How to Review a Museum

Mark Walhimer Museum Planning Leave a Comment

While in Baltimore for the Association of Science Technology Centers conference I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a wonderful museum!  At least once a week I visit a museum, in my head I have a system for how I rate museums.  When I am walking through the museum I am looking for “constancy”, are all of the “parts” of the museum adding up to a consistant “whole” that builds a brand?  There is not a right or wrong approach, as long as the parts add up to a consistent message.  I don’t even have to like the museum, museums attract their own audience and if the brand of the museum is consistant and earnest, it will attract an audience.  Whether the audiance the museum attracts can support the museum is a different question.  Many of the criteria for reviewing a museum are related to “hospitality”, those related to hospitality have an * .  Below is my “system” for reviewing museums.


  1. * Website – Can you quickly find the address, hours and admission price?
  2. * Price – Is the museum fairly priced?
  3. * Travel to Museum – How easy is it to find museum?  How is the signage directing you to the museum? Is the museum visible from a major street of highway?
  4. * Parking Lot – Is there pay parking? How are you greeted in the parking lot?
  5. * Exterior Architecture – How does the exterior “feel” Is the exterior welcoming? Academic? Fun? Is it easy to find the entrance?  Does the exterior “foreshadow” the interior experience?


  1. Threshold – Is there a “threshold”?  Do you understand or have a sense that you are entering a new experience?
  2. * Welcome – How are you welcomed at the entrance?  Does someone orient you to the experience?  Tell you where the bathroom is?  Today’s programs? Given a map? Is there a cell phone or smart phone tour?  Are their docents?  Does the entrance set your expectations for the museum?  Is your sense of the museum raised? Do you understand how to act within the museum?  Hands On?  Library Voice?
  3. * Staff – How are the staff dressed?  Is their attire consistant with the message of the museum?  How do the staff speak with me? as a friend? as a student?  Are they caring and considerate?
  4. * Bathroom – Is it easy to find? Is the bathroom clean? Is the bathroom appropriate for the museum?  Kid height sinks? Fun facts?
  5. * Top Floor – (museum close from the top floor down, so I always start at the top floor, often I am showing up with little time). If the museum is only on one floor, go the furthest corner from the entrance and start your visit there.  Unless the experience is linear, I always start at the end and work my way to the beginning.  I am more interested in how content is delivered than the actual content, so like proof reading it is easier to “read backwards” and catch “typos”.  As you walk forward, let the museum “wash over you”, how do you feel?  I am very sensitive to museums that make me feel stupid.  Is there a unified message of the gallery?  Is there a clear and “museum voice”.
  6. * Hierarchy – Is there a hierarchy of information? What am I going to see?  What am I seeing? and what have I seen?, Is there Gallery Title? An Area Title? an Exhibit Title?  Is there a way to gain additional information on the topic? A library? A website? A docent?  Are the layers of content defined? Color-coded?  Organized?
  7. * Look and Feel – Who are you in the exhibition?  Does the exhibition communicate how to act in the gallery and the desired outcomes of your visit?  Are you an adventurer? A scholar? A kid?  Who you are in the exhibition is communicated in text, color palate, does each gallery have its own “look and feel” or does the museum have a consistent “look and feel”.
  8. * Accessibility – Is the museum ADA compliant?  Is the museum friendly to senior citizens? Is the museum kid friendly?  Is the museum accessible to visitors of different learning styles?
  9. Collection? Is the collection consistent with the expectations set by the experience? Is the collection the best of the discipline? Is the collection displayed well?   Is the collection placed in a context?
  10. Collection Care? I am a museum geek, I always look to see what brand lighting the museum is using, is the museum using UV filters on the lights, Is the framed work framed in non glare and or UV plexus / glass?  Is there condition monitoring in the gallery?  Is there security hardware on the framed pieces?
  11. 2’, 10’, 40’ – How does the gallery look from 40?’, from 10’?, from 2’? Can you understand the overall from 40’, but have a sense that there are surprises for you at 2’?  It is important to build surprises into museum experiences.
  12. *Area-to-Area – I try to think big to small, by the first gallery you will have a good sense of the overall museum.  Now walk gallery to gallery and see how the galleries flow, are there maps to find your way?  Does the flow of content from gallery to gallery make “sense”?
  13. Personal – Are the stories of the galleries personal?  Is the museum experience personalized to me?
  14. 2’, 4’, 6’ – How is the content laid out on the wall, is there content at kids height 2’? at 4’ elementary school, at adult height 6’
  15. * Reflection – Are there benches in the galleries?  Places for people to sit and think?
  16. * Discussion – Are exhibits arranged to encourage discussion between strangers?  Between family members
  17. Innovation – How innovative is the museum?
  18. Design – Is the museum of high design?
  19. *Restaurant – Is the restaurant consistent with the entire museum experience?
  20. *Museum Store – Is the museum store consistent with the entire museum experience?

Post Visit

  1. *Parking Lot Talk – What is on your mind walking back to your car or public transportation?  Are you energized?  Excited about the content of the museum?
  2. * Context – Is the museum placed in a context?  Johnson space center is down the street from Johnson space center.  Does the museum give a behind the senses view of a local attraction?
  3. * Follow Up – Is there a way to gain additional information about the content of the museum?  Website?

Looking at my list I realized that many of the items on rating system of museum is related to hospitality.  I am becoming more interested in how museums rate themselves compared to how visitors rate them.  I have set up a survey of a hierarchy of the importance of how museums are viewed by visitors.  Email me if your museum is interested in sharing the survey with your museum membership.

Link to Museum Planner Survey:

Museum Satisfaction Survey

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