion that media is an important option for some visitors."

This research project is a first attempt to answer questions being asked by museum professionals - who is visiting a museum Web site, why people are visiting a museum Web site, and what do the online visitors do when they come to a museum Web site.

Social context plays a major role in how visitors experience a museum, and individuals may have a different experience than those visiting as part of group. (Falk and Dierking, 1992). Much has been written about how families and groups learn in a variety of situations, including museums. It is beyond the scope of this study to go beyond a very basic understanding of how families learn in informal learning environments such as museums. However, a basic understanding may explain some of what was uncovered in this study about families using the Museum's Web site. According to Hilke, "Scholars agree that a major function of the family is to support learning among its members. Whether called childrearing, socialization, acculturation, or education, the process of raising and nurturing children involves the transfer of information between all family members" (1989, p.103).

According to Roger Wulff (Wulff, 20/08/1998) "I attended a "Non-Profits On-Line" Conference in Jan. of this year and was amazed to learn what some non-profits are doing with their web sites - and how important the web is becoming in the lives of the average family. Newspaper readership is declining, even TV viewing by the average family is declining - where use of the Internet will double, maybe triple, by the year 2000. This is the reason a newspaper empire like The Washington Post (one of the major sponsors of that Conference) is entering the Internet business."

One would expect differences in behavior between individuals and groups visiting a Web site, just as one would expect differences between the two groups in the physical museum. How families and other groups are visiting museum Web sites and their experiences are worthy of further research.

One of the most important findings from this research is that groups, which accounted for approximately 30% of the respondents, accessed more files than individuals in the same period of time. Some of the behaviors that take place in a museum can be observed in those accessing a museum Web site. Even with the findings in this study, there is room for more research into the behaviors of people who use the Web as an informal learning environment. Recruiting participants via the Internet brings a self-selected population and a sample that is drawn using non-probabilistic methods. The population that participates in this survey may not be representative of the population that uses the Internet or the Museum Web site (Chadwick, 1997). This self-selected sample, combined with self-rating of knowledge, interest, and experience, also makes generalizability difficult. It is impossible to know if the sample in this study is representative of the visitors to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Web site. This is going to be a problem for anyone conducting online surveys to learn about online visitors. However, when the population of interest are visitors to a Web site and the study is focused on visitor behavior, then one must accept these limitations.

For this research project a series of five research questions and associated hypotheses were developed to look at the individual differences of visitors to a museum Web site. The research questions were:

  1. Are museum Web site visitors also museum visitors?

  2. Will the reasons for individuals visiting a museum Web site affect how they access the site?

  3. Will I find a difference between groups (museum visitors and hypermedia users) in why they access the Web site and in how they access the Web site?

  4. Does subject matter knowledge influence the way a person accesses a museum Web site?

  5. Do the characteristics of the online visitor predict their visitation paths?

Although some of the hypotheses were not supported by the results in this study, there were some interesting results to report. This was the quantitative study of visitor characteristics and patterns of behavior at a museum Web site, and some of the results that emerged provides directions for further research. For this paper, the differences between group behavior and individual behavior of individuals visiting the Web site will be explored. In fact, nearly 30% of the respondents to the online survey reported they were visiting as part of a group.



The average age of the respondents was 41.08 with a wide variance that would be expected from a heterogeneous group and sample (Table 1). This was not too different from the most recent GVU study of overall Internet usage where the average age was 35.70 (Pitkow and Kehoe, 1997, online).

Table 1. The Age Range of Survey Respondents

Mean Std. Dev Variance Range Minimum Maximum
41.08 14.05 197.33 74.00 6 80

More men (62.10%) than women (37.90%) completed this survey. Once again, the results are consistent with the findings of the 1997 GVU survey where 38.50% of the respondents in that survey were female. (Pitkow and Kehoe, 1997b, online)


A single survey with 19 items was used for this study (Appendix A). This survey includes some basic demographic questions as well as a combination of open-ended questions, categorical questions, and five-point Likert-scale items. The purpose of the questionnaire was to determine if the people using the Web site are also museum visitors. Also, the survey gathered data about prior knowledge and interest in the subject matter of the Web site. Data was collected online and stored in a file on the Web server located at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. The survey was conducted from December 3, 1997 to February 8, 1998 at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Web site. A total of 348 respondents completed an online survey that was an adaptation of a previously used museum visitor study to determine why people choose to spend leisure time at a museum.

The survey used for this study is an adaptation of a survey conducted by Marilyn Hood that looked at why people did or did not choose to spend their leisure time at a museum (Hood, 1981). The survey by Marilyn Hood had been used to assess both museum visitor and non-visitor behavior and attitudes and had a track record as a reliable and valid instrument in its original form. The survey used in this study included a combination of continuous variables, ranking, and Likert-scale questions.


There were several important findings in this study, but the focus of this paper is on what was learned about group behavior when visiting the Web site. Much of the research in how people use computers has focused on computer use in education as a solitary activity (Stone and Hutson, 1984), although it is not unusual for groups to use a computer in a museum setting (Chadwick, 1992) (Diamond, Bond, and Hirumi, 1989).

