European Commission - 7th Framework Programme European Museums and Libraries in/of the age of migrations last updated: February 2015

Empowering the visitor: process, progress and protest

1-3 November 2012

Tunis, Tunisia |



There exists a body of literature that discusses the symbolic and real characteristics of museums. Since the 1970s, the value attached to museums and the appearance of copious research on their visitors have shown that we now have different perceptions of and attitudes towards what is known as the “museum visitor”. Already museums and their visitors occupy different positions on the scale. Visitors, sitting at the opposite end from the museum, have begun to receive both an encouragement and an invitation to express their ideas and needs, and this defines our use of what we mean by the verb, “to empower.”


The term “empower” comes from the Latin verb ‘potere’ which means ‘to be able’. The prefix ‘em’ means ‘cause to be or provide with’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines to empower as to give someone the authority or power to do something. Some authors, however, do not approve of such a definition as bestowing power upon or making powerful, but believe that we must move away from correlations between empowerment and power per se. They consider that empowerment is not power itself, but a process by which the latter is only bestowed as an end or for a purpose. Others argue that power has the capacity not only to impose one’s will, but also to set the terms of agreement.


While “empower” is not easily defined, it has been used extensively in many different fields. The long-term link between this terminology and minority ethnic groups, education, social work and management studies has also influenced museums’ use of the concept of empowerment as referring to the connection between museums and society/communities or museum management. Although empowerment can be viewed as a continuum stretching from an individual to a collective empowerment (whether organizational or community based), we will address here the individual perspective, as our main interest lies in the relationship between the visitor and the museum.


Since the 1980s, several studies have used the term “empowered visitor” to describe those who are likely to take an active role in telling museums what they want and need. To understand the visitor’s thinking in this regard, existing research has pointed out the need for further development in order to understand both the visitors and the theories and techniques of collecting the relevant data. For the role of visitors to be a significant part of the museum world, professional museum personnel need to create situations in which visitors may express themselves in a way that reflect their own attitudes – a process far more structured than that of anecdote gathering.


If we perceive empowerment as the use of certain techniques to transform those without power into positions of equality with those already having power, we must also consider to what the word “power” refers in this context. We believe that the power of visitors lies not only in our making demands on them in relation to the aspect of the services that they provide, but also in the sensory experiences they enjoy when they visit museums and in the learning aspects of self-growth. Perhaps it is the latter that is most important. Empowerment, therefore, represents both a process and an outcome involving visitors’ ability to recognize their value and to meet self-determined goals by linking them with museum resources, helping them gain self-knowledge and completing certain tasks. How should we define a positive visitor experience? How, moreover, can we recognize that visitors also have the power and the right to construct meaning and that they can explain the processes involved? Can we more clearly understand, respect, and respond to visitors’ expectations of museums? These fundamental questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered and are worthy of our continued diligence. At the same time, we need to understand that the concept of power should not to be seen as a one-dimensional term; it is not our purpose to take power away from museums. Rather, the goal of empowering visitors is to develop visitors’ own power while respecting museums for what they are.



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