Do virtual tours in museums meet the real needs of the public? Observations and tips from a visitor studies perspective.

During the lockdown, more and more museums around the world are offering virtual tours online. For many, with museums closed, these opportunities are better than nothing. For others, it would be even better to calibrate them to human needs. How do we learn? What are the common bias that influence our attention? What does it mean to be focused? Why do we first have to orient ourselves in a space?

The following article tries to answer these and many other questions in a practical way, by offering different ideas and reading suggestions.
A shorter version of this article has also been published on

A few days ago I shared on LinkedIn an illustration I previously posted on my Instagram account Museums for People.
The original post was about the concept of pacing and cognitive attention in museum but then the discussion that followed ended up focusing mostly on the value of virtual tours.

At this weird time, when many museum professionals of the world are stuck at home dealing with similar issues, the feedback to my post was much higher than expected and I thank the dozens of people who joined the conversation.

On the left a boy visiting a museum virtually through his tablet; on the right, an adult and a kid within a museum space.
On the left a boy visiting a museum virtually through his tablet; on the right, an adult and a kid within a museum space.

As always, the way we observe something depends from our background and perspectives, which is why I thought to deepen mine through this practical notes, including in the debate many of us who observe the evolution of the digital world from close disciplines.

I am a mid-career museologist and, although I trained on the themes of visitor study, learning accessibility and social design in museums, I have never found an explicit professional involvement on these issues: museum awareness on these subjects, at least in Italy, lacks diffusion and resources and, above all, are not yet perceived as a necessity.
We are more aware of this today than we have ever been in the past, even if only by observing the more recent role attributed to accessibility: in recent years attention to this field has grown, but in the urgency of the last few weeks we seem to have completely forgotten to consider the existence of different needs.

Visitor studies, so close to accessibility, are central to museums because they allow us to understand visitors’ behaviors, attitudes, interests, motivations and ways of learning. Also called audience research, this field of study observes and analyzes people’s reaction within a space (both physical and digital) while at the same time trying to generate more and more human-centered solutions.

I have never cared much about the virtual experience in the past, but I am aware — thanks also to the continuous discussion with valid colleagues involved in research on these issues — of how much digital resources can be effective for museums: to provide useful content, diversifying the opportunities for access and understanding.

But what about the virtual visits? Do they make sense? And why they had such a huge diffusion? Is that real or is just a perception? Why did my aunt — who was never interested so much in the topic — suggest me to visit the Vatican Museum and Frida Khalo house? And in any case, how could we improve their potential and make them more accessible?

Urged by these questions, in the last few weeks, like many others, I decided to experience several online tours, guided more by professional curiosity than personal interest (and this is a prejudice already to be considered): they were virtual tours, live tours, tours accompanied by a robot. I found some well-structured, while others seemed to be more similar to prototypes. Some were free, for some others I paid a ticket. In any case, they were proposals with different specificities but which pose some similar questions and points of attention. In relation to these experiences, I would like to share some issues that I find relevant and that perhaps so far have not been considered enough: cognitive bias, principles of universal design and themes that more specifically investigate the behavior and motivations of visitors.

Do we want visitors to learn more about the significance of the works of art? Do we want them to have fun? Do we want to involve people who don’t usually attend museums? Do we want to encourage them to visit a museum they have never seen before? Do we want them to interact with their families? Do we want them to discover new strategies to approach images or to critically question their role as a public?
What I have observed is that the objectives of the tours offered by museums are rarely made explicit. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t seem to be clear to them either, which generates a cognitive dissonance that makes it impossible to find coherence between gestures and expectations. The most evident example: a visit in which the works can be focused with difficulty will certainly not allow to deepen their value from the point of view of art history even if it could improve the interest for their routes and their architecture: yet it would be enough to know it. As for the objectives, a widespread misunderstanding, in my opinion, is to think that a virtual visit could tempt me to the real attendance even if I am not already intrinsically motivated. Take a walk on Google Street: there are some places you would probably like to visit in the world but it will not be because you simulate a walk in their streets that your desire will increase.
Tip: set clear goals and share with your visitors on the website to orient their path and understanding.

In these days I have interviewed several people, different for interests and experiences. This research is obviously only empirical, but it leads me to think that those who appreciate this kind of proposals are usually people of medium cultural level, used to visit museums; above all they are used to traditional approaches of visit for which the interpretation is not open, the visit is passive and does not raise other questions: in other words, for them the museum is only a space where specific and in-depth contents are offered in relation to the objects, specifically artworks. It is then an opportunity to learn something new, to see again places visited in the past, to deepen one’s knowledge or to see unexpected details, hoping to be surprised.
In any case, the visits (mostly when autonomous, like in in virtual tours) tend to last no longer than what is considered the average sustained attention time of about 7-10 minutes. With this reference, in my opinion, time should be observed following a qualitative approach and without prejudices but, in any case, different layers of participation should be included, as well as more hooks to renew the involvement. With this regard, John Veverka, an expert in heritage interpretation, reminds us that in a visit it is not simply a matter of going from A to B, but of accompanying the visitor to the discovery of different and overlapping sensations and stimuli. Experiencing a virtual tour is nothing more than getting lost in a flat space, like the computer screen, unless it requires different ways to interact with it; every experience must be rich to be useful in terms of accessibility and renewal of attention. The opportunity to address different types of stimuli or interactions (music or open questions could be some examples) increases concentration.
Tip: Facilitate your visit by offering different learning approaches, diversifying the contents and disciplines, developing your interpretation broadly as a strategy.

