John Falk, Wellbeing in Museums

Dr. John H. Falk has spent a lifetime researching museum experiences. His work has significantly impacted the way that we, the museum professionals, think about the places we work, the roles we can play in people’s lives, and the interests and needs of our visitors. Falk is a must-read for all of us. As we consider our understanding of wellbeing in museums, Falk has recently released a book on the subject, The Value of Museums – Enhancing Societal Well-Being (2022). This module offers only a glimpse of his research but includes a number of important concepts that resonate with our work.

First, Falk’s 2009 work on visitor motivations identifies five identity/motivation categories that he theorizes that every museum visitor fits into. Interestingly, an individual can fit into multiple categories, even over the span of a single visit. The categories are:

  • Explorer – wants to see and learn something new, often wanders until they find something of interest
  • Facilitator – is interested in supporting the experience of someone else who attends with them
  • Experience Seeker – wants to see the ‘attractions’, and make memories
  • Professional/Hobbyist – wants to learn, to see and study specific things related to their interest
  • Recharger – wants to relax and restore themselves in a peaceful or inspiring place

Each of these identities/motivations serves a need or interest for the person in the moment, and affects what they see, how they connect with it and what they take away from their experience.

With his new work, Falk reconsiders visitor experiences through the lens of wellbeing. He suggests that rather than framing wellbeing in terms of “ happiness [or other superficial theories]”  it describes a “biological process”. This “biological process” is about achieving balance. For Falk, wellbeing is a process of survival. He also sees museum visits as a necessary part of that balance.

He identifies four categories of wellbeing, into which a number of related elements are grouped. In fall 2022 he added a fifth category which identifies a new, unique concept that he says has only emerged in recent history. 

These categories are:

  • Personal wellbeing – which includes wonder, interest, identity fostering a sense of belonging and stronger sense of self
  • Intellectual wellbeing – which captures learning and curiosity, problem solving and the ability to gather and apply information
  • Social wellbeing – which centres on relationships, connections between loved ones, shared experiences and coherence with others
  • Physical wellbeing – which brings people to gather together, to interact, explore, learn with a healthy, safe, anxiety-free and restorative environment
  • Global wellbeing – which occurs when a person feels they are contributing to the greater good, the just and equitable treatment of humanity

It is interesting to consider how these two theories overlap and intersect when we think about wellbeing in museums – where each of the visitor types may find the most impact on their own wellbeing.

Sources:

Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the museum visitor experience. Left Coast Press.

Falk, J.H. (2022). The Value of Museums, Enhancing Societal Wellbeing. Rowman & Littlfield.

Falk, J. H. blog post https://www.instituteforlearninginnovation.org/global-well-being-a-5th-dimension-of-value/

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