What annoys me most with museums is that, one way or another, they still all have this patronizing Renaissance feel despite all the efforts to make them modern and interactive.
In my view, Museums:
- Are intimidating & accessible only to a very few.
- Offer an on-site experience only. Nothing before the visit, nothing after the visit.
- Are mostly boring; taking no advantage whatsoever of the technologies available to make things cool.
- Are oblivious to the fact that the competition is harsh. And it’s not just amongst other museums. People have plenty of opportunities to spend their time and money, on- and offline. Instead of going to the museum they usually go shopping. What went wrong? How can shopping be more interesting than what museums have to offer? And yet, to most people, this is the case.
The Perfect Museum Experience
I will come back to all of this at the end of this article. But first I would like to share my vision of the perfect museum experience. It is both an online and offline experience. The museum experience starts way before I enter the building and potentially should never end.. It tells me stories. It connects things to one another. It connects people with one another. It provides several layers of knowledge. In short, it is fun.
Before the visit
My experience starts outside of the building. One could imagine all sorts of scenarios meant to grab my attention; for instance:
- On social media: with cool videos, contests, fun facts about artefacts, coupons, whatever.
- On geolocated apps and maps. As soon as I am there, I want to be informed by the museum. Or even offering me a free coffee at the café for my first visit when I’m in the neighbourhood.
- On price comparators and gift websites: with items from the museums’ shops showing up, reminding me of the museum’s very existence.
But where I would really like my journey to begin is on the web. I am so curious and so interested in almost everything that I spend hours browsing, to find all sorts of answers to my neverending questions. Why does no authoritative content from museums ever show up in the search results? Never ever! No guided visits on YouTube. No in-depth analysis of the topic that I am researching on a blog or a website. Not even an advert for an exhibition on this very theme. I mean, if museums can’t grab my attention, whose are they going to get?
Additionally, determining the trustworthiness of any piece of content on the web is a real challenge. Yet people trust museums . Sharing their content on the web would create the perfect win-win situation: Museums would get my attention; I would get trustworthy content.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that my journey begins on the web, which is the perfect environment for browsing, linking media together, allowing for various levels of reading (for instance contextual glossaries, access to further readings and academic publications, etc.) The content I find is so interesting that I decide to go to the museum and look for practical information on the homepage (for… it is on the homepage, right?) And so, I eventually get there.
During my ideal visit
When there, my experience is even better than online. I can actually touch stuff. I also get information in hierarchical layers (my “levels of reading”), but in an even better version involving all of my senses. For instance, my hands can play with the actual artefact (or a mere copy if fragile) whilst my senses of sight and hearing are immersed in an augmented reality, showing the object in its historical context.
Say the artefact is a sextant for instance. Can you imagine how many stories can be told about it rather than your typical boring museum card “Troughton sextant, circa 1790, please do not touch”…
In my perfect museum, I can play with the object, dig into its past, explore the context of its creation, understand the problems it solved; I can think of the people who made the object possible and of those who needed it. Eventually, I can understand how it changed the world…
But I can also be immersed into its present and future: Now that sextants are not around anymore, how do we determine latitude? That opens the way to mind-blowing stories, doesn’t it? And what about the future? Could sextant-like devices be used by the first human explorers of Mars for instance? Also, what if I want to get a toy sextant for my niece, is that possible at the museum’s shop? Can I order it now, so that I don’t have to queue and wait for the gift wrapping on my way out?
Of course, the sextant is not the only attraction. I am guided through the exhibition(s) with my smartphone or my smartwatch telling me in real time me what to do next, according to the context and to my taste. I could either dig a bit further into what I am exploring right now, or see the next thing on the list. Whatever I do, I can give feedback in real time as to whether I like what i am doing or not. This provides the museum with the material to offer custom recommendations for the rest of my visit (“people who like this also like that, it’s on the 4th floor, you would never have thought of it, but you’re going to love it!” or “you hated this? Why don’t you try that?” or “you’re getting fed up of queues aren’t you? Maybe it’s time for a break. There are x free tables at this floor’s café right now, just turn left”.)
My experience is not just about the exhibition
So let’s try the café … In my perfect museum, no trace can be found of the typical patronizing signs with long lists of forbidden behaviours, demanding that I watch my stupid kids and their filthy crumbs. Instead, the café is just a friendly place, where I can recharge my batteries and the kids can customize their ice-creams (and eat them wherever they want!)
If I could find food and drinks that have some sort of connexion with the exhibitions that would be a fantastic bonus.
