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Threads of Communication

Researching visitor reactions to Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes
Tapestry-Woven Tunic with Staff- Bearing Creature in Profile

Elizabeth Bolander Director of Communications and Research



Tapestry-Woven Tunic with Staff- Bearing Creature in Profile Camelid fiber and cotton. 97 x 144.9 cm. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation, Inc., 86.224.109 


More than two years ago, in June 2010, the Cleveland Museum of Art began a comprehensive audience research project that focused on the special exhibition Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes. Various museums throughout the world undertake such visitor studies to try to better understand the wants and needs of their members and visitors. The museum has made a significant commitment to this area by creating an internal team of evaluators. Through discussion sessions, surveys, and interviews, these studies ultimately help museum staff members understand our audience and how best to create a visitor-friendly experience.

For the Wari exhibition, the museum developed an extensive three-phase research project to help with interpretive and marketing planning. Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project was conducted by the museum’s internal team along with the research firm Slover Linett Strategies. The research included discussions with members, visitors, and nonvisitors; storytelling exercises with members and visitors; and a survey conducted on-site at the museum. Each phase added to an overall understanding of the key question we hoped to answer: how can we make this exhibition accessible to our members and visitors?

What did we find? The research uncovered a significant amount of information, ranging from basic findings about what the respondents knew about the Wari culture to the expectations and goals visitors have when visiting art museums. While we anticipated and confirmed that most potential visitors knew little about the Wari, we were happy to learn that aspects of this little-known culture sparked interest. The most notable positive reaction was a strong desire to learn more about how the Wari used their works of art as a means of communication, since they had no written language. This response, along with many other findings, has helped the museum’s curatorial, interpretive, and marketing teams develop programming and other components of the exhibition.

In this comprehensive study, the museum integrated traditional, education-focused audience research tactics with marketing research tools—an innovative approach in the international field of visitor studies. The tactics used in the study and the results have been presented
at two museum conferences. 

The museum conducts studies about exhibitions, programs, and other projects throughout the year. If you are interested in participating in audience research projects, send an e-mail with your preferred contact details to audienceresearch@clevelandart.org.  


Cleveland Art, September/October 2012