Museum & Cultural Institution Transformation, Part 1

At the same time we’re helping partners and clients think through the issues and details of how to open and operate in a pre-vaccine world, Thinkwell is also considering what this means for the museum field at large. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, this is both a hit to the finances and the experience of museums; it’s undermined our audience’s comfort levels and trust in being in public and participatory. It’s clear that even once there’s a widely-adopted, strong vaccine, the field cannot simply go back to ‘business-as-usual’. This time and crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity, and it represents a chance to boldly re-envision what it means to be a museum, what manifesting your mission really looks like in a society transformed by COVID19, and how we collectively get there.


In the upcoming weeks and months, we’re going to explore three big areas of change we see for museums and cultural institutions, in what we hope will be a robust dialog with you and some of our colleagues and collaborators:

musuem and cultural institution finance graphic

Funding and operating models: As institutions face major budget shortfalls, financial models and museum governance represent areas of potential transformation. How can museums change board development and function, funding strategies, and income generation in order to be more crisis-proof? Which institutions managed to avoid major staff cuts and what set them up for this success? How will operations evolve in the wake of COVID19?

musuem and cultural institution community graphicCommunity: It’s clear from the research that museums’ role and value in their communities must become stronger, in order to survive and thrive even when the next crisis comes. How can museums ‘do right’ by their own internal communities – their staff – in times of crisis and uncertainty? Who have our institutions failed to invite in, serve, and meaningfully co-create with? How can museums use this time to examine shortcomings in equity and inclusion in their towns, cities, and regions and address those? And how do museums establish themselves as a ‘must-have’ for strong communities, not a ‘nice-to-have’, generating strong financial and governmental support?

musuem and cultural institution touch screen graphicInteractivity: The current crisis presents a ‘worst-case scenario’ for museums that have embraced interactivity and participatory experiences. This situation won’t last forever, but it will force a long, hard look at not just the technologies and interfaces of interactivity, but how interactivity is used and incorporated. Just because touchable surfaces and close quarters aren’t safe for now, doesn’t mean audiences are willing to go back whole cloth to the old days of passively receiving information. What does the future of interactivity look like? What technologies and techniques can address not only the immediate need to reduce the potential for contact transmission of disease, but also free interactives from inherently exclusive modes that not all guests can use? How can this push us towards true universal design? Can we create museums and cultural institutions that are seamlessly, holistically immersive, and responsive to individual visitors?


Museums and other cultural institutions need to get through the next few months. Survival is the name of the game. But survival doesn’t have to come at the expense of visioning and growth – the two can coexist. We look forward to plumbing these ideas and opportunities with you, as we all work towards a future that looks a little different than what we might have dreamed up last year.

How Will Technologies Shape Our Interactions and Spaces in the Post-Confinement Era?

In a post-confinement world, human beings will seek the exact opposite of what will be prescribed to them: in the face of social distancing, we will want to get closer to each other again; at the prohibition of touch, we will want to smell and taste the things we had enjoyed; faced with rules and regulations about where we go and how we move through spaces, we will seek fluidity and freedom. We are, by our very nature, social creatures

Over the past 20 years, Thinkwell Studio Montréal has evolved the nature of its interactive projects based on the concept of ambient intelligence. The idea is very simple: the interface is not a screen, the interface is the world we live in. 

Take, for example, our Renaissance Hotel Experience in New York where the body of each guest becomes the communication device between the hotel and its district. Through a partnership with Time Out Magazine, a digital concierge interacts with each visitor to offer them culinary or cultural activities depending on the weather, their desires, and the amount of time they want to spend walking. Using a 3D camera detection system, we were able to detect multi-user signals (body posture and movement, group behavior, eye tracking, and emotion recognition) and transform the experience of the lobby. Let’s imagine that this experience could be adapted for hospital or university spaces. On a university campus, for instance, a digital concierge would become a mobile engagement platform where every student becomes the heart of her or his own journey; a generative digital assistant in real-time that adapts the student successfully navigate not only the demands of their classes and deadlines but also the social, cultural, and sporting life of the community.   

The Illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal to mark the city’s 375th anniversary was our next step in developing technology and data collection to communicate the emotions and detect the pulse of a city. How can the data of an environment generate an experience without the audience needing to do or touch anything when it’s the audience itself that is at the heart of the show? When the bridge comes to life, what you actually see is the city pulsating in real-time. Thinkwell’s contribution to this celebration has been to use data collection and AI to capture and aggregate all of the relevant data generated by the city’s citizens – traffic conditions, weather, the mood on social media, bike-sharing activity, etc. With physical sensors (radars, weather stations, counting people, etc.) any type of API integration and normalization algorithms, we have the ability to use almost any type of data to modify and influence an experience. This digital platform we have developed for this bridge could be suitablefor the transport or theme park industries, for example. All the data generated by people and systems during a single day in a theme park tells a story: the atmosphere and energy of the crowd, the impact of the weather on people’s experience, the reactions to this or that character in our journey, which guests go where and how they linger (or don’t), what and where they eat and buy, how their pace changes during the day, and more How can this data improve the operationalization and the emotions experienced? 

Finally, I would like to share with you a project that is currently in production, and that perfectly illustrates a solution that could be adopted into museums, theme parks, and any other location-based experiences that will be managing crowds for the months and years to come. It’s a collaboration with Parks Canada where visitors will be able to relive the experience of working in Canada’s first steel company which has been closed for 150 years. This application is an interactive, multi-sensory alcove where each visitor becomes one of the workers through the various stages of iron production. The guests are experiencing a “day in the life” of these steelworkers so that they have a “hands-on” impression of the working conditions of the time. This direct experience allows learning through empathy and leads the way for an impactful emotional souvenir. This innovation makes it possible to select and view high-resolution augmented reality content simply by detecting guest gestures. With no devices such as goggles, headsets, telephones, or tablets, our interactive alcove promotes a collective experience. It is the AI we have developed that generates all the content of the experience from the gestures of each visitor. This innovation can be adapted for any museum, healthcare, or airport experience. 

Crowd flow management, body language detection, eye tracking, emotional feedback, voice recognition, telepresence, data interpretation, accessibility; for us, interactive technologies are a tool to empower each user to become the storyteller.

As the frontiers between the digital and the physical worlds are melting, we see every guest experience as becoming the actual canvas. We believe the future of spaces is personalized, participative, and generative. Each member of the audience is at the heart of everything we do; physical spaces take the shape of their visitors.

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival, Part Two

Earlier this week, we showcased the short films from our winner and runner up of Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival. If you missed that first post, Thinkwellians held a virtual film festival at the end of May, complete with eight individual films, and one progressive short film. All submissions were shot with safe and local social distancing in place, with submissions coming in from Thinkwellians all around the world! 

Today, we’re bringing you three more short films, from a murder mystery on a zoom call to submissions from Montréal and Australia.


Chief Creative Officer Craig Hanna brought together a creative use of zoom and played off the classic Murder Mystery in a new digital death way. Find out whodunit in this 2 minute short film! 


Pete Ford created a beautiful short film dubbed, “Night”. Enjoy!

Pulp Fiction 2 by Kaiman Walker


Our final video for today comes from Kaiman Walker, Interactive Designer at Thinkwell Studio Montréal, with his idea for a sequel to Pulp Fiction. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed these three fantastic works of art from our Thinkwellians around the world. Stay tuned to our blog this week for three more Thinkwellian short films, and be sure to let us know which one is your favorite!

Thinkwell’s First (And Only) Online Film Festival

What happens when Thinkwellians have a creative fire that needs to be fueled? We find projects to work on simply for the fun of creating art. From the coloring and activity book that we shared in April, to this new cinematic venture, we are always working hard at keeping our creativity alive. 

Today we are beginning to share our short films from Thinkwell’s First (and Only) Film Festival with the world! Yes, that’s right, our Thinkwellians held a virtual film festival at the end of May, complete with eight individual entries and a progressive short film. All of the submissions were shot with safe, local social distancing in place, and submissions came from Thinkwellians around the world. 

Today, we’re sharing the winning film and runner up. Enjoy!


The People’s Choice and Poo D’Or Award Winner: Chris Durmick, Principal Attractions and Museums, opted to create a timely piece that honored the classic silent film stars of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and played off the idea of being ‘safer at home’. Enjoy! 






