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.
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.
As people consider what the future of location-based entertainment in a post-coronavirus world looks like, owners and operators of theme parks, entertainment venues, and family entertainment centers consider how they will run their businesses in whatever version of the “new normal” we will have.
This white paper was written in collaboration with Cynthia Sharpe, Principal Cultural Attractions, and Dave Cobb, Principal Creative Development.
Please note: This list is not exhaustive. It doesn’t take into consideration what is needed from an employee/cast member/staff standpoint (such as ensuring employees are virus-free before entering the workplace). It does not consider an obvious primary option for operators in a post-COVID-19 world, what we call, “pass to play.” In this (very short) version of this white paper, all visitors would be required to show they had been vaccinated for COVID-19. How this verification would be done so it would be clearly legitimate, easy to view for the park employee, and easy to provide for the guest remains to be seen. (In China, residents there use an app with a QR code that is scanned at the door to verify identity and travel of the individual at most shops, restaurants, and office buildings.)
Here are seven areas for owners/operators to consider when reopening their parks and projects. This is what it’ll take to get open again–for now, not forever–and it’ll require more staff with fewer guests, a proposition that may be hard to swallow.
1. Ticketing, Entry, Security & Park Capacity
Park capacity will be a huge concern in a post-coronavirus world. Crowds on a scale typically seen in the mega parks on both coasts and internationally will need to be adjusted to allow for social distancing. While many theme parks and some larger museums have had success at shifting guests to ticketing in advance via an app or website, many smaller institutions have online ticketing rates at under 10% of all tickets sold.
Not only must physical ticketing, including changing protocols and equipment to support the health and safety of front-line staff, be addressed, but venues will also need to evaluate and potentially redesign their online ticketing experience and platforms to reduce friction and encourage uptake.
In addition to the typical “mag and bag” security (running personal items through a scanner and people through another), security might also need instant forehead temperature scanners to ensure guests are healthy. Guests may need to also wear face masks throughout their visit. Parkwide and abundant hand sanitizer stations–similar to those seen on cruise ships but even more plentiful and obvious–will be necessary.
Near-continuous and visually obvious cleaning of queue railings will be necessary regardless of what methodology is used for attraction queues. With pulsed queues, guests would be given a specific time to return, whether that’s via an app, staggered entry paper ticket, or text message.
When the guest arrives at the attraction they are let in and then they make their way to the load area (either bypassing the queue theming and show areas altogether or allowing for guests to “explore” show-heavy queues).
3. Rides & Attractions
Social distancing will need to happen in rides as well. Ride vehicles may need to be loaded with empty vehicles between guests, while coaster trains will need to consider empty rows and seats between riders, and all vehicles will need extra time to have seats and touchable surfaces sanitized before boarding. These factors alone will greatly reduce the THRC of rides and attractions, which will have a ripple effect up to the original consideration of the overall park capacity.
In a post-COVID-19 world, a heavy reliance on touch-based interactive screens is a thing of the past. There simply aren’t enough staffers to constantly be wiping down touchscreens between uses, so these interactives will need to be removed, covered, or modified. (Thinkwell Studio Montréal is developing two initiatives to deal with this issue. The first is a gesture-based retrofit that allows guests to interact with touchscreen-based digital displays, eliminating the need for touching a surface at all. The second initiative is called interactive mirroring. It puts the interactive on a guests’ mobile device, allowing them to touch their own device to input to the interactive. Both of these solutions are retrofits to many interactive stations in museums, theme parks, and other applications.)
Beyond touch screens, this is a real opportunity to consider more holistic, universal-design based approaches to interactivity, from how they can more meaningfully leverage machine learning, gesture-based inputs, and voice commands to the material choices themselves. Interactivity isn’t done for, but we’ll see the next big push forward in its design and use.
5. VR Goggles & 3D Glasses
Will people want a device, like a virtual reality goggle set and headgear at all so close to their eyes, noses, and mouths after the world goes back to some form of normal? Even with obvious cleaning, that puts the technology and the multi-use headgear and goggles uncomfortably close to the guests’ faces. What will happen with VR in public spaces?
The same holds true for 3D glasses. With as many attractions installed around the world that rely on 3D, operators need to consider single-use wrapped 3D glasses as expendables. If more than one 3D attraction exists at a park or complex, selling or giving guests a single pair of reusable glasses at the front gate that visitors keep with them would be ideal.