The majority of people visiting the Web site were visiting alone (69.80%). Respondents who indicated they were visiting as part of a family group account for 21.60% of the responses to the question. The frequency of the responses are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The number of answers, per category, to the survey question, "With whom are you visiting this Web site?"

Of those who visited as part of some sort of group, 41 respondents indicated that there were two people in the group while 22 respondents indicated that there were three people in the group, as shown in Figure 2. This question may have posed some problems for respondents, since one person indicated that there were no other people in their group and two people indicated that there was one person in their group. It is unclear if the count is the total number of people in the group, or if the count is the number of people other than the primary user.

how many people were in a group

Figure 2. The number of responses to the question of how many people were in a group.

An ANOVA was performed with two levels of an independent variable. One level were people visiting the web site alone and the second level were people visiting the Web site as part of a group. The total number of files accessed (hits) was the dependent variable. Those who were visiting as part of a group accessed more files than those visiting alone. The results of this ANOVA were statistically significant F(1,348) = 11.3076, MSe = 344, p < .05 as shown in Table 2.

Source D.F. Sum of Squares Mean Squares F Ratio F Prob.
Between Groups 1 777.01 777.01 11.31 .0009
Within Groups 343 23569.58 68.72    
Total 344 24346.59      

Groups were likely to visit more pages during an online visit than individuals during roughly the same amount of time. There was not a statistically significant difference between groups and individuals in the time spent visiting the Web site. Individuals spent an average of 20.78 minutes visiting the Web site compared to 23.49 minutes for groups.

While both individuals and groups are ready to learn when they visit a museum Web site, those visiting as part of a group are much more likely to say they are visiting to learn something rather than just engaging in some browsing activity. When asked why they were visiting, groups indicated they were visiting to learn something, and a very low percentage (8.70%) of those visiting as part of a group indicated they were visiting to browse through the Web site. Those visiting the Web site alone also indicated they were visiting to learn something, but a higher percentage said they were visiting to browse (18.10%). This is illustrated in Table 3. Although the differences were not statistically significant, it is interesting note the differences between

Table 3. What is Your Main Purpose for Visiting the Web Site Today? Comparison Between Individuals and Groups

Row Pct
Col Pct
Tot Pct
Alone Any type of group Row
Browse 44
Learn 178
Other 20
None 1

why groups said they were visiting and why individuals said they were visiting the same Web site.


Perhaps, given the growth of the Internet, it is not all that unreasonable to see a growing number of groups using the Web. Nearly 30% of the respondents in this survey indicated that they were visiting as some sort of group. Individuals and groups visiting a museum generally have different agendas and reasons for visiting a museum. Individuals and groups also display different behaviors while visiting a museum. These differences seem to be mirrored on the Web as individuals engage in more directed searches and groups engage in more browsing behaviors at a museum. In this study it turned out that there was a statistically significant difference between individuals and groups in the number of files accessed although there was not a significant difference in the amount of time individuals and groups spent visiting the Web site, which would indicate that groups are exhibiting more browsing behaviors than individuals. This is a phenomenon that has been observed in museums (Falk and Dierking, 1992).

While most museum visitors come as part of a social group (Falk and Dierking, 1992), only about 30% of the respondents in this study indicated that they were part of a social group. According to Falk and Dierking, in speaking about adult visitors who visit museums alone, "They may visit a museum between four and forty times in a year. Their agendas are honed by direct personal experience and knowledge. Because these visitors are so well informed, their expectations are closely tied to the actual offerings of the museum. An effective 'feedback loop' has been created by recurrent visits" (p. 37). This feedback loop may explain why frequent museum visitors and experienced hypermedia users rated themselves higher on knowledge of the subject than occasional museum visitors and inexperienced museum visitors.

This study has suggested certain differences between groups and individuals visiting a museum. As reported in the results section, groups may say they are arriving for a specific reason, such as to learn something, but their behavior would seem to indicate that they are engaged in browsing behaviors, much more than those visiting the Web site alone. Groups tend to access more HTML pages and access more files in the same amount of time as those visiting alone. This is an important area for future research. We know that museums are social settings and groups influence how people behave in a museum. More needs to be learned about how groups learn using the Internet. A future study may want to explore this issue further.

Research on visitor behavior in museums (Falk and Dierking, 1992) suggest that the type of group influences behavior in a museum. Children visiting as part of class may behave differently than families with children visiting a museum. Adults behave differently than adults with children. An effective way to explore the group dynamics involved in museum Web site visitation would make an important contribution to the field of visitor studies.

Another area of research could be in the gender gap. More men than women took the time to complete this survey, and the results are consistent with other online studies. Is there really a large gap in the number men and women using the Internet, or are men only more likely than women to complete an online survey?

Of particular concern to researchers trying to understand Web site visitation are the problems associated with a self-selected sample and a proportionately low response rate when compared to the overall number of visitors. A recent online survey conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration offered a free photo from the Hubble Space Telescope to be sent via U.S. mail as a reward. More than 70% of the visitors to the NASA site completed the survey (Kiernan, 1998, online).

