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Cutting through the Dust. Decluttering the Museum Experience.

09 April, 2015 - Source: Else

Let’s face it: museums are intriguing but also intimidating.
How can the intersection of digital and physical improve the museum experience?


Museums are sacred temples of knowledge dedicated to the celebration of human genius and discoveries and have the important mission of connecting the past and present. However, for the average visitor it is often challenging to grasp the core message of each given section due to the abundance of information.

The Physical Museum Experience

By entering a museum you immerse yourself in a full-body, multi-sensory experience that is often a challenge for the mind and body. The mind is seeking to absorb as much as possible, with the body tiring as it travels between one section and another.

One can be easily overwhelmed by the variety of visual cues coming from the items on display. The combination of different materials, shapes and textures with the focus of attention switching from tiny to huge artefacts. Patrons are drawn to move from hidden labels, to panels with verbose explanations. The museum building itself is often an intricate maze of corridors, rooms, toilets and gift shops to while away the hours.

One visit is never enough, the longer you spend in the museum the more you are exposed to. This is especially true in the case of big museums with diverse collections, like the the Victoria & Albert, the British Museum or the Tate Modern. Even the most researched and target-oriented visitors face the constant switch of focus.

No sooner have you arrived at an artefact your attention is stolen by a competing exhibit.

The museum browsing experience is based on trying to gleam a general understanding of different cultures, collections and periods by scanning the many items on display.

Occasionally an extravagant artefact catches your eye and you read its label, soon after you find yourself browsing the nearby objects until you turn around and something else attracts you.


Discovery and Surprise

Each item on display is there for a reason. The museum’s primary purpose is to tell a story in the most compelling way possible. Even for the most dedicated researcher, thousands of artefacts are hardly digestible in just one go. A visitor’s attention is inevitably diluted with labels and showcases often scanned in a hasty and sometimes superficial way.

At the same time, each visit to a museum is accompanied by a sense of wonder and surprise. Exploration and discovery are some of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the experience.

The quantity of information puts too much responsibility on the user. The museum's curator has two responsibilities, firstly to bring together an interesting collection and secondly to help guide a visitor from one artefact to another.

After a common theme has been set, the visitor is empowered to zoom in and out on the things catching their eye. Ultimately, to make the experience more memorable the visitor will forge their own connections between the exhibits based on their understanding of the broader theme. This grounding in the context of a particular collection allows the visitor to focus on curious and interesting details that otherwise would go unnoticed.

A museum should provide just the background for a guided experience which ultimately provides the context for personal exploration.

Distracting Visitors the Right Way - Enhancing the Physical Experience

National Maritime Museum

An interesting example of this approach comes from the permanent audio-visual installation for the Voyagers Gallery at the National Maritime Museum. Designed by Real Studio and realised by The Light Surgeons, the installation, "acts as an introduction to the extraordinary depth and range of the Museum’s collections and is dominated by a 20 metre wave-like structure that stretches the full length of the room” and includes a generative sea of typography.

Cleveland Museum of Art

Another interesting example on how to engage visitors during their visit comes from Gallery One and the ArtLens app, which focus on providing eye-catching content that can be further explored based on personal interest.

Rubens House Antwerp

Another interesting experiment involving the use of iBeacons promoting interaction with nearby artefacts when paired with an app.


Extending the Museum Experience

Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection digital stories offer extra content to extend the museum visit beyond the 1 or 2 hours physically spent in the building. They have produced interactive “snackable” narratives to be read before or after visiting the museum or even independently.

Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum website is a good example of how to present basic information to empower the visitor and set the context for in-person exploration. Art is the hero. Good and inspiring photography, as well as concise and informative storytelling, help deliver an immersive digital experience that prepares for the physical one.


Telling Stories about History

The museum experience, in the end, is all about enjoying the artefact. But, an artefact ultimately becomes worthy of a place in a museum if it has a story within a specific theme.

Offering short, curated and interesting stories is the best way to guide visitors through history without relinquishing the freedom and joy of discovery.

You could begin by educating visitors before the trip, offering additional context to the exhibits. The museum can enrich the physical experience by building excitement, pre-arming the user with interesting facts before they get in front of the curated collection.

The museums should allow visitors to ‘bookmark' a certain art piece for later study so they can continue the experience once they have physically left the museum. 

Mobile devices may become an intrinsic part of the museum experience. For instance, an augmented-reality magnifying glass serving up intimate canvas views of cracks and brush strokes.

To conclude, museums should be harbouring the powers of new technology at every opportunity. iBeacons installed in exhibition rooms, rich-multimedia experiences and augmented-reality will all help connect artefacts to each other and lead visitors to a more in-depth and rounded museum experience.

By Tommaso Guidotti, User Experience Architect

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