6. Parades, Spectaculars, & Shows
As some parks consider canceling parades, shows, and fireworks spectaculars due to the density of guests for such presentations, there might be ways to allow these things to continue. First, the peak daily in-park capacity comes into consideration again. Group sizes for these entertainments will be different than they used to be, so that will be one element to reduce some concern. Still, what is to keep people apart?
Just look to Japan for one possible solution. When visitors to theme parks in Japan want to see a parade and hold their place in line they put down a towel or blanket they brought with them, then run off to go on a ride or grab a bite to eat (more on eating in the next category). These spots are respected by all guests. Imagine if park staff taped off areas for groups—each appropriately distanced—to create spaces for guests to view parades or nighttime spectaculars. It would require guests to respect those partitions, but it would allow for the parade or spectacular to continue.
For live shows where seating is provided, social distancing is easier by simply putting a cover over seats, closing entire rows, and asking guests to put 2-4 seats between them and the next group. Loading times will need to be extended in order to ensure proper compliance with the plan. Using shows as a way to manage crowds and provide a “pressure valve” remains important.
7. Dining & Shopping
The capacity of shops and restaurants will need to be regulated to ensure social distancing. Marking tables as “out of service” will be required, or simply removing tables and chairs to open up space between diners could be considered as well. Self-service dining (buffets, salad bars, and “fixin’s” stations) will need to be shut for now. Order in advance systems, like those already found in some Disney parks, would help both with reducing time in lines as well as allowing spacing between guests.
Throughout parks, from the main gate to shops and restaurants, a touchless payment solution—like Apple/Google Pay, contactless chips in credit cards that are the standard in many countries outside of the U.S.—will need to be installed and adapted to avoid keypads, card-swiping/insertion, or signing receipts.
With all the considerations to employee and guest safety needed to make a park or entertainment complex safe (both physically and in the minds of the paying public), a lot will need to be done to prepare for reopening in a post-coronavirus world.
Of course, all of these suggestions require the guest to be an active participant in the plans and to willingly comply with these modified operational expectations. Even with all of these challenges and hurdles, we know that location-based social entertainment is going to be more important than ever for our own wellbeing and to help heal our communities. It’s become clear in the past several weeks how beloved these places are and how much we crave social experience.
If you would like to contact Thinkwell to help in your post COVID-19 plans, please contact us.
This year’s Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report has arrived! The 2016 report dives into a subject that has consumed media and technology coverage this year—Virtual Reality. Commentary on this subject has permeated the consumer landscape more than ever before, and it’s quickly becoming a technology that is more and more accessible.
What does this mean for theme park and entertainment venues? What are guests really looking for, and more important, what are their expectations with VR?
“We are researching and developing high capacity virtual reality attractions and our clients are asking us more and more for virtual reality,” said Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell. “So we felt focusing our annual Guest Experience Trend Report on virtual reality for theme parks made a lot of sense this year.”
Discover the global insights and implications for VR in this year’s report published below.
Augmented Reality. It’s a phrase that’s been bandied about for over a decade. It’s a concept that’s come to life in myriad ways. But until the launch of Pokémon Go, the promise and pitfalls of AR hadn’t been laid bare on a grand scale. Now, as Pokémon Go ignites countless Facebook wars, propels Nintendo’s market value by upwards of $7.5B USD, and sees parks and public spaces overrun with children and adults—individually and in groups—running around gathering Pokémon and snagging treats at Pokéstops, we’re seeing the potential for fun, community building, and social engagement on a grand scale. But we’re also witnessing the problems inherent in building a massive AR based upon decisions made long ago, rooted in data collected in part from users, and disconnected from the realities of a changing world.
As a quick overview, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game1 played via a smartphone or cell-enabled tablet. Players traverse the real world, catching Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops to gather supplies, and battling at Pokégyms. Pokéstops and Pokégyms are “anchored” on the map to actual places, such as statues, fountains, signs, gardens, or specific locations in or near buildings such as churches. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, spun off from Google with investment from Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Google, after their successful launch of an earlier AR game called Ingress—and that’s where a number of the issues lie.