Safer at Home by Chris Durmick


Grand Runner Up: From Ellen Richardson, Thinkwell’s in-house counsel, this short film went another direction but covered a similar subject, highlighting a mom just trying to get some time to herself during quarantine with her family…something every parent these days can relate to. 

Banana Bread by Ellen Richardson

We hope you’ve enjoyed the first two masterpieces from our winner and runner up. Stay tuned to our blog this week for six more Thinkwellian short films, and be sure to let us know which one is your favorite!

Physically Distanced Museums

What is the museum of the future? How will museums operate – physically, intellectually, financially – long after COVID19? There’s big transformation on the horizon for cultural institutions, but there’s also the immediacy of ‘how can we reopen? When can we reopen?’ Museums need to connect with their communities quickly and deeply, to garner the kind of support (visitorship, donors, and community members who will advocate for the institution) they will need to survive and pivot from this time. With nineteen years designing experiences for museums, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, and more, Thinkwell has amassed deep knowledge of best practices, crisis management and transformation, and operations across industries. While Thinkwell is helping our museum clients meaningfully wrestle with the big questions of long-range transformation, we’re also helping them think through the ‘day after tomorrow’ – what will it look like as stay-at-home orders ease, but before a viable vaccine is widely available.

physically distancing in a museum

So what does ‘physical distancing’ look like in an institution that probably has some brain-bending, physical-distancing-rules violating combination of:

  • Multiple constricted entries and exits (into and out of the building, exhibit halls, retail, restaurants, and bathrooms)
  • Hands-on interactives and touch-screens for ticketing, payment, or exhibit content
  • Delightful historic structures that can’t be modified
  • Maybe even a children’s area featuring a ball pit, dress-up activities, and a climbing structure

There are no easy answers. There’s no magic bullet. But there are tools and a deliberative process that can help guide decision-making.

Museums now find themselves in a world that other location-based experiences have been doing for years. Theme parks calculate guest density and flow, and adjust designs accordingly, with a rigor that even Scrooge himself would be awed by. They deal with queue lines, spacing, and hiding the true length of a queue or making it more entertaining. Theme parks and zoos have made materials and cleaning protocols choices based on durability, operational, and health concerns to an extent indoor museum experiences largely haven’t needed to. Mission-driven spaces like museums, zoos, aquariums, and other cultural attractions can benefit from the years of real-world experience other venue types have already amassed. In fact, they must capitalize on this information – there’s no time to waste.

Thinkwell has developed a Playbook for cultural attractions to utilize as they plan not only for the first few weeks of reopening, but also the months until the COVID threat is mitigated globally and the new reality beyond. In the first few weeks of operations, yes, tape on the floor can help with physical distancing. But it’s not an elegant or guest-friendly solution, nor is it a look or emotional message institutions want to sport for the next year. Ours is a methodical yet nimble approach, considering every element of operation while simultaneously centering the experience of the institution. Solutions that diminish the soul of an institution and hobble it from fulfilling its mission are not good ones. As part of our Playbook, we define five main areas to consider as institutions plan for reopening and new operations. By focusing on these key elements, it frames internal review and helps focus the questions.

For example, one of the five areas is “The Big Draw”, which naturally guides the iterative planning process. What are the key experiences to have open as part of your Big Draw for guests? Where are their risk points? Interactives – and how to handle them – is another of the five key areas for consideration. Most museums will lack the time, money, and staff resources to convert every interactive immediately. But in many exhibits, interactives are a key part of the experience. Which interactives are foundational to have working? Our Montreal team is already developing elegant, seamless solutions to transition touch-screen interactives into gesture, voice-controlled, or personal digital device-mirrored experiences, and our teams are also re-envisioning what the new interactivity entails.

Museums need to open. Period. Their communities want and need them, as shown in the recent research work spearheaded by the American Alliance of Museums, and museums need ticket revenue in order to survive. Museums are a critical economic engine, too, and their successful reopening will pay off in a variety of ways. By being thoughtful, yet swift, in planning for “the Day After Tomorrow”, museums can invest their time and limited resources to best effect, helping their communities heal and turn towards the future.

