Mrs. Unglitch (Jacquelyn Tolksdorf) executed Ethnographic Research for The National Museum of the Great Lakes to help the museum redesign its galleries to meet the needs of different visitor personas.

The research was framed to serve the museum’s larger goal to understand its audience better, including the types of visitors that come to the museum.

First we designed a standardized survey to explore visitors’ demographics and also to define types of visitors by how they prefer to experience and engage with environmental museums. Data was captured over two seasons (Summer and Winter) to explain any seasonal differences.

We confirmed that the museum has a strong regional and local audience with many connections to The Great Lakes. We also expanded the museum’s understanding of this audience by defining four visitor types—Open Enthusiasts, Maritime History Buffs, Independent Thinkers, and Tentative Environmental Activists. These visitor types value different experiences and ways of engaging with history but do not differ significantly in their demographic makeup. We also found some interesting (but not surprising) differences in how White and non-White visitors experience history at the museum, including that White visitors are more likely to agree that they saw “history that represented multiple perspectives,” and visitors who identify as Black placed greater value on “seeing myself and my experiences reflected in the history through out the Great Lakes”—both of which are key priorities for all visitors to see and feel in the new exhibitions. We also saw generational differences in how visitors experienced the history at the museum, with young adults (18-34) less likely to have “made a personal connection to a story” and to have “seen themselves represented in the stories and artifacts.”

Soon after the study’s completion, the museum began using the audience research findings to inform the design of the Fall 2023 galleries, including posing important questions about whose stories are being highlighted in the exhibition design and how to best interpret those stories for the broader public.