The Pokémon Go map is built in large part upon the Ingress map2. Ingress, while it has millions of app downloads (upwards of seven million), has a relatively small core player base (current estimates range from 350,000-750,000 active, regular users). Its rollout was also staggered, launching on the Android platform first, on December 14, 2013, and then for iOS on July 14, 2014. Without delving into the backstory, much of the action in Ingress revolves around portals—interacting with them to gain items, deploying items to claim or improve them for your chosen faction, defending them against the other faction. It’s this portal map that has seeded much of the Pokémon Go world—those portal locations have formed the basis for the Pokéstops and Pokégyms.
The portal maps were rooted, at first, on popular locations. This included not only obvious choices such as the Washington Monument, but also locations which were frequently geo-tagged in photos—in short, user generated data, where the original creator had no idea their geo-tagging would be used to site a real world game stop. In addition, Ingress players were invited to submit portal suggestions. Niantic was flooded with over 15 million suggestions, and the review and approval process was lengthy, opaque, and prone to inconsistency. One player might suggest a portal location and have it rejected, while another player would suggest the same place and get it approved months later. Over five million user suggested portals were placed.
Ingress, however, is a fundamentally and radically different game than Pokémon Go. For one, it didn’t have the power of a decades-long, beloved intellectual property behind it. It has a significantly smaller player base, even in when you compare the first bloom of launch, widespread press, and “try it out” adoption. While it supports social engagement and cooperation, the backstory of Ingress is one of intrigue and shadowy goings-on. It is aimed squarely at adults, and lacks the chance aspect of collecting items out in the real world away from portals that Pokémon Go has with its “gotta catch ‘em all” Pokémon gathering aspect.
And here’s where it all horribly collides. A quick search of geo-tagged photos reveals thousands of photos at places like the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sure enough, Arlington National Cemetery is littered with Ingress portals, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Medgar Evers’ tomb, the final resting place of Robert F. Kennedy, and more. And that’s translated to Pokéstops in what many consider sacred, hallowed ground.3 Similarly, the area around the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is rife with Pokéstops. But even if there weren’t stops at these places, Pokémon spawn all over the map, regardless of Pokéstops (though players can drop items at stops to lure Pokémon there). People could traipse through America’s iconic graveyard and memorial for service men and women snagging Magikarps and Psyducks. Or, as one New York author put it after visiting a variety of emotionally charged sites in the city, “That is a coffin of nameless orphans and that is a Pokéstop.”4
To put it mildly, it’s a problem with the game. Having the leadership of major memorials and venues come out and say they are trying to get their site delisted as a Pokéstop or gym does not make for great press. Homeowners who live in unusual or iconic buildings that are now private dwellings have found strangers in their yards and on their driveways at all hours of the day and night. And the process of delisting is fraught with challenges—within the game, one can “report an issue” with a stop or gym, but that is a general category of issue. At launch, there was no clear, obvious way for the director of a venue or the owner of a site to make an emergency or high priority request. Interestingly, many of the portals in Ingress at these challenging sites are relatively low level; that is, few people engage with them, perhaps out of a sense of propriety. The older, theoretically more mature audience of Ingress is likely more discerning about where and when it’s appropriate to play a game than an 11-year-old chasing a Pikachu, iPhone in hand.
All of this is not to say there aren’t positive aspects of Pokémon Go—far from it. Many libraries are reporting a surge in usage; colleges are cheerfully offering Pokémon tours, posting maps of Pokéstops and gyms on their campuses, and encouraging students to play together and responsibly. Players are self-reporting significant upswings in their physical activity levels (in order to incubate eggs that you can get at Pokéstops, you have to walk varying distances, in addition to the need to get out there and explore to find Pokémon, stops, and gyms). Kids and parents are frequently seen playing together in parks and playgrounds. Players are voluntarily leaving lures near children’s hospitals, so the kids inside who can’t walk the necessary blocks outside can still play the game. Within the Autism Spectrum parent community, there are already innumerable reports of children who typically avoid changes in routine and social engagement being willing to go to parks, engage with others, and try new things in the service of playing Pokémon Go. As a social experience, Pokémon Go is breaking barriers and getting people out and about—something many experience designers strive to achieve.
