Renewing the museums’ experience

Today, despite the development of cultural institutions, the visitor rate of museums stagnates and, more importantly, the type of visitors does not diversify over time. Museums still reach a majority of well-informed visitors. The depiction that the neophyte public has still seems dusty or close to a punishment and appears to be discordant with the desire of cultural players to engage in the exchange.

For what reasons these publics are so little attracted toward museums despite the fact that culture is a cornerstone of the identity building? To renew the museum experience and create tailored multi-sensory visits in order to open to a greater variety of visitors, is that the future of museums?

Cultural practices are still unequal today and the cultural equipment are frequented by connoisseur visitors for several reasons. The social status is the main reason, a status that is of course linked with the financial resources, but there are other barriers such as disabilities, age, education, cultural references or lifestyle. There are thus people “excluded” from culture. These inequalities cannot be annihilated overnight, maybe even not at all for some of them. However, cultural institutions can create new openings in order to show to these audiences that we call “non-audiences” or even “inaccessible audiences” that they have a legitimate place in a museum and that this place also has a use for them.

Indeed, aiming to teach and cultivate, beyond the conservation of works of art, the museums are places of reflection, introspection, evolution, and are a key to a better understanding of the world and oneself which allows to assert ourselves in our identity construction. However, to create space does not mean that the “inaccessible audiences” will be attracted by themselves to the museums. The museum practices must be reinvented and proliferated to create varied experiences while adapting to the advances of our society, be it technological, social or institutional.

“Opening the doors of museums is not enough; we must take the uninformed public by the hand, welcome them and guide them. If not, free entry is nothing but an alibi for the lack of reflection on what is an audience’s policy, which one of the primary missions, beyond conservation, is to educate.”
Jacques Sallois, former director of Museums of France

The museum experience has been greatly improved over the past years thanks to an enriched practice: the use of all the senses transforms a traditional visit into an upgraded and original visit, calling on other modes of reflection and understanding while also creating a better public mediation.

The multi-sensory experience, for which there will be soon no way around in any museum, has already been present for a few dozen of years in some institutions. A lot of scientific museums, for instance, have been favouring the experimentation for a while already (often by the use of touch), heavily oriented toward a younger audience. We soon come to think of the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, which presents exhibitions, permanent or not, often interactive, for which multi-sensory visit is the medium for the visitor’s experience. They must feel immersed by putting themselves in different types of scientists’ shoes all along the route by touching, listening, observing various phenomena, causes and effects. For that matter, this allows to better retain and understand more easily, in a playful way, what can sometimes be perceived as boring or confusing in a classroom: indeed, to call upon several senses awakens several neuronal networks, leading to a better memorizing. This is another way to learn than to simply watch, which reinforces the desire of learning and also awakens an interest for the museums’ devices. We can moreover use these enriched perceptions in other fields than science, mentioned earlier. For instance, listening and smelling are two senses that lead to a better and deeper immersion, mainly when it deals with History and to recreate an era, a place (old stones, essence, flowers…).

But the use of several senses does not have a single goal, nor a single target. Indeed, the multi-sensory experience can also serve accessibility, which has its part of responsibility in the democratization of this innovation. Today, new interactions calling upon all the senses allow disabled people, mainly visually disabled, to access works of art, as well as sensitizing able-bodied people to disabilities. The accessible interactions most flourishing everywhere in the world are the tactile visits. Many museums have created visits or routes adapted to that, such as the Louvre, the museum of Prado or even the museum of Grenoble, the idea being, of course, to allow distant audiences to find their place in a museum.

A visitor touching Correggio’s “Noli Me Tangere” in the Prado Museum — Credit : Pablo Blazquez Dominguez on Getty Images

Finally, one of the new goals of these institutions is to create an amazing experience in order to bring on a new audience, the one that believes a museum is a “compulsory” stop, that we cannot go there by pure will, find pleasure or originality either.

These new experiences partly rely on advances in the field of new technologies which allow to call upon all the senses and, mainly, to create a total immersion which really implies the visitor. These technologies are, of course, a way toward new targets used to the new usages (smartphones, multi-touch technologies, movement detection), more particularly teenagers and young adults (also called generation Z and millennials). We thus see immersive and multi-sensory setups increasing as part of permanent collections or for ephemeral exhibitions. To the immersion is obviously linked the interaction, mentioned earlier, a level higher in the implication of the visitor, which allows them to feel actor of their visit. We notably find it through the museum apps that uses Augmented Reality (virtual elements added to a real environment) or the exhibitions that we can experience through Virtual Reality (immersion with virtual reality headset).

Paul Bence on Unsplash.com

These experiences that differ from the classical vision of the museum visit have thus brought about the development of a new dimension that had until now been rarely explored: the multimodal visit. The idea that each visitor can have a personalized path which corresponds to him and that he is not passive anymore is about to become the keystone idea of the renewal of the museum experience and it increasingly becomes possible thanks to new existing tools. Today, the main target of these visits, which differ from classic paths, are the children. Because the young audience has a tendency to expedite the visits by rushing from a room to another without even really caring, and because children have a different approach to art and heritage, this age group allows to invent new ways to experience the museum. In that process, more and more institutions have a tendency to create new paths, often digital (tablets, interactive devices), which accompany the younger visitors through a narrative with a goal, often collaboratively. Ludomuse, an open-source project for museums and a perfect example of such applications, uses this method.

But children are not the only target. New original devices are implemented throughout the world to impress the museums’ audience and lead the visits to be more personal and momentous. These devices can assume several forms: applications, immersive rooms or even interactive pens. This is the latest innovation that the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum has decided to integrate into its digital novelties for its reopening in 2014. The visitor uses a digital pen to draw on interactive screens and to save elements throughout the museum on a personal account on the internet, linked to the pen. The possibility to keep track of your visit through the museum is thus a mean to make it more personal. The new experiences and the new apparatuses proliferate and we perceive a real passion from the institutions toward the new technologies that appear to them. But they must not forget to limit these new uses and try to imagine their evolution in order not to invest too much into a new technology that could quickly become outdated.

The museums and exhibitions have a tendency to create more and more ways of visiting, and the actors of the museums’ world expect many changes in terms of immersion, sensory experiences and customization.

To succeed in presenting in different ways to different people the same space and transform the viewer into an actor, this is the challenge that must be taken up by the museums of tomorrow. To do so, they rely on new technologies but they must make sure that these mediums are only used for the better understanding of the visitor and to encourage the discovery and the learning. These technologies must not become widgets or hurt the instruction for the profit of playful aspect. The mediation must stand at the heart of the museum practices.

It is important to also keep in mind that these devices evolve and could become outdated in the span of a few years, outdated by even more effective technologies. Smartphones will soon not be at the heart of digital practices and we do not know, neither at which pace augmented and virtual reality can change, nor how much museums could take profit from it, for instance. This is why it is important not to think of the devices as “one shots” but rather as the content of which formatting and practices can evolve.

Finally, the museums can also go beyond the digital field and think about new experiences such as different activities or schedules, occasional events (such as the Nocturnes of Nantes History Museum which invites different performers to appropriate the museum).

The main objective for the museums of tomorrow lies in the new practices and the appropriation by the visitors, the experiences and the varied visits, customized and immersive.

___

This article was written within a school framework in June 2017. It was a free subject and is part of a broader personal research, which has developped over time and is still evolving.

Thanks for reading and feel free to leave some feedback or advice.

Thanks to my translator friend Gauthier Menin, who translated this article from French.
And thanks to my lovely & inspirational friend
Louise Gazeau, whose article motivated me to upload mine.