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Maslow in Museums

I started working in museums when I was in high school, and for the bulk of that time was focused on those things that museums do really well: content-based experiences, sharing the "stuff" of collections and research with visitors through a variety of media onsite and online.

When I started designing in-gallery experiences myself and looking at how visitors interacted with them, I noticed a problem: museums were getting in our own way. Visitors would walk in the door frazzled and disoriented, and be so concerned about how they found the bathrooms and balanced their schedule for visiting a number of museums in one day that it impeded their ability to engage with the content. Museums spent all their energy on the brains of visitors and what they want their visitors to learn, and left no room for the bodies of visitors. But it's really hard to read about a collection, even one as awesome as a space shuttle, if you have to pee. 

Here's Abraham Maslow's 1943 Hierarchy of Needs. You may have seen this before. in his hierarchy, Dr. Maslow posited a theory of human behavioral motivations, in which basic biological needs had to be satisfied for the human to move on to the next psychological stage.

There are lots of versions of Maslow's hierarchy online. This one is from

Application of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to the musum visitor experience

What would happen if we applied this in a museum setting? For starters, we'd have to start earlier than Maslow, since if people don't feel comfortable coming to the museum, we can't share our onsite content with them. Once they're in the front door, we need to think about basic biological needs: where am I in space? Where do I start? Where's the bathroom? Where can I eat or sit down? How do I get out? Then we need to take care of basic psychological needs, helping orient visitors to how content will be presented, what's expected of them, and how they navigate through concepts.

It would look like this:

Thanks to all-around awesome person Jason Alderman for making this graphic.

Museums are always going to be in the content business. This model doesn't ask museums to stop doing what they do best. It does ask that they remember their visitors are brains in bodies, and those bodies need care, feeding, respite, comfort, and confidence before they can benefit from all that great content.

The incomparable Dan Ramsden said it best in his presentation at the 2017 IA Summit

I debuted this model at Interaction 17 and the 2017 IA Summit. Watch the talk or view the slides.

Thrilled to see this model highlighted in the Smithsonian Institution's Guide to Interpretive Writing for Exhibitions (pdf) in September 2021. 

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