The not-so-secret life of a museum

How a city museum in The Netherlands is using storytelling to open up to new audiences

The Dutch city of Leiden is steeped in history. It has the oldest university in The Netherlands and is the birthplace of Rembrandt. Located in the heart of the well-preserved centre is the Museum De Lakenhal. This city museum is situated in a building that began its life as a guildhall for cloth merchants in 1640. These past few years it has been on a remarkable journey, using digital to punch above its weight, and open up Leiden’s cultural heritage to new audiences through the medium of stories.

The networked museum:
Using collaboration to enhance storytelling

A museum of the arts, Lakenhal defines itself as a networked organisation. In practice, this means the museum regularly engages with regional, national and international organisations to develop programming that has a clear focus on cross-sector collaboration and storytelling. In doing so, the museum is pushing the boundaries of audience experience and challenging itself to become more than just a place to show art.

Screenshot from the preview video for Pearls src: https://vimeo.com/61052412

This approach is illustrated by the exhibition Pearls, which ran from 2012–2013. The idea for the exhibition came from choreographer Karin Post, who was inspired by aboriginal dancers during her travels to Australia. Designed as a story in 10 scenes, the exhibition featured film, music and strong literary themes with contributions from the Dutch National Ballet. The digital content and displays linked objects from the museum with loans from the Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Ethnology (also located in Leiden).

Is your use of digital providing your audience
a lived experience of your exhibition?

The use of digital storytelling in this exhibition is interesting for a number of reasons. It supports the organisation’s vision of interdisciplinary collaboration. The multimedia content is contextual and driven by an engaging narrative that is told through the eyes of a female pearl driver. It creates an immersive environment that offers a multi-sensory experience and demands the user to engage. There is an element of surprise for new and existing audiences. These are all important considerations for any cultural organisation that wants to invest in digital — context, narrative and scope of audience participation. Is your use of digital providing your audience a lived experience of your exhibition?

The very public museum:
telling stories to increase access

A snapshot of some of the stories on the museum website http://www.lakenhal.nl/en/overview/stories

The museum takes its role as a public institution very seriously and is using online storytelling to increase access to its collections as well as create strong ties with the residents of the city. For instance, the website has a department of stories that connects the city’s past with present day life across a number of themes. This ties the identity of the museum with that of the city, which is interesting, because the museum is no longer merely about the past. It becomes much more dynamic and has a place in the community. Some stories are in Dutch and others in English, a clear nod to the museum’s ambitions to engage a wider international audience with this approach.

From the Siege and Relief of Leiden, http://www.lakenhal.nl/en/story/siege-and-relief-of-leiden

The story of the ‘Siege and Relief of Leiden’ is a great example of this approach. It begins with a description of the annual 3 Oktober Feest (3 October Festival) and traces its roots to the momentous events that took place in the sixteenth century. As the dramatic story unfolds down the webpage, the narrative seamlessly links to recent exhibitions and community events using effective formatting, photographs and embedded video. The content has an engaging journalistic flair.

These stories seek what is fast becoming
the ultimate metric for online user engagement — 
attention.

These stories seek what is fast becoming the ultimate metric for online user engagement — attention. The presentation is bite-sized chunks of text with bold visuals, but the tone coaxes you to explore and spend some time on the site. Content doesn’t have to be dumbed down to create engagement. New formats can increase access, in this case to the museum’s collection, which is also being digitized. (It’s also possible to search over 22,000 objects by keywords via the website.)

The above examples show that digital works best when it is driven by a clear vision and purpose and represents the organisation’s core values. At a time when budgets are being squeezed there will always be issues about resources and sustainability. This is why the role of digital is to create a joined up journey rather than isolated moments of engagement. It should increase access and provide new opportunities for audience participation. The efforts by Museum De Lakenhal show how this can be achieved by using digital as a deliberate act of storytelling that connects online and offline experiences.

About the author: Abhay Adhikari (PhD) is a digital consultant interested in the context and values that define our digital identities. He works globally with culture, media and government organisations.

Museum De Lakenhal was host to the 2-day Digital Identity seminars in March. The session was attended by cultural and creative practitioners from across The Netherlands.