As designers of location-based entertainment and educational experiences, Thinkwell has long touted the promise — and challenges — of technologies such as AR, and the idea of using a mobile device to enhance and augment a visit to a theme park, museum, or attraction with gamification and social interaction. The experience since the launch of Pokémon Go highlights the need for owners and operators considering an AR overlay or component to take some serious precautionary and planning steps:
Think about your audience. As we’ve shown, part of the underlying issue with Pokémon is not just the different gameplay, but also the radically different and bigger audience. Creators need to think about who will be playing the game and how they engage with the world. One very smart thing that Niantic did relates to safety: if a Pokémon appears on your map, it can be caught from where you are (you can even switching from AR mode to on-screen play mode to make it easier). There’s no need to cross a busy street or hop a fence. Given that children and teens are playing, this was a savvy design choice.
Consider where engagements happen. Choose wisely, to be blunt about it — and if you are in essence outsourcing the location selection to data someone else has generated, have a review process and standards in place prior to launch and scrub your map accordingly. You cannot rely on user generated data to make responsible, thoughtful, mindful, or empathetic choices.
Have a clear process for handling people roped unwittingly into the game. It took over a week from launch for Niantic to unveil a way for ‘owners’ of questionable locations to quickly and permanently delist their locations; it’s unclear how the new system will prioritize delisting or how quickly requests will be addressed. Until Niantic quietly rolled out this system, the bad press and angry location owners continued to churn, and the damage is done.
Think through the ramifications of open world play. Pokémon can spawn almost anywhere, and this is a problem. A site such as a cemetery or memorial should be able to request that theirs is a ‘clear zone’ where no Pokémon spawn; currently they cannot. If you are developing a game that extends beyond the boundaries of your site, it behooves you to think about where gameplay is appropriate and inappropriate, and structure the game accordingly.
Work with location owners. While some location owners, such as small businesses benefitting from an uptick in traffic, welcome Pokémon Go players, others are still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that a fountain on their property is suddenly attracting people. Consider developing an informational kit that provides these location owners with contacts for reporting issues, ideas for how to capitalize on player presence, and an explanation of the game itself.
Be prepared to capitalize on unexpected positive outcomes. The positive effect of Pokémon Go on some children with ASD is an unforeseen, yet fantastic, effect of the game, that Niantic could build upon, perhaps by partnering with advocacy groups to develop targeted materials around the game. The active exercise aspect of Pokémon Go is another aspect that could be highlighted — imagine an ongoing tally of gross distance walked, or calories burned, by all current players? Groups developing new ARs should be willing to leverage unforeseen positive outcomes.
Much of the issue with Pokémon Go and AR in general boils down to the fact that it’s just new, uncharted territory. Or is it? It seems with any new technology and subsequent pop-culture craze that emerges from that technology, there is bound to be challenges, pitfalls, and hand-wringing. Before Pokémon Go, Sony Walkmans were distracting people into accidents — and now headphone-listening in public is something we’ve all adjusted to responsibly. Before Pokémon Go, videogames were “rotting our brains” and keeping kids indoors — and now it’s a burgeoning artform creating all new forms of social storytelling. There will always be folks in the herd whose bad behavior will ultimately get them thinned from said herd — but as designers, we can help craft experiences that will guide the audience in the right direction, with the right motivation — slowly creating audiences that are thoughtful, engaged, and maybe, hopefully, even more community-minded.
Thinkwell’s 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report Focuses on Consumer Trends in Location-Based Entertainment Infused with Intellectual Properties
The recent surge in popularity of intellectual properties (IP) appearing in everything from theme parks and attractions to merchandise and museums had us at Thinkwell wondering whether this phenomenon will be an enduring profit generator for IP owners and the operators of entertainment and education venues. Does the presence of an IP lend credibility, trustworthiness, and value to a venue and would consumers be willing to visit this venue more often? Especially as more location-based entertainment (LBE) venues start to incorporate IPs, would visitors spend more money and time on their experiences and should IP owners start to license their properties more heavily to explore that possibility?
The 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report was created to answer questions like those. For the past two years, Thinkwell has published Guest Experience Trend Reports that investigated the behavior of guests as they explored theme parks and museums and how technology could be utilized to enhance or improve their visits. For the 2015 Guest Experience Trend Report, Thinkwell examined not only the behavior of guests as they navigated experiences, but also the reasoning behind deciding to go and make purchases at LBE venues.
