Evaluation of the Islamic World Gallery at the British Museum

Sponsor: British Museum
Sponsor Liaison: Stuart Frost
Student Team: Dian Chen, Yang Gao, Anna Mederer, Meadow Wicke
Abstract: The goal of our project was to assess how visitors engaged with the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World in the British Museum. The Albukhary Gallery replaced the John Addis Gallery, which presented a narrow view of Islamic culture and attracted few visitors according to previous evaluations. We conducted counting, timing, tracing, and surveying to measure visitor engagement in the new gallery and provide a benchmark for future evaluations. From the heat and trace maps we generated, the newly displayed objects (instruments, clothes, and works on paper) presented high attracting and holding power. We recommended that the British Museum provide detailed descriptions and translations for objects, integrate audio clips for displayed instruments, and make family labels obvious.

Final Report

Final Presentation

Executive Summary

The mission of the British Museum is to “inspire and excite visitors … through well-presented and serviced public galleries and study collections” (“Report and accounts,” 2003). In 2005, the British Museum formed the Interpretation team to assess the level of visitor engagement in its galleries. Most recently, the Interpretation team evaluated and redesigned the Islamic World Galleries in the British Museum. In October 2018, the British Museum opened the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, which replaced the older John Addis Gallery of the Islamic World. According to museum staff, the old gallery was outdated, presented a narrow view of the Islamic world, and attracted few visitors. The new gallery aims to shed light on Islamic culture in an innovative way by means of a geographical story about the spread of Islam.

The goal of this project was to assist the British Museum in assessing how visitors engaged with the redisplayed Islamic world collections in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery. We identified the purpose for the modifications and additions to the new gallery to develop a framework for measuring visitor engagement; measured the visitor engagement in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery by documenting visitor movements, behaviors, and perceptions; and developed recommendations aligned with the British Museum’s goals to improve the visitor experience.


We interviewed four key members of the Albukhary Gallery project team due to their different expertise in designing the Islamic World Gallery. The interviews helped us develop a detailed framework to determine which indicators of engagement we would measure and the appropriate methods for measuring each indicator. Based on the indicators of engagement from our framework, we used the evaluative methods of counting, timing, tracing, and surveying to gather both qualitative and quantitative data to measure the engagement in the gallery.


From the data we collected by tracking visitors, we compiled the data and constructed trace and heat maps to display the results. Additionally, we analyzed the surveys and categorized visitor trends from the short answer questions.

Seventy-eight percent of the 4470 visitors we counted entered the gallery through Room 42, the intended entrance. However, of the visitors who entered through Room 42, only 33% turned left upon entering. The gallery project team designed Room 42 for visitors to turn left upon entering in order to read the introductory panels and watch the introductory video located on the left wall. Thus, two-thirds of the visitors missed the introductory materials. These materials provide context to the gallery’s content and are useful in gaining a well-rounded view of Islamic culture.

Furthermore, our trace maps of 110 visitors indicated that most visitors walk along the edges of the gallery and few visited the displays in the middle. Consequently, visitors that missed the introductory materials lacked the context of the center displays and failed to gain an understanding of the history of Islam. While the displays along the sides of the gallery are thematic, the cases in the center provide a chronological narrative about the spread of Islam throughout the world.

The thematic side displays, which follow the most common visitor pathways, presented the highest attracting and holding power. The most commonly visited display,21 Stones, had an average dwell time (holding power) of 33 seconds while the display with the highest overall holding power, Music and performance, had an average dwell time of 47 seconds. The surveyed visitors most commonly reported that their favorite displays were the instruments, clothes, and works on paper, which were new additions to the Albukhary Foundation Gallery. Additionally, the most popular objects were the robe and African lyre. The reported favorite displays and objects are consistent with the displays that have high attracting and holding power. Thus, visitors are engaging with the additions to the gallery as intended by the gallery project team.