Expectations change according to the experience. In my case, for example, starting from the awareness that the museum is a learning device through which, hypothetically, everything is possible, I expect the spectrum of possibility through the online visit to expand further.
Google Art, in this sense, has done a lot and produced extraordinary results, especially when it suggests observation strategies without focusing only on content, as what happens on some works on the website of the Rijksmuseum such as for Vermeer’s Milkmaid. In other words, the museum here is suggesting the implicit acquisition of skills, as John Berger teaches in his most famous book Ways of seeing. Moreover, in this case, the objective is clear and partially shifts from the more traditional proposal anchored to contemplation.
What I would like to see: more strategies and suggestions for the visit (which people can then use in the real world); more references to current issues and also more pop experiences: if the museum is a real space, why should the virtual try to simulate it badly? Maybe this is an opportunity to bring virtually back the Mona Lisa to Italy? Or even: could we finally talk with visitors about museology and history of collections?

Lidwell, Holden and Butler, in their fundamental book “Universal Principle of Design” talk about a hierarchy of needs referred to design: in order to achieve the goals we have set, whatever they may be, we must be sure that we have responded first and foremost to the basic needs. Taking model from Maslow’s most famous scale, it is therefore a question of imagining a pyramid that develops from the bottom upwards able to “meet people’s basic needs before they can attempt to satisfy higher level needs” (p.124). Referred to our topic it would mean structure devices that, in that order, include functionality (they should work), reliability (they should work well), usability (they should be easy to use), proficiency (they should enable people to do something better), creativity (they should enable people to do something new).
Tip: involve the whole staff with the question “What levels does our virtual tour reach?”, urging critical analysis and self-observation.

Two people in a museum: one running on a bike in front a small painting and a person sitting in front of a huge one.
Two people in a museum: one running on a bike in front a small painting and a person sitting in front of a huge one.

Accessibility is often defined as a subset of usability. It is basic factor therefore, and its appearance can be invisible: high quality footage, impeccable technology, readable fonts. Much of cognitive accessibility also has to do with perception: first of all, affordability, which is the characteristic for which the aesthetics of a device improve its usability, suggesting how to use it clearly (we all know how to open a door, but is a website always intuitive enough?).
Tip: test your virtual experience with different users, use UX and the accessibility checklist or create your own.

Veverka again also reminds us how to understand a part you need to know first the whole. Try to think of a book: if the index was missing, wouldn’t you feel lost? Some of the virtual visits I took part in, (expecially those guided) placed my user experience in a predetermined starting point without me having clear any bigger picture or the destination. If in the real visit I can guess approximately the size of the museum, the possible route often thanks to a map, in the virtual ones it often happens that these references are missing completely. Sometimes a map of the museum is not even available online, which gives more the experience of the labyrinth than anything else. This key concept should obviously not be confused with the Principle of progressive disclosure which suggests to provide only the relevant information at a given time without overloading the recipient.
Tip: for any museum tours, especially those facilitated by a guide, allow visitors to always have a map available to frame the entire route from the beginning.

As Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson wrote in a text still considered a classic in the field (Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?, 1999) the flow experience is that optimal status that allows the visitor to feel completely involved and concentrated in the visit. According to this model, the flow is an intense and positive propensity to learn that occurs when we have just the right skills to face the challenges we met. If our skills are higher than the challenges we get bored; if the situation is too challenging, we end up anxious. In addition to the clear correspondence between skills and actions required, other aspects necessary for the activation of the flow (and fatigue strength) should be: 1. clear objectives and defined rules 2. immediate unambiguous feedback 3. a positive state of mind 4. a sense of discovery and challenge and, no less important of all 5. intrinsic motivation. Some authors, such as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, say that since the digital age our flow experiences are inevitably compromised. She refers purely to reading, but I believe that this consideration can also apply to museums. Having said that, referring to flow as an ideal goal remains a good reminder for successful experiences.
Tip: as people have different abilities, knowledge and previous experience, make sure that your online experience offers multiple levels of access and allows you to perform different tasks.

Two guys in a museum: the one more skilled find the experience great the other one request for more mediation.
Two guys in a museum: the one more skilled find the experience great the other one request for more mediation.