Thinkwell had a nationwide survey conducted that polled over 1,000 adults with children to analyze their spending choices at family-friendly LBEs, specifically family entertainment centers, children’s museums, aquariums & zoos, and restaurants. The goal of the survey was to determine whether families would be inclined to visit one of those venues more often and spend more money on purchases if they were completely infused with a specific IP from a major motion picture, television show, video game, or book.
The results, while not entirely surprising, confirmed that families are indeed willing to spend more on an experience at an LBE if it featured a specific intellectual property. What was surprising however was that the results showed respondents would be less willing to spend an increased amount of money or time at an IP-specific educational experience versus an IP-specific entertainment experience.
Most respondents still preferred authentic and traditional experiences at children’s museums and didn’t necessarily feel that adding an IP would increase the value of the educational experience. Even at zoos and aquariums, which toe the line between education and entertainment, a smaller percentage of respondents stated they would pay more for things like annual memberships, merchandise, and souvenirs at an IP-specific location. But when going out for fun at family entertainment centers however, a much larger segment of respondents stated that they would be willing to spend more money and time on an IP-specific experience. Entertainment Versus Educational Experiences
An astonishing 76% of the survey respondents stated that they would enjoy the experience at a family entertainment center more if it were infused with a recognizable IP from a motion picture, television show, video game, cartoon, or book. More than 62% of respondents also said they would be willing to spend more money on food, souvenirs, and merchandise if they included characters or imagery from a favorite IP. Not only did respondents claim that they would be willing to spend more money at a family entertainment center if it was IP-specific, 72% also stated they would visit more often than if it was a generic LBE venue.
Though an impressive 61% of respondents also stated they would visit a children’s museum more often if there were exhibits based around a child’s favorite IP, only half of respondents stated they would be willing to pay more for an annual membership, merchandise, or souvenirs despite having IP-specific elements at the museum. In a more traditional educational institution, respondents did not feel that having IP-specific exhibits added any value or incentive to visit the venue more often, nor were they inclined to spend more money on purchases there.
Even at a zoo or aquarium, which blends education and entertainment, only little more than half of respondents stated they would want to visit more often if there were IP-specific exhibits. Because respondents claimed that the primary reason they visit a zoo or aquarium is to spend time together as a family and not to see new or existing exhibits, having IP-specific overlays would not be a compelling enough reason for visitors to visit more often or purchase more merchandise or souvenirs.
While the previous three LBEs might be reserved for special occasions or weekend activities, 76% of respondents stated that eating out at a restaurant is a normal weekly activity. If an IP-themed restaurant was an option in addition to casual chain restaurants, fast food restaurants, and neighborhood restaurants, a majority of respondents stated that it would be a logical choice for their families when eating out. Particularly since a kid-friendly atmosphere was the most important factor for families in choosing a restaurant, having an IP-specific environment would please kids and parents alike, with Disney™, Star Wars™, and Harry Potter™ being popular IPs for influencing families on their themed restaurant choices.
The Why and Why Not
The study conclusively revealed that respondents would indeed be willing to visit an IP-specific LBE venue more often and spend more money on these experiences. But what were the motivating factors for these preferences? Based on 1,032 open-ended answers, the respondents who were more likely to prefer an IP-specific LBE stated that the experiences would be “more fun,” “make the kids happy,” and “make the experience more special.” These respondents felt that seeing recognizable or familiar characters and elements would be a treat for the kids and would be far more entertaining that visiting a generic LBE.
For the respondents that did not feel more inclined to visit an IP-specific LBE, cost was the biggest deciding factor against choosing these experiences over generic ones. These respondents did not feel that an IP-infused experience added any value for the implied increased cost, nor did they feel that the quality of the environment, food, merchandise, or souvenirs would be any better at an IP-specific LBE. Other consistent responses were that an IP would make the experience “too commercial,” “trendy,” and “distracting” so that families wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy their time at an IP-specific LBE. The Value of Intellectual Properties
After examining the survey responses, the 2015 Thinkwell Guest Experience Trend Report concludes that IP owners can absolutely benefit from licensing and infusing their IPs into family entertainment centers, children’s museums, zoos & aquariums, and restaurants. Respondents were generally positive about wanting to experience IP-specific LBEs and were willing to pay more money and spend more time at these venues. So to answer our initial question about whether extending an IP could be an enduring profit generator, the study confirms that there is a demand for it and IP owners should invest in meeting that demand.
