02 October 2013 // Thoughts

Old “Stuff”, New Strategies: Taking Museums into the 21st Century

This week, Designer Colin Cronin takes over the blog to talk about why museums sometimes get a bad rap, and what designers can do to turn the tide.

Every once in a while, when I tell people that I design museums, I will meet someone who says they don’t “like” museums. They just can’t get into it. It’s a boring collection of random “stuff” in glass cases. Artifacts presented without context or story behind them, and with nothing to spark the imagination and excitement of a new generation of museum guests.

If anything, this just shows that this hypothetical person has had a rather limited experience with museums and similar attractions. And yes, some of the oldest historical institutions around the world concentrate much of their space to the display of artifacts. These facilities sometimes own centuries worth of collections, and do their best to display this huge amount of “stuff” for guests and visitors to explore, examine, and take whatever they are able to from the experience. This is similar to a library – in general, people only get out of a library what you put into it. You don’t expect to go to a public library and be read to. You go to a library to explore on your own, and often discover unexpected surprises.

I’m not necessarily saying that this is what museums should be, or necessarily are. However, I can see the need – and importance – of these “archives”. The Smithsonian, the British Museum, and similar institutions are important repositories of history, both man-made and natural.

Of course, modern museums realize that this is not the best way to teach, excite, and spark the imagination of their guests. And they have extended this challenge to designers and staff. In many cases, newer museums have become very focused on their messages, allowing designers and museum planners to think especially “outside-the-box” when creating new and innovative experiences for guests. It’s no longer the “norm” to just present a case of artifacts with dates and locations. It’s important for modern museums to allow the guest to explore and experience artifacts and facts in new ways — whether it be through theatrical experiences, interactives, or programmed demonstrations. New museums recognize this.  Ironically, the esoteric hallway of artifact cases is becoming an artifact of the past itself.

And this isn’t lost on older institutions either. While very few are able (or possibly willing) to completely remodel their collections, there are several wonderful examples from recent years of older institutions embracing the new view of museums. One exhibit that I personally very much enjoyed was “The Brain” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Throughout much of the AMNH are the classic artifact cases and dioramas that my hypothetical friend is complaining about. However, this new exhibit is a great example of modern exhibit design – using unique interactives, theatrical displays and personal stories and experiences to create a rich environment for the guest to learn about the human brain.

Using an ingenious mix of lighting, fiber optics, and lasers, the entry of The Brain exhibit is an abstract representation of a neural network. This unique experience really stands out among the galleries of AMNH.
Image from Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Another great example is the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Art museums often have an especially difficult time creating unique experiences for their guests. What can you do beyond just displaying the pieces in a well-lit gallery space? Art Sparks is an exhibit designed to introduce new visitors to the world of the visual art and an attempt to give them the vocabulary and understanding to look at artworks in a new way. Through several hands-on interactives, guests (both children and adults) deconstruct some of the more popular pieces at the Speed, looking at concepts such as composition, positive v. negative space and colors. Guests are welcome to explore this on their own, but throughout the day the Speed also offers tours of the exhibit by museum staff. The Speed Museum is currently undergoing an expansion/remodel, which looks to create an even better experience for their guests.

At the Speed Museum children can explore a gallery that looks nothing like you would expect in an art museum.
Image from The Speed Museum

So these are great examples of what museums are doing now, but what does the future hold? Designers and museum planners are always looking for the new, exciting ideas for unique experiences. One direction museums often consider going is in virtual exhibits. These can be online experiences, separate but additive to the brick and mortar museum. The British Museum Experience is a pioneer in this, having an online archive nearly as great as their collection offline. Another way to leverage new technology is by literally creating virtual exhibits. Exhibits that don’t exist physically, but only though a computer program. In recent years, there have been examples of using augmented reality to take traditional museum exhibits in a new and unprecedented direction. For example, The Future Is Wild uses augmented reality to populate physical sets and dioramas with virtual organisms which interact with the guest. The natural progression of this may lead entirely virtual exhibits, such as the Virtual Dinosaur Tour created by Canon. While this was really just a proof of concept, there is a possibility of museums in the future that are completely empty …. shells for guests to walk through while gazing at virtual artifacts through a viewfinder.

Using custom viewfinders, guests can experience exhibits in ways that are impossible with traditional artifact displays.
Image from Canon.

Its possible that this “Virtual Museum” concept may be taking things too far. However, museums and designers are examining the new possibilities with augmented reality technology, and with the proliferation of smart phones, tablet computers, and now even Google Glass, exhibits can be designed that interact directly with guests personal devices. The Walt Disney Company is currently exploring this idea. While not a museum exhibit or experience, “The Little Mermaid: Second Screen Live” is an experiment that might change the way designers leverage personal devices in museums. Second Screen Live is a special engagement at movie theaters around the country. Patrons are asked to download a special iPad app, and actually bring their iPad to the theater. The app will react to the movie, and present viewers with trivia, games, sing-alongs, and more – creating an experience that is uniquely interactive, in a way films have not yet been.

Image from The Walt Disney Company

Arriving in theaters September 20th, there’s no telling if this will be a success. But if it is, it will be one of the first experiences that not only encourages guests to use their handheld devices, but also creates a unique experience by leveraging the technology. Museums and designers would be foolish not to take note of this, and see the infinite possibilities the current technological revolution might provide.


Thanks, Colin!  Next week, we’ll offer a wrap-up of the Themed Entertainment Association’s 9th Annual SATE Conference.