It all depends on motivation. If visitors, online and in presence, are first of all motivated by the idea of living a pleasant experience, maybe in company, even online we should meet the same expectations. The truth, as Tiina Roppola tells us, is that the museum experience responds in a multidimensional way to different needs that can be simultaneously educational, exceptional, social, leisure oriented or many others.
For Stephen Bitgood, a psychologist who has written a lot about the museum environment and its impact on visitors, “motivation is a function of cognitive-emotional excitement (e.g. level of interest), the amount of work perceived, the number and intensity of distractions” (p.468, 2002). Motivation is powerful, not only because, when intrinsic, it is the key to activate the experience of the flow, but also because it allows us to overcome barriers: if I really want to visit the museum I will make every effort to understand how the computer works even if it is the first time I turn it on. Many hope that the virtual visit is a valid proposal to motivate non-visitors to go there: I have no data about it, but personally I doubt that those who have never been passionate about museums can become so now, unless the experience is able to activate the construction of personal meanings.
Tip: offer a friendly experience, involve the visitors offering free-choice activities, support their own construction of personal meanings asking questions (as well as their opinion in the end).

As we mentioned in the case of the flow, there are many factors that limit our attention, especially if our motivation is not high. The Principle of Cost- Benefit is always valid: we will take an action only if we perceive that its benefits are equal or superior to the efforts. For example it can change a lot if we interact from a phone or a computer: the size of the screen has an impact on our effort, inversely proportional to accessibility. Moreover, if the attention is not stimulated (as it could be in an interactive activity or through the alternation of different learning styles) so many disturbing factors that can limit the involvement, including the table around the computer in disorder. For facilitating attention, virtual visits (as well as the real ones) must be built with the importance of rhythm and timing in mind. Attention decreases over time and this has been made clear by several authors, including Falk, Koran, Dierking, & Dreblow, (1985) for this reason, if we assume visits of fixed duration, at least from the second half of the visit we will have to implement different strategies from the initial ones, just to avoid tiredness and distractions.
Tip: as Susan M. Weinschenk (2011) suggests “if you must hold attention longer than 7–10 minutes, introduce new information or a break”.

On free guided tours the visitor often rejoices in autonomy. As on Google Street he can move freely in the space, but generally the euphoria fades away soon because the experience is always the same: after 10 minutes the experience doesn’t keep him tied enough and boredom arrives, unless he has a specific interest to deepen further. His autonomy is in fact limited because his actions at a distance cannot generate significant consequences. On the other hand, allowing the visitor to make too many choices autonomously risks paralyzing him, as happens in those pages that offer too many resources (but also in this case there are many pros and cons). Once again it is about flow theory.
Tip: facilitate the visitor’s experience by sharing with them some strategies or suggestions for the visit, according to their interests, expectations and time available.

Of course, many considerations are still open. Above all it is important to remember that there are no better solutions than others: everything lies in the quality and human-centered approach with which each proposal is structured. For this reason, it may be useful to remember that human needs are the same, live and online, while on the contrary we may not be the same ones, as we can experience the same visit more than once and perceive (and behave) differently each time, assuming that personal, social and context factors (Falk, 2000) can change constantly.

Other key questions remain certainly how to solicit social interactions (between visitors themselves or families), how to build long-term relationships (between the museum and visitors) and above all how to expand research.

This last point, more than the others, deserves a deepening especially as regards the formative and summative evaluations needed to implement our product thanks to the experience of different users.
That said, thanks to those who continue to experiment, imagining new ways to keep the attention towards museums with the hope (to be extended especially to the visitors we reached) to be able to see each other again soon and for real. And in the meantime, don’t forget to ask your visitors for feedback!

For those who want to go deeper into the topics, here are some references:

Museums for People,

S. Bitgood (2011) Social Design in Museums: The Psychology of Visitor Studies, MuseumsEtc.

S. Bitgood (2002) Environmental Psychology in Museums, Zoos, and other Exhibition Centers, in R. Bechtel & A. Churchman (eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology, John Wiley & Sons.

M. Colombo (2020) Musei e cultura digitale. Fra narrativa, pratiche e testimonianze, Editrice Bibliografica.

J.H. Falk & L. D. Dierking (2000) Learning From Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning, AltaMira.

W. Lidwell, K. Holden e J. Butler (2012) Universal Principles of Design: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decision, Rockport Publisher, Second Edition.

D. Perry (2012) What Makes Learning Fun. Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibit, AltaMira Press.

T. Roppola (2014) Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, Routledge.

E. Steinfeld, J. Maisel (2012) Universal Design. Creating Inclusive Environments, John Wiley & Sons.

S. M. Weinschenk (2011) 100 Things Every Designer needs to know about People, New Riders.

J. + K. Visocky O’Grady (2017) A Designer’s Research Manual, Quarto Publishing, Second edition.

I am a freelance museum professional, practice-led researcher and lecturer, working on accessibility and interpretation. My website is

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