Another plus would be the possibility to engage with people with whom I share common interests. Online, this would translate into some sort of topic-driven forum. However, maybe a person I would like to talk to is sitting here right next to me at the café. In this case, no need for a forum. Provided we both gave our explicit consent, the app could inform us of our proximity: “A person who also enjoyed this and that is sitting at the next table. Don’t be shy, say hi.”
A tailored experience
Back to my perfect exhibition. Have I mentioned that not one single boring poster can be found there? You know the ones covered in depressing smallprint (and usually only in the local language)?
Of course, there are none of these so-called interactive touchscreen interfaces either; the kind that never works how you expect, obviously optimized for demos, with their never ending animations and transitions.
All of these communication tools from another age (posters, demo touchscreens) have been replaced by personal devices (either my own watch/phone/tablet or a smart terminal provided by the museum). Several wireless headsets can be connected to one personal device, so that I can share the experience with my family, if we so wish.
With indoor geolocation technology, the device would make it possible for the next artefact to bring itself to my attention, and start telling its story; offering a journey through time and space if I am interested. The device enables me to ask questions, which can either be answered by a FAQ (if they are fairly standard), or even by a video IM conversation with an expert, if the museum can afford my greedy need for more information. A museum assistant could even show up at that point, to make my offline experience truly worth the journey.
The personal device would not only help with the cultural content, of course. It also shows the nearest bathroom, the waiting time of the various queues, where and when to catch the next bus or how to get back to the car park.
After the Visit
This was an awesome experience.
Back home, I’m in withdrawal already… I log on to the museum’s website or app. I can review my route in the building, compare it with other (anonymous) visitors’ journeys. I can also retrieve and bookmark the information I found especially valuable and forgot to tag on my phone during the visit. If I missed a piece of information regarding my beloved sextant (because, you know, kids always choose the best time for an urgent visit to the bathroom), well, it is available online now. I can also review whatever I missed and plan my next visit, print the ideal route, and subscribe to notifications whenever interesting new content is available. I can suggest ideas, and even get rewarded for sharing the experience with my friends. I can even make new friends by connecting to the people who liked the same things I did on existing social networks (via a dedicated hashtag for example).
Back to Reality: What do I currently get instead of this?
In most museums, unfortunately, this is what I get:
- Signs telling me not to touch anything, not to talk, almost not to breathe.
- An impression that whatever I do, or say, or even feel, is wrong and deeply uneducated.
- A display of seemingly random objects, with no storytelling whatsoever to connect them with anything, unless I book a guided tour with no preview option available. It is also usually only available in the local language.
- The same fat bald head proudly standing right in front of whatever I am trying to look at since he got in just before I did, and there is only one direction to the visit.
- Pathetic audioguides. I’m sorry I have no other way of describing them. Seriously, who designs that crap? (I mean, both the device and its content).
- An urge to fall asleep or leave, both overridden by an even more urgent need to console my disappointed kids and explain that museums are not always that bad.
Change will take time
I think that what needs to change is a mindset that is at least as old as the very concept of The Museum. Here are two interesting pieces of information I stumbled on whilst trying understand how to change things which seem to confirm my suspicions:
- The stats of museum visitors. Let’s take the example of the City of Geneva , here in Switzerland (but it works pretty much anywhere on the planet).¾ of the people who visit museums have a University level degree.
However, only ¼ of the population of Switzerland has attended university.
Whatever they say, museums are not popular (in the sense of “for people”). They are still designed by and for the elites of the academic world.
- The etymology. The English “museum” comes from the Latin “museum“, which is originally from the Ancient Greek “Μουσεῖον” (Mouseion), which denotes a place or temple dedicated to the Muses (the patron divinities in Greek mythology of the arts) . The Mouseion was not a popular institution, it was used exclusively by scholars and philosophers. The concept died with the fire which destroyed the Library of Alexandria and was only restored by the Princes of the Renaissance in Italy and, then again, only for the Princes’ guests.Later, the early “public” museums weren’t as public as you might expect. They were accessible only by the middle and upper classes and it could be difficult to gain entrance. To quote WIkipedia: “When the British Museum opened to the public in 1759, it was a concern that large crowds could damage the artefacts. Prospective visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for admission, and small groups were allowed into the galleries each day”. 
I feel as if this is the kind of mindset we are still experiencing today. You wish you could have a fantastic experience, involving all your senses and telling a fantastic story. Instead, you are only allowed to look, as long as you don’t touch anything.
