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Film: Museums Offer Emotion and Transformation

Edwin van Huis, Director of Naturalis joined us at MuseumNext Geneva in April 2015 to talk the Experience Economy and what it means for museums.

Edwin van Huis: Good afternoon. I would like to start with a question. Who knows which animal this is? Ah, there’s one. Two, actually. What is it? That’s damn good. It is, indeed, a water bear. A water bear, which is not a bear, of course, as you can see – it’s only one millimetre big. I have it moving, too. Look how that moves. That’s cute, isn’t it? Now you all want one.

The reason that I show it is that this is the toughest animal on the planet. It lives everywhere. It lives in the sea; it lives in freshwater; it lives on land; it lives on mountains; it lives in oceans; it lives everywhere, and it’s the toughest animal because you cannot kill it.

You can boil it – it won’t die. You can freeze it; you can take it actually down to about the absolute zero, minus 270 degrees – it won’t die. You can freeze dry it and put it in your cupboard for a year, and it will shrinkle in its little bag, and then when you add a little bit of water, then the feet start to stick out again, and it lives again. It’s a remarkable animal. They even took it into space; they took it to the space station, threw it out of the space station, left it there for an hour, took it back in, it was still alive. It’s a remarkable animal.

Well, you know this one – this is tyrannosaurus rex – we just did one up in Montana – it’s the meanest animal that ever lived. We’re going to bring it to the museum next year.

So, these are two species out of about 2 million that we know to exist, or existed on the planet, and what natural history museums do is collect them and preserve them and show them to the public. I’m the director of the Natural History Museum in the Netherlands in Leiden, and we’re going to build a whole new museum.

So, we’re not going to renovate the museum or build a new wing; we’re going to build a whole new museum from scratch. Doing so, that makes us wonder, how are you going to show a collection of about 40 million animals and plants and minerals to the public? How are you going to do that?

Well, that’s something that I would like to discuss with you today. I think that we’re all museum professionals here, so if you start thinking about how are we going to design a new museum, then of course, you think, well, we’ve read all the books, and we’ve been to conferences like these, so where could we possibly go wrong?

Well, if you actually do that, read everything that you think you should, it’s still pretty [dense] after that, so I would like to take you along the choices that we made in designing this new museum.

I think first of all, we have to decide who we are going to make this museum for. Are we going to make it for the general public, or for our peers, biologists, scientists, other museum professionals? This may seem like a silly question to you, but it’s not. If we look around in most of the museums around the world, you will find that [unintelligible 00:03:56] a big part of the museum is dedicated to peers, and other museum professionals. So, it’s an interesting question to ask yourself.

I think this is the first book that we actually reread when we decided who we’re going to make the museum for, and we decided, of course, that we’re going to make it for the general public, and we reread Falk and Dierking. Most of you will have read it, too – it’s one of the standard works, and they say the museum visitor is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge; the museum visitor is filled with knowledge and notions of its own.

He is alone, or in a group, with peers, or with his family. He’s a seasoned museum goer, or he’s a museum virgin – he has expectations about what he will see, and what he will experience.

They made this model that you probably know as well, showing that there’s a personal context, and social, cultural context, and a physical context that all build up to the museum experience that they will have in your museum, and to conclude, the theory is the visitor groups that they acknowledge, explorers, facilitators, professional [unintelligible 00:05:24], not going into that because you know it already.

So, the question is, does that actually help? And, actually, I do think it helps a lot. I think that everybody who works in a museum should think about the public in the way that they have done, and there’s a lot to be learned from their studies.

We chose to be a family museum – that is, a museum for families. So, we’re going to design it for families, and families is what we’re trying to reach, and that is a choice. That’s an important choice, because it also means that we’re not going to design it or aim it at anyone else.

There’s a lot of pressure when you’re designing a museum, from all kinds of groups, who tell you that you should not disappoint the hobbyist, or the novice museum goer, or whatever. If you give in to that, then you will build a museum that is fit for everyone. That usually means that it’s fit for no one.

So, making that choice to go for family museums was, for us, a very important one. Now, families are not very clear-cut either, because there are adults in there, and they have different backgrounds, different knowledge, children of different ages, grandparents, so it’s not a very homogenous group.

