Using the Visitor-Identity Model

By Heather King - September 2013


Trainer, L., Steele-Inama, M., & Christopher, A. (2012). Uncovering visitor identity: A citywide utilization of the Falk visitor-identity model. Journal of Museum Education, 37(1), 101–114.

Nine cultural institutions in Denver worked together on a study to determine what motivates museum-goers, using John Falk’s visitor-identity model as their theoretical guide and analytical instrument. The results prompted the individual institutions to reflect on their programme development and learning outcomes, their marketing strategies, and their staff professional development.

Theoretical Basis

Falk’s (2009) model of visitor identity describes five identities that define visitors’ motivations for visiting museums and other cultural settings. He argues that these identities can be used to categorize visitors’ motivational needs and roles, which in turn may inform sector professionals’ efforts to meet visitors’ expectations. Institutions can thereby increase attendance—and thus revenue—and, at the same time, create a community of learners among their visitors.

Falk’s typology builds on the work of several prior theorists, including Packer and Ballentyne (2002), who proposed five categories of motivation: 1) learning and discovery, 2) passive enjoyment, 3) restoration, 4) social interaction, and 5) self-fulfilment. Falk’s model calls these motivations “little i” identities. “Little i” identities are fluid and may change with the context or situation. “Capital I” identities, by contrast, are fixed; they include such characteristics as age or ethnicity.

Falk’s five identities also categorize visitors by their motivations:

• Explorers are curiosity-driven; they expect to find something to grab their attention. 

• Facilitators are primarily focused on supporting the engagement and experience of others in their group. 

• Professional/ hobbyists seek a particular content-related objective. 

• Experience seekers perceive the museum as an important destination. They want to have “been there, done that.” 

• Rechargers use the museum as a refuge or a place of restoration.

Critics of Falk’s model question the categorisations, the unconventional definitions of identity, and the methods of data collection he used to distinguish the categories. However, in the current study, Trainer, Steele-Inama, and Christopher note that Falk’s underlying premises—that visitor identity is fluid and that motivations are key in determining visit nature and frequency—can help museums and similar institutions understand current visitation patterns and develop future programmes.

Research Design 

In the summer of 2010, nine Denver institutions employed Falk’s instrument to categorize their visitors. The institutions, representing a range of sizes, budgets, and types of content, were the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Butterfly Pavilion, Children’s Museum of Denver, Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Zoo, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Molly Brown House Museum, and Wildlife Experience. Adult visitors at each institution were asked to select one of 20 possible reasons for visiting. The choices were presented on cards containing a picture and a phrase; for example, one card shows one adult explaining to another, “It relates to the kind of work I do, and I find it useful.”

The findings suggest that each institution had a particular predominant visitor type. Visitors to the Denver Art Museum were Explorers, eager to discover the collection, whilst visitors to the Wildlife Experience were mainly Facilitators, keen to promote the learning of those in their group. Visitors to the Botanic Gardens were Rechargers wanting to get away from everyday life.

So how does knowing the motivation of visitors inform practice? The experience of Denver Zoo—a site where Facilitators predominate—is offered as a case study.

The zoo collected data beyond that provide by the Falk-based study to determine whether visitor demographics and identities would vary on free and non-free days and at different times of the year. They found that while free-day visitors appeared to be different from non-free-day visitors, their motivations were the same: to support the learning of others. Adults were motivated to visit the zoo not to learn for themselves but to provide learning experiences for their children. In high summer, tourists visited Denver Zoo to spend quality time with friends and family. In response to these findings, Denver Zoo led staff-wide training on visitor motivations so that staff members could share a common language about visitors’ needs and wants. The zoo also revised its marketing strategies, targeting Facilitators by promoting quality educational experiences. Zoo management began to develop new mobile phone apps to serve particular identities.

Implications for Practice 

As the authors of this paper note, the results of this study prompt as many questions as answers. Nonetheless, the study challenged each institution’s views about its visitors and led to changes in visitor offerings. An analysis like this, particularly when conducted in conjunction with other institutions, facilitates conversations and reflection. The Falk typology and similar models could arguably help informal science institutions to understand their visitors and therefore make stronger, more strategic decisions.


Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and museum visitor experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

Packer, J. & Ballentyne, R. (2002). Motivational factors and the visitor experience: A comparison of three sites. Curator, 45, 173–183.