If this kind of attitude has not changed in two millennia, why would it suddenly change now?
Call me a techno-enthusiast, but I truly believe that if this change is ever to happen, it has to be now. I am pretty sure that these old habits have more to do with the power of unchallenged traditions than with some foul elitist ideology. During the Renaissance it might have been difficult to communicate with the crowds. Nothing is easier today; the web has changed the rules. For instance, when a column written by a 15 year-old boy in 2001 went online in October 2012 (don’t ask me what took so long), entitled “Why Museums Suck” , it actually started an interesting conversation  amongst the community of professionals, who were willing to exist in the heart of the public and not just in fading memories somewhere in their brain.
In 2015 we are certainly quite far from what I wish the perfect museum experience to be, but I am pretty sure that we will get there eventually. Well, at least my kids should. And their kids will.
The technology is ready and affordable. You can already see Louis Pasteur in context on your tablet [A] or visit the Acropolis Museum with nobody around to bother you [B], zoom in and see things in extraordinary detail [C], seek additional information as you wish to by just clicking the [≣Details] button.
Away from the keyboard, some current initiatives are already pretty promising  and [7a] and head in this direction (though they still draw an insuperable line between the physical and the digital experience). The change will have to happen in baby steps anyway and will take time. Shifting age-old habits never happens overnight. I strongly encourage the museums to take the first step in the right direction, by abandoning their obvious contempt for popular culture, and by taking a page out their competitors’ playbook. By competitors, I mean anyone or anything winning the battle for attention: Ikea for instance. The only word that comes to mind if I think of the Ikea experience on a Saturday is torture and yet, people are lining up to get in. Their genuine attachment and loyalty to the brand is no coincidence: it’s called marketing. Such emotional attachments don’t just happen, one has to build relationships. Museums must develop this expertise if they want to reach new audiences; for instance among the people who go to Ikea on Saturdays and watch reality shows on Sundays.
A promising example
In my eyes, the Science Museum in London has started this transition. The exhibitions are still not quite as immersive as in my vision, everything is still in English, making the experience inaccessible to many foreign visitors… And their WiFi sucks (every time it drops out,, you have to open your phone’s browser and accept the terms again otherwise, your apps – such as your email app – just don’t work) but despite all this, as far as communication is concerned, the institution has come a long way in the past ten years!
The museum now has a strong and recognizable brand identity; a fantastic shop (it is so cool that I’m sure it actually drags people into the building that would never have come otherwise), and an efficient merchandising strategy: when you find a science-related toy anywhere in the UK branded “Science Museum”, you know you can buy it.
The museum has managed to turn the cafés and picnic areas into fun places for kids and the website is simply amazing . Yes. If you know me personally, you know how picky I am when it comes to websites. But the Science Museum’s website pretty close to perfection. It is super user-friendly and answers all the questions you may have and the informational architecture is user-centric (you find information according to your needs rather than to the fancies of museum-geeks). Fresh content is pushed to you through immersive banners and recommendations are made to plan your visit and make the most of it. In one word: Awesome. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the first steps towards something that resembles my vision of what museums should be like. I guess we’ll find out in a few years.
Where’s the Money?
I can picture the readers’ reactions, especially in the museum industry. “Haha, Mr Smartypants. Do you know what kind of budget we are on? Come and try to pay for this yourself if you think you are so clever“. Fair enough. However, I’m not saying it is possible with your current budget. There are more ways than you think to get a bigger budget:
- Pitch your budget instead of only copy-pasting the same spreadsheets from one year to the other. Make your sponsors dream by giving them a preview of what your dream museum will be.
- Accept micro-donations. You’d be surprised at how much you can make by simply asking to people to give what they can, online and offline, without patronizing them, and sincerely stating that every penny counts.
- Find new sponsors, if this is possible in your context of course, and pitch to them!
- Sell! Offline and online. It’s not “dirty” to make money. In fact, people love museum shops. It’s about time you made them sexy!
Of course, we cannot help you turn your museum into this perfect experience overnight, but we can definitely help you understand your public’s expectations, improve your brand, your signage, your website, your shop. We would love to have a chat with you.
Thank you for reading!
Thanks to the most awesome Puyo for the fantastic illustrations! Thanks to my friend Jo Greaney and to Nicole C. (who doesn’t like to be quoted) for their attentive proofreading and most valued corrections.
Links and refs
 Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society
A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association March 2013 – page 2
 My ideal museum café almost already exists. It can be found on the 3rd floor of the British Science Museum in London.