How museums engage visitors in a digital age

Digital technologies are opening up new dimensions of the museum experience and turning passive audiences into active content generators, as Gensler's Marina Bianchi examines.

March 03, 2016 |
GenslerOn
How museums engage visitors in a digital age

Museums such as the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum are exploring new ways to engage with audiences by investing in technologies to make the experience more interactive. Photo courtesy Gensler

With the decrease of available public funding for cultural projects and institutions, museums are challenged to prove their relevance and set themselves at the forefront of consumer attractions to engage more visitors and increase revenue.

Visitor experience is now at the centre of a changing museum culture. This involves making better use of museums’ content and elevating the offering to create more holistic, engaging and quality visitor experiences.

study by Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, “Never mind the width feel the quality,” divides museum visitors into four categories: browser, follower, searcher and researcher, with different requirements in terms of selection, display and interpretation of objects within an exhibition. The museum ought to encourage visitors to move up the hierarchy and engage proactively.

How can museums transform visitors from passive museum audience to active content generator, and from visitor to friend and follower?

Digital technology allows a dramatic increase in access to information, cultural education and interaction. It may facilitate and improve the consumption of culture. Visitors should be able to access as much or as little information as desired, pick and choose their way through an exhibition and create a storyline. The museum's experience should be mobile, digital and personal. 

Typically, planners and exhibition designers are tasked to design spaces that forgo any notion of digital design. Exhibition spaces today are still designed with text captions and audio guides. Visitors to other types of attractions instead are typically welcomed with media-rich installations, which seamlessly merge digital and physical into a more engaging experience—a digitally enhanced space.

 

The Rubens house, Antwerp- Apple iBeacon technology applied to classical art. Photo courtesy Gensler.

 

Digital technologies and social media may more easily allow people to be creators of culture. For example, the Dutch open culture data initiative that, together with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, launched Rijksstudio, bringing art images into public domain, encouraging their use, collection reuse and interpretation. 

There is a global trend of co-creation and user-led/ user-generated content facilitated by digital technologies, engaging audiences in the creation and production process. An increasing range of people are participating in the work of museums, contributing their skills, experience, knowledge and time to be active citizens and change the museum for the better, blurring the boundaries between producers and consumers of culture.

The visitor museums experience is no longer confined to a physical space and location. Digital technology can extend the physical scope and time scale of the museum visit.

The process of acquisition and consolidation of information transmitted needs not stop when the museum is exited. This is key to the creation of an enhanced visitor experience and successful visitor engagement, cultivating a lifelong interest in culture.

Currently, physical and digital elements of the museum are generally procured separately. An integrated approach is key to the successful operation, optimised allocation of resources and increased visitor engagement.

From a simple handheld guide to virtual exhibitions to connections between collections and museums, or unlimited access to archive information, museums should consider how different user groups interact with collections, and how that impacts the physical and digital space. Children and families have different needs than disabled users, senior citizens and experts. Visitor experience is responsive to what the setting affords. How successfully visitors are able to orient themselves within the space—both physical and digital—increases the relevance and sustainability of arts organisations.

We believe there is a need for a new type of museums and exhibition design offering, one that combines the skills of architects and designers with those of interactive designers, in order to inspire museums and move them towards a new strategic thinking for their spaces. When funding capital projects, such as extensions and new galleries, museums should embrace the notion of digitally enhanced spaces and experiences.

About the Author: Marina Bianchi is an accomplished architect with 16 years of experience designing corporate, residential and cultural projects, and a keen interest in the future of museums. Contact her at Marina_Bianchi@Gensler.com.

GenslerOn | Gensler

Published by Gensler, a global design firm with 5,000 practitioners networked across five continents, GenslerOn features insights and opinions of architects and designers on how design innovation makes cities more livable, work smarter, and leisure more engaging. Our contributors write about projects of every scale, from refreshing a retailer’s brand to planning a new urban district, all the while explaining how great design can optimize business performance and human potential. For more blog posts, visit: http://www.gensleron.com.

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