“Thinkwell has believed in the power of an intellectual property in attracting and retaining guests since the very beginning of the company,” said Craig Hanna, Thinkwell’s Chief Creative Officer. “This study highlights that the value of blockbuster brands and IP is only getting stronger, even in an increasingly crowded market, and that the public’s thirst for IP hasn’t been quenched yet.”
Recently my colleagues and I were discussing museums over lunch. We all have a passionate interest in museums of all kinds, to one degree or another. We each had a memory to share about a favorite exhibit, a particular artifact, or even a favorite display technique, but something else came up that was very intriguing. Although we pronounced our undying affection for museums of every type, none of us had actually been to one as a guest in months. In fact, as it turns out, this relatively diverse group of writers, producers, creative directors, and artists, the so-called “interested” individuals who would seem to be the heartiest museum-goers, were all uniformly unenthused about the promise of a museum outing. Why?
We had the typical excuses: the museums are too hard to get to, the parking is a hassle, the price is too high, I can only go on the week-ends when the crowds are bad. All of these are legitimate, but none of them so daunting that they would really keep us away if the museum were compelling enough. And there’s the rub– they just… aren’t. The more we talked, the more we realized that generally museums aren’t worth going out of our way for. In some cases, they aren’t compelling enough to even warrant a spot on our recreational pastimes list (when discussing why we choose to go to museums when we do, one person replied, “When there’s nothing better to do”).
In light of all other entertainments, museums feel slightly out of touch. Even the word “museum,” feels archaic and dusty, like an invention from the 19th Century that has outlasted its usefulness. The word brings to mind the vaulted, marble floored institutions filled with relics, sarcophagi and other musty dead things behind glass or encased in formaldehyde. This is the iconic Hollywood location; the “Museum of Antiquities” visited by characters ranging from Indiana Jones to Curious George. Of course, that image doesn’t necessarily jive with the reality of today’s museums, but even the edgy architecture and the modern compulsion for Science Center interactivity cannot overcome our reluctance to go. We know it’s good for us, but so is oatmeal.
Art museums, meanwhile, elicited off-putting visions of stark minimalism: lean, streamlined galleries with a hint of erudition that left us feeling cold and out-of-place: these galleries are for experts and aficionados, certainly, but not for lay folk. The art itself is beautifully displayed, typically, but in a surreal vacuum of context. In so many cases, the works are presented with a succinct text panel, with barely any room to share even the most compelling stories about the piece, its creator, or of its time. This information is surprisingly hard to find; relegated to text on handouts or the monotonous banter of an audio tour.
TOO MUCH STATIC
While we have become increasingly spoiled by instantaneous access to information and entertainment literally at our fingertips, museum exhibits are frustratingly undynamic. The content is selected, processed and delivered down a one-way pipeline; an authoritarian board selects and presents the information that they deem worthy of our consumption. The typical museum communicates through lectures, not dialogue, and there are few ways within the museum itself for guests to pose questions or explore tangential ideas that the exhibits might inspire.
For better or worse, we live in an age of instant gratification and information access. The Internet provides an infinite web of information over which we wield complete control. Type in any subject and in a keystroke you have hundreds of relevant links that let you dive as deep into content as you want; even Wiki your own. As you do, you’ll inevitably stumble across another topic that strikes your fancy, and off you go on a whirlwind, stream-of-consciousness infosearch that could continue infinitely, if you so desire.
You don’t even need a computer anymore! Hold an iPhone in the air and with a touch on the screen and the right app, you can find out the name of the song that is playing in the elevator, and what artist or artists recorded it. Take a picture of any product anywhere with the same iPhone and another app will “look” at the picture, identify the product and then scan the Internet for more details, including make, model, and msrp. With the tap of another button, you can download the song or order the product online (after price-comparing on multiple sites for the best value, of course). And with the advent of services like iTunes, TiVo, and Netflix (along with home theater systems that rival the local cineplex’s) even television and the movies are under our beck and call. IN THE DRIVERS SEAT
We’ve grown fond of this control. Rather than follow a designated path the curator has chosen for us, we prefer to choose our own and use the museum exhibits as a jumping off point for further investigation across many disciplines. The internet provides links to all sorts of tangential topics, how can the museum do the same and allow us to explore equally fascinating (and sometimes tangential) topics of our choosing?