But, what makes a family museum is that you aim for the families to experience things together. It’s about experiencing things, seeing things, reading things, learning things together, and talk about it. A family museum is about conversations. Families go to museums to reinforce past experiences; they go there to learn; they go there to talk about stuff that they would not talk about at home. It’s very much about quality time.

We know from research that about 15% of the conversations that families have in museums originate by the museum or the exhibit itself, so 85% is about something else, which is pretty good, because that’s what we want to do – we want to make these conversations possible; we want to trigger it.

But, there’s more to be learned when you want to be a family museum. It’s also important to know that when parents take children to a museum, they may have … Well, they will not seek their own interests anymore the way that they did; they will almost always go into the facilitator role, and the children usually are explorers.

So, that means something as well. It means that however intellectually compelling your museum is, when the children are hungry or grumpy, the family will go home. That’s about what it is in a family museum.

So, we’ve chosen our audience – that’s pretty good – that’s one out of three, so where do we go from there? We have to choose a goal. Why do we want a museum? What do we want people to learn in our museum? That’s an important question. It’s a difficult question, too. I’m not talking about the little things that people can learn in a museum. I’m not talking about the water bears or the dinosaurs. It’s about what would you want to give them that enriches them as persons by coming to your museum?

We call that the big idea, and I think it’s very important to establish that big idea with the staff that you’re working with, as the basic notion of your concept. And, it’s not easy. For me, the easiest way to think about what the big idea is, is to think about what you would like people to say after they’ve been in your museum when they are back into their car.

It’s not what you expect them to say when they’re back in their car; it’s what you would like them to say when they’re back in the car. That should only be one sentence.

Maybe you’re interested in what we came up with after six months of thinking. That’s it. We would be tremendously happy if that is what people would say after they visited the museum, and it will be very, very difficult to get them to say that.

But, the good thing about having a big idea is that, from then on, everything becomes easy, because when you’ve got a big idea, then the only thing you have to do is make exhibits in the museum that tell that same story. So, all the exhibits that you make should send the same message. Every exhibit, either if it’s about dinosaurs, or it’s about the ice age, or it’s about sex, or it’s about death, it all should say, wow, nature is awesome. If you even do it better, then also the parking place and the restaurant should say that – then you’re doing a really, really, really good job.

Well, if you’ve got your audience and you’ve got your big idea, then you’ve got two out of three. We only need one more – there’s only one thing missing, and for that, I would like to go to Pine and Gilmore, another book you’ve all read, and one of the most – well, the most famous example that Pine and Gilmore give for the experience economy is drinking a cup of coffee on Piazza San Marco in Venice, and paying €15 for it, and feeling very happy about that.

They say that … They point out that sitting there is an emotional experience that enriches you as a person, so that’s why you become very happy paying €15. Of course, the question is, how can we use that in museums?

Well, we can do that by building experiences, of course, and building worlds that are challenging, and that are emotional, and … But still, the question remains, how do you actually do that?

Well, to answer that question, I would like to go to a concept that’s a little less known, which is called placemaking. Placemaking is not new – it originated from Jane Jacobs, that introduced it in the early 1960s in the Unites States, and she was an urban developer, and her work focussed on designing inviting public spaces.

Now, we really don’t have the time to go into all that, but the reason that I mention it is that there is an essential insight that is derived from it, which is called the power of ten.

The power of ten says that a place, a piazza, or an exhibit, a museum, will thrive when people have a range of reasons, ten or more – that would be nice – to spend time there. Well, that’s an interesting concept. So, we see that all the spaces that people like to go to and stay, have ten or more reasons to actually be there.

Now, to test if that’s true, let’s go back to San Marco. So, here we have the piazza itself, which is very nice. You’ve got the palazzo, with the stone carvings; we’ve got the sea; we’ve got the smell of the sea; we’ve got the pigeons that fly away when the children chase them; we’ve got the statues; we’ve got a nice little restaurant where we’re having coffee and food, and the smell, and we’ve got couples that are in love that walk there, Italian businessmen, and that’s about 15 things that are there already.

Then, of course, there’s you sitting there and feeling very happy about the fact that you’re actually there on this place that you always wanted to go, and seen in pictures, and now you’re having coffee at the Café Florian. So, this is a very good example of a place that people want to not only be, but especially want to stay, and want to experience.

