Previous studies of the behaviour of museum visitors and the\ud theories of exhibit effectiveness that have stemmed from them are reviewed and criticised on a number of grounds. The principle criticism is directed at the prevailing notion of the Museum Visitor as a passive being whose actions are determined by internal or external forces over which he or she has no control.\ud A new theory of exhibit effectiveness is presented that accepts the visitor as an active agent who acts in accordance with his or her perceptions of individual displays. Real-world exhibits are conceptualised in terms of their proximity to a putative 'ideal' exhibit as measured by their and the ideal's perceived characteristics; the more characteristics a real-world exhibit shares with the ideal, the more visitors it will attract. The theory seeks to provide an explanation as to why certain exhibits attract visitors and why others fail to do so.\ud A novel system of recording the behaviour of visitors to the\ud Hall of Human Biology at the Natural History Museum using closed circuit television and a real-time event recorder is described; and a study of inter-observer reliability is reported. A large prospective study of visitors to the Hall of Human Biology is reported in which the 'attracting power' of exhibits are defined and measured. In addition new statistics pertinent to the behaviour of individual visitors are defined and related to individuals' interest in the topics covered in the exhibition.\ud Further studies report how the characteristics of exhibits as perceived by visitors were elicited; and how a sample of realworld exhibits and the ideal were evaluated by visitors in terms of these characteristics to provide the necessary data for testing the theory.\ud The implications of the theory for designers of exhibitions are discussed and further avenues for research are suggested
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