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Shared audiences, different contexts: what can museums learn from attractions?


What can museums learn from attractions? Museums, like other attractions have a common goal: to create memorable and engaging visitor experiences.

In my experience, working on both commercial and cultural experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a wide variety of clients from different backgrounds, different areas of the globe, with different needs and realities.

By Geneviève Angio-Morneau, Creative Director of GSM Project

Geneviève Angio-Morneau, GSM Project
Geneviève Angio-Morneau

Despite their differences, these clients more often than not share common objectives: they want to create a stellar visitor experience that will provide opportunities for both learning and enjoyment.

While museums may be stereotyped as overly-intellectual and academic, and attractions as superficial, both types of institutions are looking to attract and engage the same audiences; with an increasingly limited amount of leisure time.

Rather than focus on what separates them, I believe there’s value in examining what these institutions have in common. To that end, this piece will explore how museums learn from attractions.

Where museums excel

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016. Image: Alan Karchmer, for the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The role of museums has shifted over time. But what remains constant is an enduring need for spaces providing access to art and culture, contemplation and learning. Some have even gone to suggest, such as philosopher and writer Alain de Botton; that in an era where religion had been dwindling, art museums have been stepping up as providers of safe spaces to reflect upon one’s life and other fundamental questions. In an age of “fake news” and fractured media sources; according to the American Alliance of Museums, “museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers”.

Today, as museums learn to listen to their audiences and begin to open up dialogues with members of their communities, they are also becoming leaders in advocacy and community engagement. Only in recent decades have audiences and advocacy groups discovered how they can influence museums; who traditionally have been constructed as top-down curatorial-dominated structures.

An interesting example is the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington DC. In developing their curatorial content, they made a widespread effort to reach out not only to African-American communities in the U.S., but also worldwide; to gather stories and collect meaningful artifacts. The result is rich with these authentic narratives, which visitors seem to be eager to absorb; spending on average an impressive five hours visiting the exhibits and the other museum spaces.

Storytelling in museums

George Washington tent
George Washington’s tent on display at the Museum of the American Revolution. Image: Wall Street Journal

Museums also excel in their use of great storytelling as an effective means of conveying information and creating rich yet informal learning environments. When good storytelling is combined with the display of artifacts and quality information, the results can be thought-provoking and memorable. George Washington’s recently restored war tent at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is an interesting example. The iconic artifact brings weight and becomes an essential actor in the telling of the American Revolutionary War within a broader multimedia experience.

Becoming community hubs

Of all of the great things that museums offer and do, one of their growing roles that I personally admire the most is their potential to become strong community hubs; places where people from diverse backgrounds can gather and share a wide range of experiences. Beyond consuming art and culture, visitors can attend lectures, workshops, and a broad range of programming. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, for example; director Nina Simon has pioneered the “Of, By & For All” movement, stating:

“When diverse people feel like community organizations are OF their interests; created BY their friends and neighbors; FOR their use and enjoyment; they get involved and invested.”

— Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

She used this strategy to transform what was once a struggling institution into a vibrant and profitable community hub. Key measures included; diversifying the racial and gender profiles of the staff and board to better reflect the community, partnering with local cultural groups and associations, and co-creating with local visitors.

Knowing these key strengths, as trusted sources of information, talented storytellers, and strong community hubs, how can museums look to attractions for inspiration? Where is there room to grow and evolve?

So what can museums learn from attractions?

Hogwarts Castle, Wizarding World, Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida, got a Christmas makeover in 2017. Image: Universal Orlando Resort

Attractions and theme parks have been part of our lives for centuries; with origins in the English fairs of the Middle Ages, often combining some form of entertainment and commerce. In time, they evolved into the attractions that we know today where pop culture is front and centre; bringing in millions of visitors of all ages. They’re often tributes to fandom; such as the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience at various Universal Studios parks throughout the world. Only one year after its opening in 2010, it was already breaking attendance records and helped Universal Orlando grow faster than any other American theme park.

The recent phenomenon of pop-up attractions has also been gathering a lot of attention in the past couple of years. Compared to larger institutions whose infrastructures are largely permanent, whether a larger museum or a theme park; small pop-ups have the advantage of being well-positioned to respond to current events, changing trends and pop culture phenomena. Untethered by committees of curators and historians, they can rapidly conceive and produce installations in new locations.

100 Colors, NYC Color Factory
Tokyo-based architect Emmanuelle Moureaux‘s ‘100 Colors’ at NYC’s Color Factory. Image: Cup of Jo

A sampling of current pop-up experiences in New York City, for example; features spaces dedicated to rosé, colour, tea, Alice in Wonderland, “dreamscapes”, and candy. Fluffy, perhaps, popular, definitely. These exhibitions are responding to trends that are happening here and now. Will these spaces be around next month, let alone next year? Probably not, but they’re fulfilling a current need for groups of people with niche interests to celebrate the present moment by defining certain aspects of their identity, all the while feeding their Instagram portfolio.