So the question again is, how does that translate to museums? It shows that people like a space, an exhibit, whatever, if there are a lot of different things to do. So, it’s not ten objects that you have in a museum – that would not work. It has to be different reasons, like things to learn, things to see, things to touch, things to smell, interactives, things to laugh about, things that are thrilling, because you’ve got this family and they’re all very different. You need something for everyone; you need something for the girls; you need something for the boys, for the little ones, for your old ones, for your adults.

Also, you need a lot of stuff that you would like to know more about. Now, when you’re in the Piazza, there’s no one there when you’re sitting having coffee, who comes up to you and tells how old the palazzo is, or how high the water rises in May, but if you want to know, you can ask, and they will tell you, or you can look in your guidebook and you can find out.

So, that’s interesting in the sense that, I think that in a museum, we always say that a museum is about storytelling, which is of course true, but you should not tell too many stories, because when you start telling stories, you will find that your public may not be interested in the story that you have to tell, but is interested in a lot of other stories that are in that space, and that you have given them.

So, what I think we should do is offer them a lot of different emotions, experiences, objects, things to learn, and offer them leads to stories, a lot of leads to stories, and then they will feel happy in that space, will remain there for a long time, especially when the space also says that we’re very happy that they’re there, and that we hope that they have a good time.

So, now we’ve got three and three. We’ve got the personal context; we’ve got the social, cultural context, and we’ve got the physical context, for my museum not for yours, but you can probably work it out for yourselves. So, my museum, it would be nature is awesome. We are a family museum, and we have the power of ten, and that would be the museum experience when you come to Naturalis in a year or two.

To sum it up, I think the most difficult part about designing a museum or an exhibit is that you will have to choose. Choosing is very, very difficult, and like I said, there’s a lot of pressure on you not to make choices.

It is very difficult to really design a museum for one audience and stick to it, and I think that’s what you have to do, because you want to make it perfect for that group.

Another thing that you need to choose is the one big idea, and if you do, to use it everywhere. Now, there are a lot of things that we could have chosen, except from nature is awesome, because nature is awesome is not about the relationship between humans and nature, which is what a lot of museums do, and it’s not about the way that we destroy our planet. So, there are all kinds of … I’m not saying that is wrong – I’m saying that’s just not what we came up with.

But, once you have your big idea, you really need to stick to it, and you have to do it in every place in the museum.

The last one, to set the stage, to make an experience, use the power of ten. I find it sometimes unbelievable that I will travel all the way to a museum because I know there’s a spectacular dinosaur there when you come in, and there it is, there’s the dinosaur, and you look at the bones, and you think, damn, that’s a big dinosaur.

Then, there’s nothing else to do anymore. I mean, how often can you say, damn, that’s a big dinosaur? So, you look a little bit at the bones, and then you just leave, and it takes you about four minutes, and that’s something that you specially came for, take you about four minutes, and then you go somewhere else. I think that will happen in any museum. I know in art museums, it’s even worse there – it’s .42 seconds per painting that people actually watch.

So, if you want people to have a good time, if you want people to really start looking at stuff, and really want them to want to learn more about stuff, you have to realise, learning in museums is always through the heart. People don’t learn in museums with their heads, and they shouldn’t, because it’s their day off – they’re not in school.

So, the only way to make them experience something, to learn them something, is to touch them, to thrill them, whatever. It’s always emotions that get you there – they see something, they want to know what it is, they want to know what it’s for, they want to know why it is what it is, and that’s the power of ten. And now you’ve got a great museum. Thank you so much.

Moderator: Yes, thank you very much. That was a very condensed and good presentation. The first question from my side is, when will you open your new museum?

Edwin van Huis: In 2018.

Moderator: So, you’re already in planning, or in building?

Edwin van Huis: In planning, and [unintelligible].

Moderator: So, questions [from all]? Here’s a question at the front. The microphone is coming around. Down here.

Tatiana: Hello. I’m Tatiana from New Tretyakov Gallery, Russia. The question is, how did you choose your core audience? Was it based on your statistics of previous audience, or did you make it like your future vision of your audience?

