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How Do I Get There from Here? The Visitor Experience Often Needs Improving

Signs, maps, and arrows are part of how museums help you move from one place to another. They don't always do a great job.


by Susan Marie Ward

Arrow indicating which direction to go in a museum. Poor wayfinding diminishes the visitor experience
Good navigating and wayfinding in museums improves the visitor experience

How do I get from the parking lot to the front door? Where do I buy tickets? How do I get out to the gardens? If visitors can't easily maneuver through and around a museum or historic site, their visitor experience deteriorates.


It happened to me!


As you read my list below, keep in mind that I'm someone very familiar with museums and I have a very good sense of direction. However, these incidence did give me pause, and a bit of annoyance!

Path through grasses and bushes
Paths need wayfinding, navigation information
  • At a major art museum in Ohio, I walked up the steps to what looked like the front door and the doors were locked. There was no sign explaining that these doors were not used. When I did find the right door, there was no sign even stating the name of the museum.

  • At an art museum in South Carolina, after parking the car in the parking garage, I couldn't figure out how to get from the car to the museum - no sign.

  • At a museum in Virginia, I walked out of the museum into a beautiful courtyard, but the door locked after me and there was no information to help me figure out how to get back in.

  • At a historic house in South Carolina, I was walking through the expansive gardens and grounds, and couldn't figure out how to get back to the main house - numerous paths and no signage. The map I'd been given was only of the house and nearby garden.

  • At a historic battlefield in Tennessee, after parking the car, I didn't know which direction to go to purchase my tickets - no map, no sign.

  • At a historical society in Michigan, the restrooms were tucked away in a corner with no signage to direct visitors towards them. I had to walk back to the front desk to ask where they were.

Wayfinding--comprehensive navigation tools--impact the visitor experience

I'll admit, poor wayfinding, drives me nuts! To create a positive visitor experience, museums need to make the visit easy. I'm not suggesting it's inexpensive. I'm not suggesting that it's easy. But if museums want to set the right tone for a positive visitor experience, wayfinding, navigating, needs to work from the moment a visitor arrives, until they walk or drive away.


Wayfinding includes all of the tools that help a visitor move through an environment. Think of how you make your way through an airport you've never been to using signs, arrows, and colored lines on the floor to find your gate or the restrooms or luggage or a taxi. Museums often under-focus on the necessity of good wayfinding. A few permanent signs here, a handout map there, and it's done.


"The purpose of wayfinding," according to Soulful Creative, "is to educate and inform a visitor of their new surroundings to help familiarize themselves with the features, amenities and function of the space they find themselves in." It's not easy nor is it inexpensive. However, if museums want we the visitors to be happy, to have a positive visitor experience, to return to the museum, to tell our friends about the museum, they need to consider the importance of wayfinding.


Have you been to a museum where you had either a very good or a very challenging experience with wayfinding, navigating your way around the museum or grounds?

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