The average dwell time in the gallery was only 5.5 minutes, which is significantly less than the average dwell time of 10.5 minutes measured in the John Addis Gallery. The John Addis Gallery may have had a higher dwell time because 65% of the visitors intentionally visited the gallery, whereas only 46% of the visitors intentionally visited the Albukhary Foundation Gallery. However, the Albukhary Foundation Gallery’s dwell time still exceeds the British Museum’s average dwell time of 3.3 minutes for galleries in the museum. A quarter of the surveyed visitors described the Albukhary Foundation Gallery as “interesting,” which supports the new gallery’s higher than average dwell time and suggests that visitors are interested in the content of the gallery.

An important part of our evaluation included collecting visitor demographics in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery in order to draw connections between the types of visitors and their behaviors in the gallery. Eighty-nine percent of the gallery’s visitors were from overseas and 57% were non-English speakers. Of these non-English speakers, 16% reported having difficulty reading the labels due to the lack of translations.

We found that few visitors noticed the family labels, even though the family labels were effective in engaging children with the gallery. Of the 36% of the visitors who noticed the family labels and objects, only one in four used the family labels. All the visitors that used the family labels rated them as helpful (rated as 5 or more on a scale from 0 to 10).

Our interviews with the gallery project team revealed that a goal of the gallery was to challenge misconceptions about Islamic culture by displaying objects from around the world. Fourteen percent of surveyed visitors reported that they felt that the gallery challenged their perceptions of Islamic culture due to the content of the gallery: the bright colors used in Islamic clothing, the diversity of art pieces and musical instruments, and the connections between Islam and other religions.


As the Albukhary Foundation Gallery opened only eight months ago, our evaluation is the first analysis of the visitor engagement in the gallery. We provided eight recommendations for the British Museum to improve visitor engagement in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery. Our recommendations related to three areas of the gallery: facility, design, and content. The British Museum can utilize our recommendations for practical modifications to improve the gallery without radically redesigning the content.

  • Facility
    • Add more seating to the gallery
      • Sixteen percent of the visitors that offered recommendations on the survey suggested that the British Museum should provide more seating in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery.
      • Additional seating would allow people to sit while watching the videos and encourage them to watch longer.
  • Design
    • Provide translations for the objects’ texts
      • Since 57% of visitors in the gallery are non-English speakers and the labels in the gallery are only in English, non-English speaking visitors strongly suggested having translations in their native languages.
    • Include detailed descriptions about the objects
      • Visitors asked that the museum “present more [information] on the label or have an application for more details.” Since the gallery has its own website with detailed descriptions about each object, QR codes could be a way to direct visitors to these descriptions that already exist but are not widely used.
    • Provide a way to view clothing from the front and back
      • Clothing is one of the visitors’ favorite objects in the gallery. Thirteen percent of the visitors wanted the museum to provide a clear view of the clothing from more angles.
    • Make family labels clear and obvious
      • All of the visitors who used the family labels thought they were useful, but only 36% of visitors noticed that there were family labels in the gallery.
  • Content
    • Add a timeline to the regional map
      • The trace map revealed that few visitors went to the cases in the middle of the gallery. During the survey, 16% of visitors reported they were confused about the intention and flow of the middle sections.
    • Include more audio clips for the displayed instruments
      • Instruments have the highest attracting and holding power in the gallery. Additionally, visitors reported that they want to learn how the musical instruments sound.
    • Incorporate a temporary display for underrepresented objects
      • Muslim visitors noted that there are few Qur’an books and little calligraphy in the gallery. Visitors from central Asia and Morocco expressed unhappiness in the lack of objects from their native countries.


The British Museum has plans for further evaluative work on specific displays in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery and will use our data to provide context for how the displays relate to the rest of the gallery. Future evaluations of the gallery can refer to our evaluation as a benchmark for visitor engagement. By gathering information on all aspects of individual visits, the Interpretation team can capture a holistic view of a visitor’s experience in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery to provide a richer understanding of how one engages with the gallery. We hope that our findings and recommendations will help the British Museum refine the visitor experience and increase visitor engagement within the Albukhary Foundation Gallery.