The museum of the future is a post-digital platform for people and ideas

Fresh insights from Museumnext Geneva


The theme of this year’s Museumnext conference was: the museum of the future. So, of course, there were wearables, 3D printers and mentions of changing income streams. But collections, tools and business models were only a means to an end. Leading museums are moving clearly towards becoming a platform. A platform where ideas and audience engage in multiple modes. Physical and digital, before during and after visiting, one way or together.

Sound abstract to you? Here are 10 moments from Museumnext that helped me reach this conclusion, and my final outtake.

1. A simple app for asking questions

Museums are replacing old audio and outdated multimedia tours with modern ones or apps that visitors can use on their own device. Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum presented the most radical and inspiring app concept: ASK. This idea was born out of a project ‘to create a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversation between staff and all Museum visitors’.

Using an agile approach, the museum is developing an app that will offer basic information about the museum and what’s on. But this sets it apart: visitors can ask questions via the app while in the galleries. Questions are answered in real time by a 5-person ASK team, working in the museum’s lobby, visible to the public. The team has a dedicated dashboard that shows the visitor’s location (using beacons) as well as the question. Using geofencing, visitors can only use this functionality in the museum (‘We’re not a human Google!’). Museum questions that cannot be answered directly are forwarded to curators, who then answer later by email. At the end of each day, discussions are broken up into FAQ’s that the team can use to answer future questions. Also, many discussions hold suggestions for museum improvements, such as changes to descriptions next to the art works.

Check out the Brooklyn Museum’s blog. It shares their development, choices, results, failures and ideas for the future. This will continue in the coming years of this project, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of their Bloomberg Connects programme.

I found this concept wonderfully simple and simply wonderful. Many museums embark on building something big and ambitious without making any clear choices. This results in expensive projects that deliver only a part of the expected outcome. Here it’s the other way round: the museum starts with a small and flexible functionality, in which potential can be explored and increased over time.

2. Post-digital games

Two workshops focussed on games in museums, both advocated using as little tech as needed. Bogdan Spanjevik of Next Game mentioned that they only use existing digital tools, like Skype, in their ‘theatre games’.

Move away from screens, think of people and space.
Dave Patten - Science Museum London

Spanjevik also argued that gamification has been taken over for profit; museums should use playification for engagement. Whatever the vocabulary, ambitions range from making the entire museum experience a game to museums sharing games that let visitors create their own games. In one workshop, teams had to invent a game in 10 minutes and then let another team play it in the following 10 minutes. It was amazing how many great ideas were created, and how they could be improved upon in short time. To name but two:
- Autopsy a fellow visitor, but only with words. You win if the ‘patient’ starts to laugh (for a medical museum).
- Sing a song to somebody next to you in the toilets (for a musical museum).

2. Storytelling frameworks

The application of entertainment-based methods returned in a presentation by Samir Patek of Blue State Digital. He sketched the framework behind big stories like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars:

- one narrative world that defines theme(s), genre, inherent rules, characters and settings (for film franchise this is often a book or the first film);

- epics that are theme driven, stand the test of time and add a greater understanding of individual stories (sequels and prequels);

- big showpiece feature stories that provide angles of epic, new narrative strands (television serials, videogames, novels or comics); and

- everyday episodes that are more fleeting, easily digestible and offer entry points to features (online content like webisodes or mictrosites).

In his presentation Patek already provided one example, for a science museum.

3. Dare to choose!

Earlier, Edwin van Huis of Naturalis added on to Patek’s one narrative world by explaining how he is working on a new natural history museum to replace the existing one. They decided on one Big Idea (‘Wow! Nature is awesome’) and one target audience: families. Of course, other visitors will be welcome, but a museum that tries to be everything to everybody ends up being a disappointment to all.

Making choices does not mean offering less. Quite the contrary; Van Huis said that they will provide more than 10 reasons to be at any place, at any time, within the new museum, allowing these galleries to thrive.

4. Connect to your non-visitors

Entrepreneurship’ was the main response I heard to dwindling government funding. Not just selling combination tickets or growing current retail and catering offers. As Erik Schilp said at the conference’s opening debate: ‘It is not about the money, a good idea attracts people, which will attract money.’ And what about new people, the 80% that don’t visit your museum yet? If you want to reach them, start with bringing them into your organisation.

5. Look at the new kids on the block

Newly created, merged or reopened museums came with the interesting cases. In recent years we saw this with the Rijksmuseum, sharing its entire collection — it has actually built up even more engagement with the recent Rijksstudio awards.

