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Why museums should stop producing exhibitions and think digital first

This of course sounds rather provocative, I am well aware of that, but the point is not to stop showing exhibitions in museums but to stop producing them as a physical only experience, to be consumed then and there in a physical space. We need to expand the museum experience to multiple channels, and we need to adapt our work practices accordingly.

The notion of “before, during and after” is well known to marketers and increasingly used in experience marketing. However mostly the marketing in museums — not the experience — often starts well in advance of an exhibition, slows down during the exhibition period, and is often non existing after the exhibition has been ended. And it is about marketing. The experience itself is still mainly limited to the physical space, perhaps with an exhibition website, sometimes a game, most often an audio guide and maybe an app.

One could of course argue that experience marketing and museum experiences are, or should be, merging, which would certainly be very interesting, but that is mostly yet not the case in museums today. What is missing is the scaled museum experience that extends online, or even better — that starts and ends online.

One-ot-one. Exhibition website for Ai Wei Wei Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010:

There are of course plenty of examples of where the museum experience has been extended beyond the physical visit. One that comes to mind is the Ai Wei Wei exhibition at Tate Modern in 2010. The website One-to-one, supporting artist–visitor dialogue is a great example of moving parts of the physical experience beyond the museum building. Encouraging the audience to interact both during the visit, and visiting the website both before and afterwards, starting a dialogue with the artist himself.

Solar Eclipse on Youtube. By Exploratorium.

Another of my favorite examples, where the experience is moved beyond a single physical space, is Solar Eclipse by Exploratorium in San Francisco. Here a live broadcast is the central experience, in an ecosystem of for example Instagram photos, a website with complementary video, a Youtube-channel and collaboration with an external partner, NASA. One year the eclipse was even live streamed in Second Life!

Gallipoli in Minecraft, by Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Another great example is the Gallipoli in Minecraft, by Auckland War Memorial Museum where students can explore a re-created landscape in a game environment, and learn about an actual event.

Transmedia storytelling, audience engagement and drama in Elite Dangerous.

Neither of these examples are however nowhere near the networked experiences of the gaming and movie industries, where transmedia storytelling and audience interaction are at the heart of the production.

In April 2017 an online event for the game Elite Dangerous was organized by science fiction author Drew Wagar. During the event a player unexpectedly killed one of the NPC:s (non player characters), which caused great confusion among the other players, who expressed their thoughts on the game forum, building rumors and causing discussions:

”Chat is saying Harry Potter killed Salome, unconfirmed.”

“I can’t play tonight, so it’s good to be able to keep up with the chaos.”

“Sadly Drew has confirmed Salomé is dead on twitter”.

I will not go into all the intricate details of the event here, as that would be a separate and off topic post delving into the complex gaming culture, but it is certainly worth reading about it here:

My point is instead that an online event like this, spread across multiple platforms — in this case the game, forums and social media — and deeply engaging the audiences, is something museums have to look into in order to scale the museum experience and to stay relevant. How do we create interactive and engaging experiences that are Digital first, that start online, include on site events and/or exhibitions, and most likely end online? How do we prepare for museum experiences that aren’t static but change and transform along the way, in response to the audience’s engagement?

Doing this requires building skills of transmedia storytelling, and mastering the ecosystem in which the museum experience can be delivered. The term transmedia storytelling is itself by some regards out of date but the concept is certainly not. There are plenty of inspiring examples in the movie industry, Star Wars being perhaps one of the most obvious. The benefits of expanding the stories told in an exhibition, to an online world are many. Reaching and interacting with new audiences is one of them. Scaling the story and the message is another.

Delivering experiences online combined with onsite visits, that offer value and are meaningful to the participants, requires internal cross collaboration from the very beginning.

In many ways this challenges current work practices, which is my main point with this post.

For example this is where the traditional planning of exhibitions falls short, where waterfall processes with strong hierarchies are a hinder, where research and exhibition production most likely need to merge, and where the traditional idea of an exhibition is too limited. This where we need to take a step back from the traditional planning of exhibitions and start thinking Digital first.

An important step forward is to internally achieve a common perception of the museum experience — what role digital is playing — and how we can achieve it, as well as getting strong and trusting support from the management. Building skills and capacity for engaging, inclusive and interactive museum experiences delivered across multiple channels, online and onsite, is another step. And perhaps most importantly: Making space and time for innovation, experimentation and discovery. This is something I believe we will see more of from the museum sector in the upcoming years.

About the author – Kajsa Hartig

Kajsa Hartig is the Senior advisor, Digital Interaction, Nordic Museum, Sweden. Creating sustainable dialogue and facilitating co-creation.

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