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Museum Meanderings: Road Trip in Search of Great Visitor Experiences

Where museum visitors are treated like guests. Where museum visitors feel connected and valued. Where museum stories are shared in engaging, accessible ways. Where museums and wellbeing are integrated into the museum experience.

by Susan Marie Ward

Peaceful field with trees and fence, excellent visitor experience
Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Museum artifacts might bring visitors in the door, but it’s the visitor experience, the hospitality, the emotional connections, that bring people back and creates a connection to the museum. This trip’s museums ranged from tiny to massive, from grand art museums to tiny special interest museums, and were in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

Fifteen museums, 1600 miles, four states, eight days, tired feet! I've highlighted the most impressive aspects of the museums I visited. The museums I visited included:

Shaker Village, Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Historic site

American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Kentucky

​Specialty history museum

Conner Prairie, Fishers, Indiana

Historic site

Children's museum

Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

Regional history museum

​Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Historic village

Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Art museum

Regional history museum

Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit, Michigan

Specialty history museum

Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

Art museum

Natural history museum

Cincinnati History Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

Regional history museum

Children's museum

Specialty history museum

Historical society

Exhibit/artifact highlights:

  • The Power of Children: Anne Frank, Malala, Ruby Bridges, Ryan White. Exhibit. Indianapolis Children’s Museum. Compelling stories told through videos, artifacts, and quotes. Each of the four children had a gallery dedicated to their contributions.

  • The Power of Industry, Diego Rivera murals. Artifact. Detroit Institute of Arts. Dramatic, bold murals that fill a room, all walls, floor to ceiling.

  • Pilot house from a freighter (an actual pilot house is inside the museum!). Artifact. Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

1923 Model T Touring Car
Exploded Model T Ford
  • “Expanding Horizons: The Evolving Character of a Nation.” Exhibit. Toledo Museum of Art. Creative, thoughtful, and challenging. "This installation celebrates, complicates, and above all, aims to instill curiosity and inquiry about American art." - Toledo Museum of Art

  • Exploded Model T Ford. Artifact. Henry Ford Museum. An opportunity to see all aspects of this car with each part separated and distanced from the one next to it.

Architectural highlights:

  • Impressive entrance. Marble floors. Skylights. Courtyards. A fitting background for an excellent collection of art! Detroit Institute of Arts.

  • Historic homes, cottages, restaurants, workshops, main street shops, chapel, gardens, and more. Eclectic and intriguing! Greenfield Village.

Yellows and oranges, Art Deco swirls.
Cincinnati Museum Center ceiling
  • An Art Deco train station turned into four museums. When renovating the building, they maintained as much of the original architectural features as possible. A dramatic facility! Cincinnati Museum Center.

Hospitality highlights:

  • Detroit Institute of Arts was filled with kind, welcoming, friendly staff and volunteers. Their hospitality included sufficient seating, free coat check, and lockers. I felt very welcomed! A museum to spark curiosity!

  • Friendly, knowledgeable, helpful staff work throughout all aspects of Shaker Village. From the COO to waitstaff to tour guides to front line retail personnel, everyone smiled, answered questions, and were dedicated to Shaker Village. I enjoyed my interactions with everyone! A museum to improve wellness in everyone who visits!

Storytelling/narrative highlights:

  • The Holocaust Museum and Humanity Center creatively and successfully wove together the overall story of the Holocaust with narratives from Cincinnati survivors of the Holocaust. Videos, signage, photos, and artifacts were well-thought out and compelling.

  • The Shaker Music tour at Shaker Village touched the senses as it informed. The tour group sat in the Meeting House as the guide shared historical, worship, and musical information. To this she added signing, “shaking,” and questions of the group. Very well done!

Mental wellness highlights:

Peaceful setting for mental wellness at historic site
Shaker Village Kentucky
  • Shaker Village provides a sense of calm and relaxation as you meander through the village. Open space, fields, attractive architecture, gardens, and places to sit provide an excellent mental health break.

  • The Detroit Institute of Arts had several labels that referenced emotions in relation to the artwork. Also, the numerous benches provided excellent places to contemplate the art and de-stress.

Label highlights:

  • The Detroit Institute of Arts wins the prize for intriguing, compelling labels. Whether they were object labels of gallery labels, they were attractive, informative, and thought-provoking.

  • Information labels at Shaker Village were attractively designed and interesting to read. Many of them were hung from the pegs on the wall that the Shakers are so well-known for.

Seating highlights:

  • The Detroit Institute of Arts had seating in most of the galleries as well as in the hallways. They were well-placed whether you wanted to contemplate a piece of art or take a moment to rest.

Wayfinding highlights:

  • Shaker Village had a map of the site with each building colored the same as the actual building – made it so easy to use! They also had numerous wooden street-corner signs that were helpful throughout the property.

  • Detroit Institute of Arts had crisp, helpful, easy-to-read wayfinding signs throughout the museum. Whether you were looking for an exit, a restroom, the Café, or a gallery, it was listed on the sign.

  • The Cincinnati Museum Center had well-placed signage throughout their Art Deco train station turned into museums. Easy to spot and helpful.

Accessibility highlights:

Indianapolis Children's Museum. Sensory signage.
Sensory information sign
  • The Indianapolis Children’s Museum had signs regarding possible sensory issues for some of the exhibits describing lighting or sounds that might impact neurodivergent visitors.

  • Some of the labels in the Cincinnati History Museum had braille along with the printed information.

  • The American Printing House for the Blind had braille labels, audio information, computers to access, and touchable artifacts. (The museum is now closed for a complete renovation.)


  • The Holocaust Museum in Cincinnati. One of the best museums I’ve ever visited. The planning, research, exhibit design, videos... all aspects were professional and extremely well-done. Their slogan is "History that Inspires Action."

  • Shaker Village has free fire starter kits that you can use if you’re spending the night to light a fire pit as you watch the sunset or drink an evening glass of wine.

Toledo Museum of Art, glass display shelves
Glass Pavilion. Open storage.
  • The Glass Pavilion, a building separate from the main museum at the Toledo Museum of Art has, appropriately, glass walls along with glass-shelved open storage. Beautiful, visual overload!

  • An articulate, informative volunteer at Conner Prairie was a 13-year-old who works two three-hour shifts a week as part of his homeschool program.

  • The Delhi Historical Society reminded me of the important role that small, local historical societies play in preserving history. A tiny, but well-done museum!

Museum road trips provide examples of museums that highlight the visitor experience including hospitality, sufficient seating, engaging storytelling, and helpful wayfinding signage.

What's a museum that you've visited that provided an excellent visitor experience that equaled the art and artifacts?


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