At Museumnext this year it was impossible to avoid the ‘pen’ by the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Seb Chan presented (as he also did at Museums and the Web earlier this April) on how the museum built a digital platform, which connects collection and patron management systems to in-gallery and online experiences. The pen is what unites all the interactive experiences in the museum and the galleries themselves. Every visitor gets one, and can use it to ‘collect’ objects on display and to use them later as interactives. The pen is also a tool that keeps visitors away from their (own) screens.

The really interesting story of the development of the pen can be found in this paper.

Pen used at Cooper Hewitt to scan a label (photo: Katie Shelly)

Don’t focus on the tech but on the people was the message of Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums. He stated that museums are one of the few places for both the rich and the poor. Despite government cutbacks, museums should remain… for everybody. So that the civic contact between people and institutions will survive. Butler argued that museum professionals should be active citizens.

Derby Museums wants to cater for the whole person: head, hearts and hands. To do this in projects and programmes, products and services, it uses a human centered design process.

The Human Centered Design process from the Derby Museums’ handbook.

6. Open you website

London’s Southbank Centre decided to create an open website. To do this they put their team in a glass box in the hall for 10 weeks. In and around it they worked, talked to visitors and colleagues, organised drop-in sessions and conducted 1:1 interviews. On the glass wall, people could write ideas for the website. Life in the glass office was a bit sweaty, according to Rob Gethen Smith, but did result in a user centred approach, easy meetings with colleagues and team confidence that they were creating the right thing. And they got a visit from Tim Berners Lee to type the first line of code! Which, apparently, they did need to adjust a bit afterwards…

‘Open’ was central to the results as well. The team built an open platform and published it on GitHub, created an API for open data, plan to offer their design patterns library for reuse and are investigating the idea of Open Use.
Read more about the glass box and open website on the Southbank Centre’s digital blog.

A question the future will answer is whether reusing of Southbank Centre’s platform will allow other museums to free resources for better UX and more engagement — the things that are a museum’s goal?

7. Engage so people will remember

Jake Barton of Local Projects featured some of their impressive work in a presentation entitled ‘The future of memory’. Arguing that a museum has to create visitor memories, he offered 4 insights into activities that work best:

- We are less likely to remember things that we photograph — the brain apparently realises that you’ve stored the occasion somewhere else — but we remember things better if we’re given a goal while photographing.
- We are more likely to remember things we’re interested in.
- We are more likely to remember an experience if we get a chance to reflect upon the experience afterwards.
- Stronger emotions create stronger memories.

Barton also used the term ‘museums as platforms’. Memory, emotions and platform come together in the design for the 9/11 Memorial Exhibition. After visiting, people can add their own oral remembrance, answering questions like ‘How has 9/11 changed your idea of America?’ These are then added to the collection and show up in the exhibition. Also, algorithms look each day for news related to 9/11 and what followed it. The result is an ever-growing archive and a continuously updated exhibition that remains engaging.

8. Multiple modes of engagement reveal multiple meanings

The Design Museum in London aims at inspiring people ‘to understand the value of design’. This value can vary: aesthetic or practical, economic or social. Following our work at Fabrique redesigning the museum’s website, I got to present at Museumnext with Josephine Chanter — head of communications and external affairs at the Design Museum. We looked at how the museum could help its audience discover different meanings, offering 4 modes of engagement. The result was a model that could also be inspiring for other types of museums.

4 ways to engage with a (design) collection

The Design Museums’ aim for the future is to develop different activities that encourage people to engage in multiple ways — and thus discover more about design.

9. Everybody wants more engagement

Our thoughts on audience engagement were confirmed firmly by research firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre. During the conference fringe, Andrew McIntyre talked about a research study MHM had done for the $428m (!) redevelopment of the Western Australian Museum. It resulted in the Spectrum of Audience Engagement model.

The Spectrum of Audience Engagement model

Bottom line: museums can take multiple positions that offer different experiences to visitors, all at the same time. When delivering knowledge there’s little engagement with the audience, when involving people with immersive experiences there’s more interactivity, when empowering people with debate and discussions the audience can get and contribute new perspectives.

Very interesting was a graph of the current perceptions and future desires of current visitors, non-visitors, stakeholders and employees. It showed that everybody wants museums to involve, co-create and empower more!

My outtakes

Museums should continue to deliver knowledge and inform people, this is how they get their authority. But positioning a museum strategically with more and multiple engaging activities will help attract a bigger audience and create a lasting connection. The future belongs to museums that dare to choose an audience and care to get close. Museums that look at novel ways of offering their ideas. This can be state of the art digital technology, it can also be the ancient art of theatre. It might even be both, building platforms of people and ideas, of knowledge and stories.

Thanks to David van Zeggeren for comparing highlights and reviewing this article.

If you’re interested in some of Fabrique’s branding & interaction work for museums, check fabrique.nl/en/museums