Technological overlays could enhance the presentational nature of static exhibits and transform them into interactive research tools that put the guest in the driver’s seat. Imagine a digital heads-up display, integrated into a clear display case or panel in front of an art piece. With gesture recognition hardware linked to a computer database, the art or artifact becomes the touch point for multi-disciplinary research. Through the display, the guest can explore, not just the piece itself, but also the history of the object, the tools and techniques used to create it, the historical timelines that parallel its creation. You could, with the wave of a hand, learn more about the artist, link to other works that have a significant connection, grab a virtual magnifying glass and drag it across the canvas to “see” the brush work up close, or open video clips of experts and curators sharing interesting information about the item, and then record and share your own insights about the item for others to access.
Audio programs have become a ubiquitous part of the museum experience, but often they are simply dry recitations of facts and figures. These could be diversified to provide a unique point of view, to provoke a laugh, an epiphany or an opposing viewpoint. Imagine these audio devices featuring a selection of different voices each providing their own personal and sometimes biting commentary. What if, instead of the faceless avuncular voice museum audio programs currently employ, we could hear Jon Stewart’s take on this exhibit? Or David Sedaris? Or the creator of the artwork that’s on display. Suddenly, each visit to the museum takes on a new personality and a new point of view that contrasts sharply with the last, leading the guest to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions.
In this way, the audio track enhances the exhibit like the director’s commentary on the bonus tracks of a motion picture DVD. Taken to the next logical conclusion, the audio commentary might be guest-created, with personal observations and Wikipedia-like modifications. Now the audio programs function like blog entries on the Internet, entries which are oftentimes more enjoyable than the articles themselves.
We want to play. We want to touch things, turn them around, take them apart,see how they work. Play is an important learning tool for both children and adults, and museums should provide hands on labs for grown ups whenever possible. Perhaps this is a painting studio, where we can get a first-hand appreciation of art techniques like highlights and shadows, brush work, color mixing, and so on. It might be an adult-scale paleontology dig pit, with real equipment instead of sand pails and shovels. Perhaps this is a kinetic physics lab, where we can create our own kinetic sculptures, build DaVinci’s incredible machines, or play with light and sound. This isn’t just an assortment of science center, touch-the-button-interactives, but a working shop where we can deconstruct, analyze, and touch the rudimentary components of the exhibit.
This is a place where the current museum model would be exploded: where the back-of-house spaces, the archives, the workshops, the libraries, would all be available to the public for unlimited use, and would no longer be the exclusive domain of the museum staff. This is an institute where the guest is the creator, the researcher, and the arbiter of the museum’s ever-changing content. MUSEUMS AS AN EVENT
Ultimately, we see a blending of all these programs and resources until the museum becomes the anchor and hub for a new entertainment, a multifaceted and wide-ranging event, designed and directed by the museum, that immerses guests completely within the exhibit experience. The subjects of these events could be a single artwork, artifact (a White Star Lines dinner plate, say), even a significant date, 1492, for example, or 1968. Imagine an art event, for example, which is anchored by a single work, but which allows you to explore your own path within multiple disciplines as defined by the work. The art work is the catalyst for a totally unique, self-directed experience through connected subjects.
Say the featured work is, for example, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte. Surrounding the main piece are supporting, cross-discipline experiences that are totally unique, yet connected to the original piece through which you can freely roam. The evening begins with dinner in the restaurant surrounded by Seurat’s other works while the artist himself (a performer, in this case) discusses their importance. Afterwards, you might step into Seurat’s studio if you wish, slip on a smock and get your hands dirty as you paint and begin to understand and appreciate “pointillism”.
In the studio, you can see how the artist worked in a world without Photoshop and art supply stores. You might explore the chemistry paint and the colors Seurat used, how his canvases were framed and stretched, even how he made his own brushes.
Another hall then immerses you in a living history of the era, in a pub, perhaps surrounded by (and interacting with) the people depicted on the canvas. By talking with them, you learn their hopes, dreams, and daily struggles, and see and explore the social influences under which the art was created. Through open discussion you can understand why was this piece created, what the artist was trying to say, what he was responding to culturally or politically. In yet another gallery, you could trace the evolution of the piece in previous and future works. How was the creation of this painting inevitable, and how has it transformed what came after? Who were the other great thinkers, creators, pioneers at the time of this piece’s creation? In any case, the subject of the exhibit, whatever it may be, becomes impeccably relevant and indelibly memorable for the visitor.