To generalize to museum Web sites, online visitors arrive at the Web site ready to learn. This presents a great opportunity for museums to present information about their museum, knowledge about their collections, and artifacts in a new medium and to a new audience who is ready to learn.

Appendix A
Online Survey

Online Audience Survey

The results from this survey will be used as part of a doctoral dissertation being conducted by John Chadwick at the University of New Mexico to help gain a better understanding of who uses museum Web sites. The results of this survey will also help the staff at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science make improvements to this site. If you would like a copy of the full informed consent letter as required by the University of New Mexico Institutional Review Board, you may view the page and either use the print command on your Web browser to print a copy or use the mail command to e-mail a copy to yourself. [Informed Consent Letter]

By starting the survey you are giving your consent for the information collected to be used for this doctoral dissertation and by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. You may quit at anytime, however partial surveys will not be used.

1. Is this your first visit to this Web site? Yes____ No____

2. If No, about how many times have you been here in the past 12 months? ________

3. What is your main purpose for visiting this Web site? You may select up to three items.

___ To pass time

___ To see a particular section of this Web site. (please specify): _____________

___ To browse generally through this Web site.

___ To seek entertainment

___ To learn something

___ Planning a tour of the museum or Albuquerque

___ To show this Web site to your children

___ To share the experience with other persons.

___ Research

___ Class project

___ Other (please specify): ______________

4. Are you visiting this Web site:

____ Alone

____ Family

____ Friends

____ Family and friends

____ Organized group such as a class

____ Other (please specify): ______________

5. If you are visiting this Web site with other people, how many people in your group? ___

6. How did you come here today?

____ Search engine such as Infoseek or Yahoo?

____ If you used a search engine, what term (i.e. paleontology, dinosaurs, museum) did you use? (Please specify) ______

____ From another museum page

____ From another page about natural history or paleontology

____ Recommended by a friend

7. What is most satisfying about your visits on the Web?

____ Content of the Web pages

____ Design of the Web site

____ Ability to learn more about the Museum prior to a visit

____ other (please specify): __________

8. What other types of information or site design would help your visit to our Web site?

9. How do you usually find out information about a museum?

___ Online

___ Newspaper

___ Radio

___ Television

___ Friends or relatives

___ Membership newsletters

___ Other: ______

10. Have you participated in any of these museum activities (at any museum) in the past 12 months? Indicate the approximate number of times for those in which you participated.

Activity Number of times
Tours ______
Lectures ______
Concerts ______
Library ______
Classes ______
Special events ______
Programs for kids ______
Gift shop ______
Restaurant ______
Other (specify) ______
Casual visit to museum ______

11. As a child, did you visit any museum for any of the following reasons

_____ Classes

_____ Movies

_____ School tours

_____ Family visits

_____ Concerts

_____ Other (please specify) ________

12. Is there anything about museums that you think could be improved? You may select up to three items.

____ Better directions, visitor information, signs

____ Stairs, elevator

____ Access for handicapped, for baby strollers

____ Organization or lighting of galleries

____ Arrangement of items in galleries

____ Amount or kind of information on labels

____ Availability and readability of brochures, floor plans

____ Seating accommodations

____ Food or refreshment facilities

____ Restroom or coatroom facilities

____ Location or appearance of museum building

____ Items for sale in giftshop

____ Friendliness or knowledge of personnel

____ Parking

13. Are you a member of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History?

Yes____ No____

14. What is your age? ____

15. Are you Male or Female?

____ Male

____ Female

16. How long (in months) have you been using the Internet and the World Wide Web? ___

17. How would you rate your expertise using the Internet and the World Wide Web

1. Novice
2. Some experience
3. Moderate experience
4. Great deal of experience
5. Expert
18. How would you rate your knowledge of dinosaurs?

1. Beginning student
2. Some knowledge
3. Moderate
4. Great deal of knowledge
5. Expert
19. How would you rate your interest in dinosaurs?

1. Very little
2. Some interest
3. Moderate interest
4. Great deal of interest
5. Very high level of interest


Chadwick, J. C. (1992). The Development of a Museum Multimedia Program. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1, 331-340.

Chadwick, J.C. (1997). The Difference Between Self-rated Interest in Dinosaurs in New Mexico and Search Strategies Used to reach a Museum Web Site. Spectra, 24 (4), 33-38.

Diamond, J., Bond, A., and Hirumi, A. (1989). Desert Explorations A videodisc exhibit designed for flexibility. Curator, 32(3), 161-173.

Falk, J. H. and Dierking, L.D. (1992). The Museum Experience. Washington DC: Whalesback Books.

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (1998). Understanding Free-Choice Learning: A Review of the Research and its Application to Museum Web Sites. In D. Bearman and J Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web 98 Proceedings (CD-ROM). Archives and Museum Informatics, 1998.

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Hilke, D.D. (1989). The Family as a Learning System: An Observational Study of Families in Museums. Marriage and Family Review, 13, 101-129.

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