Finding Daily Inspiration at Thinkwell, Part Two

As we continue through the list of ways Thinkwellians have adjusted to work-from-home life, our team has shared a wide variety of outlets to fuel their creativity during shelter-in-place restrictions. Given that we can’t go out into the world to benchmark attractions or experiences, we’re constantly finding ways to bring creativity directly into our homes. 

From Beijing to Montreal and beyond, we’ve asked Thinkwellians around the world what they’ve been doing to seek out creative inspiration. This second half of a two-part series covers what keeps their imagination alive. 

Theater In-Home With Thinkwellians

Many of our Thinkwellians have theater backgrounds. Through the years they’ve honed their craft and have used their skills to develop incredible attractions, shows, and museums through the learned disciplines the stage has to offer. That’s why we asked Sara Beil, a writer in our content department, what she’s been keeping an eye on. “There’s some exciting virtual theater happening! Some friends of mine run a pretty successful digital theater called ‘Pixel Playhouse’ on a Twitch stream, where they gather a bunch of singers to perform live songs (musicals, most of the time) every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. PST,” she said. “It’s highly recommended for the musical theater buffs!” 

Meanwhile, Creative Director Eric Hoff, whose background stems from immersive and traditional theater, has been enjoying a wide array of theatrical performances. From a gem of a concert production by the Lincoln Center Theatre, alongside the youtube channel from the National Theatre of London, he’s enjoyed many productions from the comfort of his home. “One amazing byproduct of this shelter-in-place time is that incredible professional theater companies are streaming fantastic plays and musicals to watch at home,” he stated. “While there’s nothing quite like seeing shows in-person and witnessing live theater, I have to say: the thrill of these performances from home is a close second!”

While in quarantine, Eric also partnered with colleagues to create ‘Arcana’ an alternate reality game taking place throughout Instagram  – all from the comfort of homes. Based around an old Los Angeles murder, Eric and his team weaved an intricate ARG game through the Instagram platform, allowing anyone, anywhere, to participate in a new-age style of gameplay.


What’s Happening With Theme Parks

Theme parks aren’t just for the fans. We designers at Thinkwell are avid fans of the very places we create, and we love to see what others are up to — be it construction updates on Facebook or following theme park Twitter accounts to see what they are creating for social content, it’s been great to see what others have come up with during this time. Jeremy Thompson, another writer in our content department, loves following theme park Twitter accounts. “We’re already at the point of shelter-at-home where the social media accounts for regional theme parks are staging rap battles against each other,” Jeremy mused. “It’s great to see who’s coming up with this. Kentucky Kingdom is winning it all at this point with their rap battle against their fellow regional park, Worlds of Fun.

Dave Cobb work from home theme park recreation of Men In Black: Alien Attack

Across the board, fans have also been creating their own “at home” version of famous theme park attractions. From famous Disney attractions to our very own Dave Cobb’s recreation of Men In Black: Alien Attack (an attraction he helped design), the creativity of recreating beloved attractions has helped keep our minds sharp through this time. 

Dave Cobb, principal of creative development, has also been enjoying his time at home by getting spooky with virtual reality with “The Dark Ride Project” – an online archive of haunted amusement park attractions. 


We Do A Bit More of Everything

Outside of checking out the latest VR creations or following online theatrical productions, we’re also doing other things for our well-being as we work from home. For example, Ethan Jackson, design manager, has been living on his patio during the warm Los Angeles weather. “I have weights out there, a chair/table to eat and work, and a hammock to rest in. With all the social distancing we need to be doing, my patio also has a view of the apartment complex’s pool for me to watch all the actors and waiters who lay too close to each other as they tan poolside,” he laughed. “It’s about as L.A. as you could get.”

Montreal Skyline

Meanwhile in Montréal, the President of Thinkwell Studio Montréal, Hugues Sweeney, has a morning routine he maintains to help keep his mind going while he works from home. “Every morning before sunrise I ride to the top of Mount-Royal by bike to have daily contact with nature and to see my city awaken from above (Mount-Royal is a small mountain in the middle of Montréal). So a little endorphin rush, trees, and deserted streets all help to start the day,” he recounted. “In order to feed my ears, I get my daily dose of music via NTS, an incredible web-radio that broadcasts DJs live sets 24/7 from London and L.A. For my neurons, I am a member of Quartz, a media outlet of new perspectives on international geopolitics, the global economy, and leadership of change.” 

