Oct 21, 2020

Museums. Thinking outside the walls of the temple.

5 min read

The theme of this years’ International Museum Day was “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”. The goal was to highlight the potential of museums to create meaningful experiences for people of all origins and backgrounds. Because if I ask you “who goes to museums?”, you’ll probably think of the same stereotypical image most of us have in mind when answering that question (white, high-educated and middle-class adults). And that image is not far from the truth.

We asked an international panel of industry professionals what museums can do to attract other demographics and reach a more diverse audience? In this third installment in a series of blogposts on the future of museums, we’re breaking down the walls of traditional museums and put forward three trends.

Museums as open spaces

If you want to diversify your audience, you could start by trying to diversify your museum space. Expand your offering with stories that are not only relevant to a small subset of the population, but are also inclusive to younger generations, visitors with a different background and other minority groups. You can do this by introducing temporary exhibitions that are representative of new groups or engage visitors through content with new perspectives. Last year, the British Museum in London, for instance, set-up the “Desire, love, identity” project with trails in the museum that highlight objects that have a connection with LGBTQ history and community.

But also re-using your museum space for other purposes – like after-hours events, workshops or screenings - can be beneficial. Hilary McVicker from the Eluminati gives a perfect example: “The California Academy of Sciences is especially successful with its NightLife theme nights. People come in to listen to the music and have a signature cocktail. And then they see something amazing, after which they come back to the museum with their kids or friends to share the experience.” These initiatives can attract new audiences who initially may not see the institution as a place for their own interests and help them see the museum as a fun venue.

Fading museum walls

And what if you turn things the other way around? Instead of expecting people to come to your museum, why not bring the museum experience to where the people are? “The museum walls are fading,” states Arnold van de Water, partner at Factorr, a creative consultancy agency, and general manager of the interactive touring exhibition Meet Vincent van Gogh. “We created these intimidating temples, we call museums, and a large number of people don’t go there because they just think it’s not for them. What we should do is move to non-traditional spaces, presenting an authentic museum experience in a different format and on different locations.”

Pop-up museums have really been thriving the last few years, mostly because of their Instagram-worthy installations that attract the selfie generation. And traditional museums can certainly learn a thing or two from these experiences to reach new visitors.

Dave Patten, who runs the Science Museum Groups Digital Lab Initiative which experiments with emerging technologies and visitor experiences, agrees that museum experiences will increasingly take place outside the museum walls. He shares that the Science Museum in London is currently also working on an interesting research project on this topic. “The goal is to bring snackable museum experiences with local collections to empty shops in high streets.”

Stay-at-home museums

And finally, you can even go an extra step further and really take the museum experience into the homes of people. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural venues had to rely on digital and online initiatives to stay in touch with their visitors. Although a great alternative during these confined circumstances, going online should be more than just a 360° digital replica of the physical structure of your museum.

According to Dorothy Di Stefano, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, the online experience should not and cannot replace the actual museum visit. “There’s still a huge difference between watching images of something on your computer and walking into the museum and seeing real-life dinosaur bones, for instance. Instead, online content should complement the in-person experience. A bit more behind-the-scenes.” In Belgium, for instance, Visit Flanders, the tourism office, decided to introduce the “Stay at Home Museum” initiative. It brings sensational exhibitions to art lovers’ homes with free virtual guided tours by curators of Flanders’ most renowned museums like the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent.

More about the balance between online and in real life, in the next blogpost of this series.

An extended journey

Arnold van de Water summarizes the discussion: “I see a bright future to engage with a lot of new audiences. There are a lot of opportunities in hybrid solutions; also for museums, exhibiting in the physical museum space and extending the journey on other locations and online. It’s not the only way forward, but that’s the beauty of today: there are so many ways forward.”

**Picture courtesy of Culturespaces**

Our panel

Arnold van de Water is partner at Factorr, a creative consultancy agency, founded in 2005, that provides global services in Strategy, Spatial Concepts, and Transformations. In addition, Arnold is acting as general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum. With over 15 years of experience in the arts and culture and touring exhibitions sectors, Arnold believes in using technology to create more personalized experiences and immersive storytelling. 

Dave Patten is Head of New Media at The Science Museum, London, where his role includes managing all aspects of new media and AV, from conceptual design, prototyping and production to project managing external developers and production companies. He has a background in electronics and computer science, and has worked at the Science Museum for over 30 years, developing exhibitions and leading development teams. Dave Patten runs the Science Museum Groups Digital Lab Initiative which experiments in emerging technologies and visitor experiences.

Global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano leads a collective of experiential artists who create large-scale, site-specific, digital immersive experiences. As an ambassador and consultant for the arts and with 20 years' experience, Dorothy sits on many cultural committees and is the International Partner representing Australia in the Global Startup Leaders committee of the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF).Awarded LinkedIn's Top Voice for 2019, Dorothy has a worldwide following on this platform which she uses to highlight the importance and impact of art on our world and to showcase global artists to a business-focused community.

Hilary McVicker is Communicatrix at The Elumenati – a title that would translate to VP of Sales and Marketing at most companies. The Elumenati are thought leaders in the field of immersive projection design, creating innovative applications in education, enterprise and entertainment. Partners and clients range from NASA and NOAA to Dreamworks and Deloitte. Hilary has managed collaborative projects for The Elumenati with leading museums from the California Academy of Sciences to the American Museum of Natural History, with a focus on incorporating technology to create transformative learning experiences.