Opportunities for museums to evolve

Within a spectrum of spaces for learning, culture and entertainment, both museums and attractions are searching for ways to provide their audiences with extraordinary and meaningful experiences. Many hope to provide visitors with an opportunity to step away from their everyday life to learn, try something new, and experience wonder. They both believe in the power of good storytelling. And they also both provide opportunities for family and friends to spend quality time together within a growing competitive entertainment market and limited leisure time. So with these shared contexts, what can museums learn from attractions?

Recognize that there are many ways to learn

AlterAmina Exhibition - What can museums learn from attractions
The AlterAmina exhibition at the Musee de la Nature et des Sciences in Sherbrooke takes an alternative approach to introducing children to the animal world. Image: Radio-Canada

Museums’ curatorial teams can sometimes get caught up in communicating ideas in an overly academic manner when there are many ways to tell a good story. There is no shame in taking a step in the direction of what audiences know and feel comfortable with. This summer I visited a great small exhibition called AlterAmina with my nephew at the Musee de la Nature et des Sciences in Sherbrooke, Canada.

Rather than organize their taxidermied specimen collections according to orthodox categories, they adopted a totally unexpected and intuitive approach. Instead of displaying the specimens by traditional groups of species or geographic areas, animals were grouped by colours, shapes and physical resemblances. It’s far from scientific, but really makes us appreciate the beauty of the natural world in a spectacular fashion.

Find inspiration in the worlds of theatre and play

Reading text panels, participating in a guided tour, listening to an audio guide, or watching media clips are some of the most common ways of conveying information to visitors in museums; but there are so many other possibilities. Consider, for example, the myriad ways in which people best absorb information; whether by listening, visually observing, through touch, emotion, conversation, or physically moving around.

Research has shown that “active participation, interaction, and attention are considered paths to improve experience memorability.” The popular phenomenon of escape rooms, for example; can teach us to solve problems, an essential skill in every society. More and more museums, especially science centres, are beginning to incorporate these adventures into their learning environments. Or consider the popularity of the immersive theatre production Sleep No More; based on Macbeth and set in a block of warehouses in New York City, designed to look like a 1930s hotel. Museums can use these performances as inspiration to think beyond the traditional means of conveying information inside their walls; enabling visitors to absorb information within creative and personalized experiences.

Accept that in today’s complex world, people need places to dream and experience beauty

In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of attractions whose main purpose seems to be vying for the best selfie-backdrop; whether it’s the Color Factory, Refinery29’s 29Rooms, or the Museum of Ice Cream. These places are unabashedly fun. They’ve latched into our current obsession for broadcasting our whereabouts and projecting an image of positivity on our social feeds. It’s interesting to note that some of these places call themselves “museums” while they don’t fit the traditional definition of “permanent institutions in the service of society… exhibiting the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity” as defined by the International Council of Museums.

While it’s easy to dismiss these pop-up experiences as lightweight, museums could benefit from accepting that in today’s hectic climate; some days, people just want to hang out with their friends in a brightly coloured and visually inspiring space. Art museums have been quick to discover the allure of highly visual spaces that have a strong photographic impact with immersive art pieces; such as those of Yayoi Kusama, or teamLab’s popular digital art installations.

Museums have also begun to invest more in elaborate set designs that don’t shy away from integrating theatrical inspirations; blending the traditional divide between curatorial objectivity and the pleasure derived from a well-designed attraction. At Paris’ Musée des arts décoratif’s recent exhibition Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve, for example; they used immersive architectural projections to create an awe-inspiring vitrine for Dior’s dresses. The result was a spectacular visual feast for the eyes; closer to the language of a high-end fashion show than that of a classic museum presentation of an iconic fashion designer.

The best of both worlds

Star Wars Darth Vader - What can museums learn from attractions

Fundamentally, the end objective of each institution, whether museum or attraction, will always remain different; and it’s best that they do. There’s room in our minds and our hearts for both types of experiences. Inside these institutions, however, I believe that there are ways to create experiences; where the best characteristics of museums and attractions can coexist. Imagine an escape room experience based on a historical event. Or take Star Wars Identities, an exhibition that GSM Project designed and curated, where pop culture meets the science of identity.

Creativity comes from challenges and constraints. The museum / attraction conversation is largely one of highbrow vs. lowbrow culture. Rather than reinforce these stereotypes, I believe that interesting things happen when the two meet. I see potential in what the world of attractions has to offer museums. Because at the end of the day, both of these institutions believe in the importance of creating experiences that generate emotional responses and meaningful memories.

In the words of the great Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Geneviève-Angio Morneau

Genevieve Angio-Morneau

Geneviève-Angio is Creative Director of GSM Project, a multidisciplinary design and production firm, specializing in museum exhibitions, observation decks, and other visitor experiences.

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