Work from home fitness

Expanding further across the world, Managing Director of Thinkwell’s Abu Dhabi office, Amin Rashmani, purchased a treadmill literally two days before the lockdown went into effect. “In six weeks, I’ve run over 175 kilometers in a period of over 24 hours of total run time,” he enthusiastically stated. “I’m starting to use the line, Never have I been more active than by staying at home!” For news, Amin has been keeping up on Gulf News to get updated on the regional market. “I also regularly follow the Worldometer website to get a status update of where we are with the Coronavirus,” he stated.

As you can see, Thinkwellians around the world use a wide array of news, creative outlets, and daily routines to keep a level of mindfulness about them as they work from home. We’ve found ways to adjust to life in this new normal, and we hope that these listed items help inspire you in new ways, to perhaps start a new routine or find a new place to get creative.

Cynthia Sharpe reflects on the 2019 SATE conference

Cynthia Sharpe has been Thinkwell’s lodestar on all things educational and cultural for more than fifteen years. From hands-on research and testing for a science exhibit to providing one-on-one mentorship for early career Thinkwellians, Cynthia’s focus has always been on enabling those personal moments of connection that not only touch hearts and minds but offer the opportunity to truly change the story – whether for a guest or a colleague.

Here, Cynthia shares her insight and inspiration behind her most recent industry presentation at the TEA SATE conference.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of speaking at a variety of conferences – the annual IAAPA Expo, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) conferences, the Association of Midwest Museums, the Creative Economy conference, and the TEA’s spring Summit and fall SATE conferences. Increasingly, the lens I bring to these sessions is one of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) and Social Justice. From the more traditional areas in themed entertainment, I not infrequently get asked
why. These are issues museums are wrestling with, often quite openly; for instance, the AAM conference in 2017 was in St. Louis, a mere 9 miles from Ferguson, and its theme that year was DEAI. But what does that have to do with a fun day out filled with rides and spectaculars and IP-loaded merchandise?

I would argue DEAI has everything to do with it. The research on the economic value of DEAI is rather robust: simply put, companies that are above average on DEAI metrics far outperform those who are average or below on the same metrics. We’re not talking about a small audience, either. There are 850 million visits to American museums every year, give or take (data from AAM). The 2018 Global Attractions Attendance Report from AECOM and the TEA notes attendance at theme parks operated by the top ten groups broke 500 million for the first time. That’s just about seven percent of the world’s population. Seven percent of everyone on this planet seeing our stories, our heroes and our villains. Seven percent of humanity is being welcomed into our spaces – or feeling excluded from a lack of expansive, inclusive, accessible storytelling, technology, and places.

Seven percent. 500 million. They’re figures I can’t stop thinking about. It’s 500 million chances to flip the script. 500 million people to inspire and transform. And every time we, as an industry, don’t push ourselves on DEAI; on who we show in the artwork; on who we center in a story; on how we design our rides, our restaurants, even our bathrooms; on how we train our front line staff to engage the whole of the public respectfully and authentically; on how we hire and promote and coach; on who’s in the room when the ideas are being developed, playtested, pitched; we wind up telling stories and crafting experiences that don’t reflect and embrace the richness of the whole of humanity. We wind up designing rides where the teen in a wheelchair gets to use the compliant entrance to the ride but misses the immersive queue line that deepens the experience. We have a product mix where a young black girl struggles to see herself. We fall short. And that’s just for the seven percent who are coming. 

How do we fix that? The work starts internally – to us as individuals and as members of companies, institutions, and agencies. By embedding DEAI practice within our workspaces, we change not only our industry to be more inclusive and equitable, but we also change the culture – because we are the culture makers. We say who’s the hero. We say who’s the villain. We define what worlds people should aspire to. I hope the presentation from SATE 2019 and its associated resources help you see paths forward for yourself and your workplace, and encourage you to embrace this challenging but ultimately vital work.

As an industry, we can make a better world for the here and now and a better world to dream of and play in. I look forward to you being both ally and accomplice as, together, we roll up our sleeves and get cracking.

–Cynthia, Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research

See below for the full conference presentation and additional resources: