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5 forces reshaping the future of cultural institutions

A look at some of the emerging trends in the museum sector and how they might change the visitor experience

Opinion
Museum of Literature Ireland

By Eleanor Greenleaf, Squint/Opera

The definition of cultural institutions is expanding. Increasingly we are applying the same way of thinking about digital media in museums to other services and environments, bringing experience design to transportation terminals, visitor or sales centres, attractions and parks.

In parallel, we are seeing a broadening in the type of experiences within a museum context and are helping to redefine what a museum is and does.

So, in the spirit of sharing, we’ve identified five common threads that we believe are reshaping the future of the cultural institution (broadly defined).

1. Storytelling beyond the object

Imagine a museum with no objects – sort of defeats the point, doesn’t it?

Traditionally, museums display vast collections of objects with their corresponding caption cards. Increasingly, however, we are seeing museums with few, if any, physical artefacts in their collections. Rather they aim to tell the story of their country, people, specialist field and cultural heritage through digital media and storytelling.

In the future museum, there might not be any objects at all, just stories. Museums where we help to guide the visitor on a journey of discovery, inspiring and engaging without relying on a single object.

This has recently been somewhat proven by the Van Gogh immersive exhibition, which doesn’t feature any physical Van Gogh paintings.

Regardless of what you think of that exhibition (the critics weren’t kind but Tripadvisor is gushing), it hasn’t stopped the punters from showing up in numbers that would make most national museums envious, demonstrating that there’s nothing inherently wrong in most people’s minds with disassociating exhibitions from being purely presentations of objects.

Reshaping cultural institutions – doing more with less

This is a trend that’s been going on for a little while now. For instance, our work for the Bordeaux Wine Museum, completed in 2018, played with the same concept. While an object remains static, a detailed immersive projection is mapped around the space allowing the story to move along with you, capturing an experience beyond the physical wine bottle. The ordinary bottle is transformed into the centrepiece of an exhibition.

Bordeaux_Wine_Museum_SquintOpera

Post pandemic, there is a need to do more with less, and we see this continuing. It’s easier, less risky and less expensive to tour a digital exhibition than shipping priceless artefacts. Plus, it can be a lot more flexible.

Digital media and experiences (subtle and embedded or fully immersive) help us to elevate the object through their ability to tell the stories behind and around an object, whether it’s talking about big ideas, controversial topics or cultural heritage. We are able to put museum collections into a whole new dimension and define the narratives to be explored.

2. New, immersive and multi-sensory forms of storytelling.

With advances in immersive technology, there’s an increasing appetite for experimental techniques of immersion, transporting visitors into alternative worlds. Anyone who has seen a 5-year-old swipe a TV will understand that new generations expect everything to be a touch screen. Yet it’s also true that, post-COVID, a lot of it will be touchless.

Kennedy-Space-Center

The simulated shuttle take-off at the Kennedy Space Centre closely mirrors the conditions of the real thing (wahay! or yuck!) to give visitors a spicy dose of life as an astronaut. A casual afternoon spent behind a headset at VR World in New York can find you flying a jetpack over the grand canyon or landing on the moon.

We’ve recently had enquiries about haptic chairs; the longed-for ‘real’ hologram is making a comeback – no it doesn’t exist yet; and someone’s invented OVR – Olfactory Virtual Reality. It remains to be seen which of these is a flash in the pan and which survives the test of time. But, for those bold enough to try something new, it could just work, and they’ll be ahead of the game.

New tech changes the game

When we’re looking at factors that are reshaping cultural institutions, these kinds of immersive experiences serve science museums especially well. We’ve learned this from our work on the newly opened First Light Pavilion at the Jodrell Bank. Surrounding the individual exhibits, we created playful games from a base layer of highly technical information, transforming it into projection arrays of the night sky and meteor showers, a tangible counterpart to the central scientific facts.

Squint Opera Immersive Homeforest

We’re also witnessing an increase in demand for AR and VR pieces. We recently produced ‘HomeForest’, a non-linear film made in a games engine with a binaural soundscape. It’s all getting really very exciting. 

Through immersive narratives such as these, whether that’s surrounding people with large-scale digital media or providing more subtle, responsive environments, absent of screens, the museum is able to respond to the visitor. Content is awe-inspiring, engaging or gamified and knowledge becomes playful and accessible.

3. Visible archives

Digital technology is starting to be applied to another conundrum that has been around for a while. This is the fact that major museums only showcase up to 7% of their collection to the public, while the rest sits in storage, rarely seeing the light of day.

The newly opened Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen has become the world’s first national museum to open its collections in this way, making previously invisible artefacts visible to the public. This visibility is reflected in the open design of the building. It immerses visitors in a behind-the-scenes look at the process of collecting, storing and caring for an art collection. In other words – what actually goes on behind closed doors.

Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen reshaping cultural institutions

In the Cleveland Museum of Art, a ‘Collections Wall’ allows visitors to explore imagery chronologically, by colour or theme. Another interactive invites visitors to mirror gestures found within a compilation of sculptures, while another piece allows the exploration of art pieces based on poses the visitor takes.

Google’s Morphing Clay interactive uses machine learning to generate digital vases, where shape, colour and texture are based on the visitors’ poses and clothing. Soon we may use participatory approaches to generate, categorise and expand upon archives.

New approaches open up collections

Whether it be a university library, historical archive or a Google search, we are all active and capable researchers. Reshaping cultural institution by implementing new approaches will not only open up the full extent of a museum’s collection but also allows the visitor to become the curator or historian. This enables us to indulge in historical treasure hunts and promotes a sense of communal ownership and responsibility towards cultural institutions.

The museum becomes a public space. And, more importantly, it creates an interactive and egalitarian relationship between the institution and the visitor. We now take on some of the curator’s roles and choose what we are most interested in.

Further than this, with our own personal, seemingly endless and exponentially growing library of photographs and data on our phones combined with the rise of the ‘metaverse’, people are becoming independent museums in their own right. In the future, perhaps we will be able to visit the ‘Museum of Ourselves’.

4. Elongating the visitor experience

Traditionally, ‘visitor experience’ has meant the experience of the exhibition or collection (and fair enough). But there are aspects of a museum visit that have been mostly overlooked. For example, queuing.

There is a stereotype that the British somehow have a romantic vision of queueing. Meanwhile, it is an experience that the rest of the world places in the ‘not so fun’ box. However, it is also an unavoidable fact of life. It’s almost impossible to design a successful real-life experience which doesn’t involve some form of a queue. (By contrast – one of the obvious and great advantages of a virtual experience is limitless attendance and no queues).

reshaping cultural institutions

Turning a negative into a positive, and transforming the lowly queue into an ‘experience’ of itself is therefore an opportunity to reshape our cultural institutions.

Transforming the queue

The Empire State Building has transformed its queuing experience for the observatory deck. It is now a visual journey, steeped in storytelling and accessible in nine different languages. With sections chronicling the beginning of its construction in 1930 to a life-size King Kong busting through the sides of the building, the experience is a varied spectacle as well as a thoroughly satisfying selfie moment. The queue time feels not just bearable but becomes a memorable experience.

King Kong statue at Empire State Building from Squint/Opera reshaping cultural institutions

The Harry Potter Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Studios in Orlando uses a similar tactic. As the crowd moves along a queue, sometimes for two hours, they are going through the corridors of Hogwarts. Along the way, they experience talking portraits and holograph-like projections of Dumbledore, Harry, and others.

Beyond queueing, we are able to decentralise formal aspects and extend the visit with lobby pieces, point of sale interventions, and customised gift shops. Further afield, we can expand the pre and post-visit with interactive advertising or a digital twin experience.

Other aspects of elongating the experience cover the virtual interactions – research, booking visits, follow-ups as well as travel to and from the venue, nearby things to do, and places to eat and drink – in short, leave no stone unturned.

5. Driving conversation with museums

Inspiring displays and additional programming often provide educational services which drive us to ask questions, have conversations and understand their relevance in the context of our own reality. ‘Conversation’ is the key word here. The goal is greater engagement between cultural institutions and visitors, reshaping our interactions.

With museums dedicated to remembering the atrocities of war, the stakes are especially high. These museums must drive engagement and bridge the gap between history and today.

IWM Holocaust Galleries Squint/Opera reshaping cultural institutions

In the recently opened Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London, motion graphics emotively visualise the data used to orchestrate the mass deportations organised by the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, modern-day footage of massacre sights locates these historic atrocities in the world of today.

The result is a sensitive but immediate experience that removes the veil of time. It challenges visitors to confront the continued relevance of the Holocaust in their own world. Our own lives, political situations and worldviews become an important part of the experience. This present engagement with the visitor more effectively drives necessary conversations about difficult topics.

Giving cultural institutions a voice

With this reshaping, we are giving cultural institutions and attractions a voice. We are no longer simply looking. Instead, we are becoming part of debates. We are given both sides of the coin (hopefully moving past the idea that the winner writes the history books) and asked for our opinion.

The museum of the future is becoming a living, breathing entity, no longer static. They are participating and helping to ask the big questions, about sustainability, war, welfare and human rights. By collecting data about visitors and feeding information back in, we help to facilitate growth within the cultural institute. And, through our experiences there, the museum helps us grow in return – a mutually beneficial relationship.

Conclusion

Experience is key. So, we should think about customer experience as a holistic visitor journey from a beginning that starts with researching a visit on the web, to an open end in which the visitor engages in an extended conversation with the institution.

Broadening the type of experiences within the museum context, we are helping to redefine what a museum is and applying museum thinking to other services, facilities and attractions.

Advances in technology will continue to profoundly impact cultural experiences. We believe we are at the start of an explosion in AR/VR technology that will transform this field beyond recognition.

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Eleanor Greenleaf

Eleanor Greenleaf

Eleanor is a creative at Squint/Opera with a diverse background in experience and interaction design, spatial design, and digital media. She has exhibited in São Paulo, Barcelona, Berlin, and London. Through the constant exploration of the intersection between science, technology, art and design, Eleanor works on a wide range of projects across Squint/Opera. From concept design and visualisations, research and art direction, to curation of content and UX/UI for applications, installations and exhibits.

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