Edwin van Huis: Okay, that’s a good question, how did we choose that audience? It was for … I think it has very much to do with the position that we have in the Netherlands – we are the natural history museum, so we feel that we should be there for everyone, and we see that it’s especially parents with children that come to our museum.

People go to natural history museums three times in their lives – when they are a child, when they’re a parent, and when they’re a grandparent. And, as that is so, that’s not something that you should debate. Being a family museum is a great way to be a museum – it’s only that you’ve got a lot of grumpy old folks who say that the children run too loud, and cry too much, that’s why we’re not making it for them, for the grumpy old people, I mean.

Moderator: Further questions? Down here as well.

Female Voice:  [Unintelligible] from the Dutch Network of Science Museums and Science Centres. Thank you for your presentation. I was thinking, we were discussing it a bit, also about the audience that you choose. I don’t have children, so I’m not going to be a grandparent – is it not a bit discriminating for people who cannot bring children? What are you going to do for them? Are you going to say, ‘I’m going to stick to this audience’ or are you going to experiment around this beautiful building?

Edwin van Huis: Well, we’re not going to stop you at the entrance. I mean, it’s not that you’re allowed in, but what I mean to say is that we want to make it perfect for one group. We want to make it perfect for one target audience, and by doing so, you just want to concentrate on that target audience.

Now, if you go to a natural history museum on your own, if you don’t have any nephews that you can lease, or something, then of course, you have a good time anyway. But, it’s not designed for you.

The problem with [unintelligible], if I would have to design it for you as well, then I would have to make either two museums, or make mixes in everything that I do, and that would make it not very good for you, not very good for the other ones as well.

So, choosing from one audience doesn’t mean that the other ones cannot come, or do not have a good time, but it’s about making it perfect, about thinking everything through for that group. They have to be really comfortable in that space; they have to be really comfortable at the things that they can do there. It means that it’s maybe not as great as it could have been for you, but that’s the price that you have to pay anyway.

Moderator: [Unintelligible] the middle. Right in the middle.

Female Voice:  Hi, I’m [Drien] from [Seabrand] Harbour in [Thailand]. We opened the new museum three years ago, and made it specially for families, and just a comment is that the Netherlands has a bigger population, however we’ve come to a point where families are tired of us, although we would have great programming, etc, we just … they want new things, which means that we kind of have to renew our museum every five years, and we’re going into that process now. Have you thought of that, that you kind of have to – although you build a whole new museum, you put quite a bit investment in it, that you have to start renewing it quite often?

That’s one question, and the other was, how would you explain to your employers? We have this question, and I’m stuck with it very often, that if you say that, ‘Let’s do the museum for the visitor, not for the peers and your colleagues’, and your science department says that, ‘yes, but then we’re not a serious museum anymore’ – how do you go around that conflict with family oriented [whole] museum?

Edwin van Huis: So, two questions: about renewing the museum, I’m not too worried about that. The old museum had been there for almost 20 years, and we have to renew it now. It depends a little bit, I think, on the kind of museum that we are. A lot of it is objects, it’s animals and plants, and the way that you tell stories about them, and it’s very easy to change that.

So, really, renewing it every five years, I don’t really hope so, because indeed, I don’t have the money to do that. But, I think what we’ll do, every year or so, is look at what works and what doesn’t work, and see if we can change that a little bit.

And yes, the peers – well, the peers are a problem, aren’t they, because they’re always around, and they know everything already, so they’ve never satisfied, and they always say that the museum is not taking them seriously.

Well, what I try to do is take them through the process and explain them why we do what we do. Of course, there are little back alleys, like we can give digital information and stuff, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about them understanding that we are trying to attract a really big audience of people that do not have a biological background, that do not have that knowledge, that are there to have a good time, that are there with their children or their grandchildren, and that we should concentrate on them having a good time.

I’m not going to concentrate on biologists – I mean, I don’t have to tell biologists nature is awesome. I mean, they’re supposed to know that, and if they don’t, then it’s no use anyway. But, to think that they’re so near, and they’re there all the time, and always whispering in your ear, that makes it very difficult to make that choice, but I still think you should do it.

Moderator: I think that is a point which you have in every museum, not only natural history museums; you have that in art museums as well.


Edwin van Huis, Director of Naturalis joined us at MuseumNext Geneva in April 2015 to talk the Experience Economy and what it means for museums. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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