After acute analysis of the museum experience through visits over the last years and more specifically months, I decree the following as the ingredients to what makes the ultimate experience at a museum:
The layout must be clean yet chaotic (Organized chaos)
The Walt Disney family museum is packed to the brim, AMNH is wall to wall exhibits. Yet as much as there is chaos and content, the museums have a clean, crisp layout, design and flow. A museum can be full, but with taste.
Clear & Intuitive Flow
The museum must have a natural flow to it both in direction and content. If it is a museum laid out in a timeline, the visitors must intuitively understand to flow in a certain direction. It if is open format like AMNH or MOMA, that flow must be clear as well.
In any case, the museum must be easy to navigate from exhibit to exhibit, entrance to exit, staircase to bathroom. The Whitney gets a bit intertwined with exhibits and getting up and down via elevator and stair case can be a bit user un-friendly, although it changes with each wave of exhibits.
Educational & Entertaining: Let Visitors Learn Without Them Necessarily Knowing
Allow the visitors to learn through the exhibits, subconsciously, because they are so invested in the experience and content they forget they are being educated. One may obviously go to a museum to learn. They are interactive 3-dimensional worlds of content. But to have the visitors so lost in the experience that they push aside that classically heavy notion of “learning” and just fall into the experience, is a great to succeed at both education and entertainment.
The Smithsonian, AMNH and exhibits such as Cuba, Disney’s American Adventure show (lobby area has content before the show immersion), and at the National Atomic Testing Museum you almost get lost in the content and forget that you are learning because the experience around you is very intriguing that it inspires the act of learning.
In this same vein, a museum should be both inspirational and/or enlightening. It should evoke the spirit of “I want to know more about that” or “I’m going to go home and do that” from visitors. At least that is the goal. A single museum cannot touch everyone like this. But if it can change at least one person’s life or perspective, that would be grand.
Offers an Out of the Ordinary Experience
The museum should offer something different to visitors, delivering content to them like they’ve never seen, taking either commonly exhibited materials or even new a fresh material and offer it up in a new, different and extraordinary way. It should take the diorama and making it pop. It should breathe life into stuffed and/or preserved animals and bones and architecture.
Pointe A Calliere (Montreal Archeology and History Complex) in Montreal and the Mob Museum in Las Vegas both succeed well at this. Pointe A Calliere has the most compelling opening to a museum that one can experience. Before being able to enter the exhibits, the visitors must enter a theater put on headphones and wait in a semi dark room for the film to begin. The film is almost Imax in feel, surrounding the audience in a “U” shape. All at once the audience realizes that there is a pit at the bottom of the screens, an actual archeological site dug into and exposed. Immediately the audience is in a physical space of historic measure. The film not only surrounds the audience but projects allow the content to flow and mask the site below, merging the physical and digital, painting history onto the the ground of which the content took place. It is a very powerful way to introduce the museum, that has been named a national archeological and historic site. It almost takes your breath away with just enough air to say “Wow! I want to learn more.”
The Mob Museum is built into what was once the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse (my father’s old P.O.Box is still visible my the ticket counter). Once the visitor walks through exhibits learning about the history of Las Vegas and the mob’s influence and rise to power, they enter the courtroom that transforms into an immersive audio visual experience. Projections, special screens and powerful content thrust visitors into the seats of the courtroom where many mobsters were tried, putting them right into the middle of historical action where it happened. This surprise experience provides a great account of the dramatics of the courtroom while romanticizing the events of the time.
If Museum Is Location Based, Use the Power of the Location
If it is location based as seen above with Pointe A Calliere, and the Mob Museum, along with the Tenement Museum and Walt Disney’s Barn, the space should be used as part of the experience. This enhances the educational absorption, connects the visitors to the space in a more empathetic way, and in general makes the experience much more powerful.
There should be at least one immersive exhibit or experience that does just that -immerses the user into the content. The Cuba exhibit at AMNH puts the user in a another country, showering them with content from all angles. The planetarium also puts the visitor in another world for 30 minutes. The Mob Museum as well, between the courtroom and other exhibits. Pointe A Calliere throws the user into the archeological site with exhibits embedded into and projected onto the architecture itself. Truly amazing. Truly immersive.
Allows the Visitor to Explore
The museum should offer the opportunity for self-exploration, to be self guided. There shouldn’t be a timed start to enter the museum as a whole, like the Tenement Museum. Exhibits with films or shows or demos are fine, but to have to be at a museum at a pre-booked pre-scheduled time with 100% guided, no room to explore, can be stressful and inhibit the mind and body for the experience. Socrates Sculpture Park is an outdoor park with art installations, offering the visitors the chance to explore its peaks and bounds.
The island of Naoshima, Japan is known for being an island of art. A museum island in a way. I have never been but from what I understand its great opportunity for exploration. There is Benesse Art Site which seems to be a main art museum on the island.
More traditionally the Smithsonian, AMNH, MOMA, Musee De Beaux Arts, etc offer open floor plans where visitors can create their own adventures, different every time. Although museums that offer specific flows and trajectories can appear to inhibit the visitor, they too give the opportunity to explore within the exhibits, go back and forth, hop around. The flow is clear, but still allows for the adventurous visitor to jet set through the exhibits. Museums like this include The Walt Disney Family Museum, Mob Museum, Spy Museum and Mob Museum.
Allows One to Get Lost or Be Found
In the way of exploration and education, a museum should give the visitor the opportunity to get lost in content yet also find something within it. To enter with open eyes and to leave with inspiration and awe, with a new found love of art or content, with a newly discovered hobby or interest or the understanding or empathy for something new. Get lost. Be found.
Every good museum should have a gift shop that is content and theme driven. The Walt Disney Family Museum is fabulously stocked with specialty art supplies, artwork, books and films for those who want to be artists, animators or just learn about the content. Musee de Beaux Arts as well has a dazzling array of art supplies, exhibit related materials and other art work themed keepsakes related to the museum’s content. Pointe A Calliere’s gift shop offered pieces of art, books, objects related to archeology, Canada, history. Very content specific.
Food Court/Eating Area
The food court offerings and aesthetic should be geared toward the audience and theme of the museum. The NYSci cafeteria experience takes the visitor back to the time of primary school in both looks and menu. Chicken fingers, pizza, peanut butter and jelly. Jump to Musee de Beaux Arts, where you walk through a fine dining restaurant to a modern white on glass cafeteria, with offerings for more refined palettes.
MUSEUMS of INSPIRATION