Jessica Stitt

By Jessica Stitt

The museum experience


Visitors in the Vatican’s Chiaramonti Museum

Even if you have never been in a museum you probably have some idea of what to expect. But whether you’re a seasoned visitor or not you may not realise that museums have been undergoing a revolution. There has been a fundamental shift that has called into question what a museum does, how it does it, and why. And it’s all about experiences.

If you listen to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 (Sundays, 9am) you may have heard a regular series of slots called ‘In praise of small museums’. Each week a small museum, usually nominated by a listener, gets about two minutes of fame. The British Lawnmower Museum, Framework Knitters Museum and Museum of Carpet have all caught my eye (or rather, ear).

The British Lawnmower Museum. If you want to know what it's like inside you will have to visit.

The British Lawnmower Museum. If you want to know what it’s like inside you will have to visit.

This little series reminds me of Behind the Scenes at the museum of baked beans: My search for Britain’s maddest museums by Hunter Davies. This is not an outlandish work of fiction, but is an affectionate travelogue of Davies’ visits to the small museums of Britain and his encounters with the individuals who are behind them.

What comes across strongly in both cases is the experience of the visitor – the sounds of the knitting machines, or of keys opening locked doors, and the sense of discovery, of stepping back in time, and of finding something new, interesting and unexpected. These experiences are all examples of what museums deliver.

Melvyn Bragg, in his preface to the radio series has a more grandiose take on this – museums are part of ‘national memory’ and our sense of who we are. These museums represent history, memory, culture and roots. Museums, therefore, have a socio-cultural function, they have the potential to engage with, serve and develop communities, and to transform their visitors.

Notions of service, transformation, and experience are all found in operations management, but usually goods are transformed or services are delivered. Experiences have received attention relatively recently, since Pine and Gilmore introduced the concept of the experience economy.

Get your 'eatertainment' at Planet Hollywood, part of the experience economy

Get your ‘eatertainment’ at Planet Hollywood, part of the experience economy

Pine and Gilmore recognised that firms were increasingly paying more attention to the customer experience, with competitive advantage going to those who designed and delivered the most satisfying and memorable experiences to their consumers. They also recognised that delivering experiences is not a new phenomenon – it’s something the entertainment industry has been doing for donkey’s years.

Museums, while not explicitely being ‘entertainment’, are nevertheless in the business of delivering experiences. This is something they have in common with the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries. Interestingly, Pine and Gilmore rehashed their piece on the experience economy for Museum News (1999, 78(2), 45-48) and this was subsequently picked up by museologist Peter van Mensch.

Van Mensch draws parallels between the influence of the emergent experience economy in the 1990s and what he sees as the ‘third revolution’ in museums. This third revolution is the development of the participatory museum, one that engages with audiences in a two way exchange. Museums are no longer just about research, conniseurship and scholarship but are about public involvement, whether this is something they initiate, or simply facilitate.

Participation and connection – the two key ingredients of experiences identified by Pine and Gilmore – are central to what the modern museum delivers. Van Mensch calls for greater appreciation of the aspirations of visitors. If museums understand these aspirations then they can do more to create experiences that visitors want and need.

With this call to action, and with his talk of revolutions, van Mensch understands that there is a fundamental tension in museums: do they exist to provide access to their collections, or to provide experiences to visitors? Of course, access is an experience, but these two positions have important differences. What is a museum for? It is about the collection, or is it about the visitors?

For many museums the collection existed well before the museum did. This includes not only the small museums in Davies’ book but major collections in the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Uffizi to name but a few. A collection can be a reason to found a museum, and can continue to exist long after a museum has closed. So the model of a museum collection being a group of assets which the museum uses to create experiential products does not seem to capture the whole story.

John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638), whose collection formed the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum

John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638), whose collection formed the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum

However, something else that comes across from ‘In praise of small museums’ and Davies’ book is the sense of forgotten museums, museums under threat and in decline. Some of these places are run by elderly enthusiasts catering for a handful of bemused visitors.

Museums needs visitors in order to survive, and what Pine and Gilmore and van Mensch are saying is that the way to attract more visitors is to offer memorable experiences. Museums have always offered experiences, some for well over 100 years, but the nature of this experience has changed. While it once may have been enough to display a collection and say ‘come and see it’, this is no longer the case.

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