Ultimately, we see the museum as a versatile destination with multiple uses. A sort of contemporary salon: a place where people can dine, sip coffee, read, share ideas, research, create. With a lush coffee shop or café at its core (that is interwoven with, not isolated from the exhibits), this new museum would become a hang-out, a social and ideological gathering place, with a library, a theater, even a creative laboratory with accessible studios and workshops.
During our discussion, one of my colleagues blurted, “My God we’re inventing college!” Indeed, like a college campus, this museum provides a safe haven for open discussion, exploration, invention and research, but this place would be available to students of every age, not just college kids. OUT OF THE BOX
As we continued to explore these “what ifs,” we almost simultaneously realized that we had yet to really smash the old museum model. We may have shaken up the contents of the box, but we hadn’t yet taken them out of it. All of these previous notions assume that the museum is a separate institution located off the beaten path in its own separate and self-contained building.
But why must the museum insist we go to it? Instead, what if the museum board thinks more like a retail developer: find a way to bring the museum to where the people already are?
There is no good reason for museums to assume the additional effort and expense to physically add restaurants, workshops, libraries and theaters to create a social hub, when these destinations already exist and are thriving. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Main Street gave way to the suburban shopping mall. Ironically, in the 21st century, the mall is ceding to the lifestyle center: destinations where shopping and entertainment (complete with green spaces, rides and multi-use concert venues) commingle to create a bustling place to see and be seen. These regional neighborhoods, with their residential condominiums and apartments hovering above retail stores, movies, restaurants, even bowling alleys, have become America’s new Main Streets.
Museums exhibits would fit in this place as naturally as Starbucks. These smaller, satellite locations could either stand alone or work in support of a museum’s flagship institution. The museum would provide the brand for a franchise, not of stores, but of exhibit galleries through which the museum’s artifacts and programs would rotate. By inserting itself in a residential address that also happens to be a thriving commercial hub, the museum becomes an integral part of the neighborhood, where a visit to the gallery is as daily a routine as a grande latte.
In this location, guests are not captives in the museum. With their membership or paid admission, they can enter and exit as often as they like during the day. They can browse the galleries at their leisure, in digestible chunks, and then take a break and discuss the content over a meal at an adjacent restaurant, bistro, or coffee house, where still other exhibits are on display.
The museum also has the opportunity to extend beyond the gallery walls and provide a thematic overlay to the lifestyle center. Exhibits could become interwoven into the landscape and signage of the entire plaza, providing content while drawing guests to the facility at the same time.
Museums used to be the exclusive domain of the IMAX theater, but not any more. More and more studios are releasing large format versions of their films (now in digital 3D!) and the IMAX experience is quickly becoming de gigeuer at the local multiplex. Rather than compete with the studios, the IMAX could become a shared resource, showing the museum’s short subjects during the day and early evening before transitioning to the feature films later on.
What museum staffs cannot forget, whether they like it or not, is that museum admissions are, in the eyes of the guest, entertainment dollars. The money they pull from their pocket to pay the entry fee comes out of an ever-dwindling discretionary budget, and though that entertainment dollar is limited, entertainment options are anything but. Never mind the lofty mission goals and educational standards; today’s museum is competing directly with movies, theme parks, corporate brand experiences (i.e. The World of Coke, M&M’s World, etc), nightclubs, and restaurants for a tiny share of that
precious entertainment dollar. Rather than compete against these other offerings, we see museums collaborating with, intermingling among, and even perhaps, branding them.
In these challenging economic times, when endowments are dwindling and promised contributions shrink or disappear entirely, the museum must begin to focus on the sure revenue stream: admissions. True, most museums generate less than 25% of their revenue from ticket sales, and the average visitor spends less than $1.00 on retail and food and beverages, but these are past statistics, not rules. Why not open a restaurant within the museum walls? Why not build a gallery smack in the middle of a retail hub? Why not aggressively pursue the visitor’s entertainment dollar? This doesn’t mean turning away from the institutions goals, but it does require creativity to find a way to achieve the mission within a new business plan, one that focuses on the desires and interests of the guest, and that means understanding, responding to, and delivering on their expectations.