Social and technological (r)evolutions are challenging the role of museums in our society. It’s safe to say that lots of young people would prefer an afternoon of Netflix binge-watching or playing video games, over visiting the boring ‘white cube’ museum. That's why museums are re-inventing the institution by understanding the potential of the changes and turn it to their own advantage.
In an attempt to stay relevant and compete with the modern media, museums are reshaping their approach and are creating new experience-driven exhibitions that appeal to the demanding audience of today and tomorrow.
What you see in most museums is very likely only the tip of the iceberg. Due to space limitations, museums can’t display all of the works, and often have a large part of their collection archived in the cellars. Hence, they need to come up with new and innovative ways to bring the entire story alive.
In addition, cultural institutions are also facing the challenges to adapt to the shifting expectations of their visitors. Artworks and other exhibited artifacts can be seen online and watched at any time. So in order to attract visitors to the physical museum, exhibitors need to bring that little extra.
Consequently they are changing the traditional passive art consumption and are turning to new technologies and interactive experiences to connect with new (younger) audiences, retain current visitors and boost overall attendance.
Therefore, some museums are re-considering themselves as part of the entertainment sector, without compromising on their primary educational goals of course. We’re not referring here to the occasional static touchscreens with dry information about the collection, but it’s about the integration of new technologies immersing and engaging your audience with interactive story-telling.
The Belgian museum Historium, for example, is not a traditional museum at all. Instead it is an attraction where all 5 senses are called on. In 7 thematic rooms, special effects, images and music work together to evoke Bruges as it was in 1435. The aim is to edutain. Teach their visitors something new through a fun experience.
Augmented and Virtual reality
In 2018, MUSEUM BOOSTER has conducted a research to evaluate which technologies are currently in use by leading cultural institutions and what the future trends are with regard to the usage of new media in museums. It seems that a growing majority of the museums believe in the increased importance of new media technologies for the success of their institution in the future. In terms of promising technologies for the future, the majority of the respondents mentioned Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality as a potentially suitable technology in the museum environment. One way of using it is for example by displaying digital versions of the artists next to their work narrating about their muse or inspiration. AR and VR bring the items to life, add an interactive layer to the experience and enhance the visitors’ engagement.
One venue, different stories
The history of museums actually began as the private collections of wealthy individuals, families or institutions. Access was limited and often only possible for the elitist friends of the owner. Only later, during the 19th century, did the public museum as we know it emerge. Museums were built in major cities throughout the world. Impressive buildings where items of artistic, cultural or scientific significance are collected, preserved and displayed for the education of the public.
Adaptive re-use architecture
One of the ways to do this is by turning to “adaptive reuse”. Where a building can no longer function with its original use, a new use through adaptation and smart renovation may be the only way to preserve its heritage significance. Old factories, closed schools or rundown churches that have outlived their original purpose find new life as a museum. With the use of projection mapping, curators can turn the stunning architecture into a canvas for artworks or data visualization.
The practice of altering the function of an old building is definitely not new, think of the numerous museums in former royal palaces, but today it reaches beyond the commercial idea of standing out and making a statement with a unique location. The concept of preservation is undeniably much more ingrained in our modern-day society concerned with sustainability, and it is promoted by authorities through funding and educational initiatives.
Another recent architectural trend is the transformation of museums into hybrid spaces. There’s the traditional role of collecting, preserving and sharing rich collections, but at the same time museums are creatively exploring the other options their venue has to offer.
More and more museums are re-using parts of their building as a space for co-working, studying, workshops or informal meetups. Installing an art exhibition today and repurposing that very same venue for a corporate event or live show the week after, it’s no longer an exception. 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.
Like, share, follow
With people from all over the world active on Facebook and/or Twitter, giving their opinions on the products they buy, rating the books they read and movies they watch, or writing about all kinds of experiences they want to share; museums should never ignore the powerful influence of social media. Over the past years, exhibitors have been exploring different creative ways to anticipate the needs of the online community.
Creation of Insta-friendly moments
Millennials are constantly looking for that one perfect selfie and unique story they can share online with their friends and family. That’s why recently some large museums have changed their policies and now allow photography in parts of their collections. What’s even more, the rise of the online social photo platform Instagram in particular and the explosive success of Insta-friendly pop-up installations have changed the way traditional museums organize their space with photographable elements.
Some might suggest that the presence of mobile phones in museums is distracting from the real-life experience, and results only in smombies (smartphone zombies) wandering around without taking any notice of the great artworks around them. However, research has shown that the inclusion of such Instagram-moments could also create immersive experiences inviting visitors to participate and to connect with the museum content in a way that they can control and is meaningful to them.
The importance of social media is not only affecting the exhibition design, it’s also an important promotion tool and a new way of reaching out to a broader audience. Recommendation from a friend is often more powerful than traditional advertising and marketing tools. It’s word-of-mouth advertising, but with one simple click you can potentially reach more than hundred other social media users. If one visitor posts a positive review or even just an amazing Instagram picture, it could prompt his or her connections to also visit the museum.
Next to meaningful messaging, museums also need to take into account opportunities to get others to talk about you on social media. One recent example is the “Apesh*t” video from the Carters shot in the Louvre, where Beyoncé and Jay-Z are performing in front of the world-famous artworks, such as the Mona Lisa. The music video dropped in 2018 and immediately went viral on the internet. The Paris landmark has always been a visitor favorite, it is already the most visited art museum in the world, but at 10.2 million visitors, 2018 was the Louvre’s busiest year to date.