One of the great things about living in New York City is the museums and galleries. There are so many that it can be hard to keep up with all the shows, but it’s well worth making the effort if you have the time. At their very best, exhibitions are inspiring and restorative experiences. And at the other end of the spectrum are the shows that make you wonder why you sacrificed precious free time and put up with the crowds and the noise in the first place.
The visitor experience needs a refresh.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the visitor experience at museums lately. My recent visits have been hit or miss. I’ve walked out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art twice, without even seeing a show (that’s a story for another post). And, unexpectedly, I’ve lingered in shows that seemed perfunctory at first. Overall what’s struck me is how little the visitor experience has changed since I first came to New York in 1994. We still walk through a series of crowded rooms filled with loud people and visual and informational overload. It is challenging to take it all in at the same time. My decision to visit a museum always involves calculating the tradeoff between my level of interest in the subject matter versus putting up with the challenges of the gallery environment.
Isn’t it strange that institutions dedicated to preserving and sharing artifacts of creativity and innovation have not used these same qualities to create a stronger connection with the public? Museums, with their fascinating collections and talented staff, are perfectly positioned to lead the way with innovative storytelling techniques that incorporate new technologies and ethnographic research about how people really want to experience a visit to a museum, an exhibit, or a gallery.
The visitor experience is the brand experience.
Visiting a museum or an exhibition is no different from any other consumer experience in that we arrive with expectations, just as we do with any retail or dining experience. Whether those expectations are met or not determines our loyalty to the brand. A great, or even good, experience at an art show inspires us to tell our friends about it and keeps us going back for more. A bad experience can turn us away from the brand for good. Museums need to understand that their visitor’s expectations have been shaped by other, more advanced, consumer experiences out in the world today. And we bring those same expectations to our museum visits.
The brand experience happens in-person and on-line, equally.
Museums are in trouble if they can’t generate enough excitement to inspire visits in the first place, and even more so if we’re bored when we do visit. We usually learn about shows through traditional and social media, and then go to a museum website for more information. This is all part of the visitor experience, in my opinion, so it would follow that a museum’s digital presence would be just as important as its brick and mortar presence in terms of attracting and maintaining audiences. Every single touchpoint counts when it comes to brand loyalty. But a quick survey of museum websites shows that digital has been treated as a secondary consideration until very recently. The dated ‘brochure’ approach still prevails.
Brands must challenge old thinking to stay relevant.
Unfortunately I think this primary/secondary attitude arises from the long-held belief within the art world that art must be viewed in person for the experience to be valid or meaningful. That sacred cow has got to go. It’s time to rethink who a visitor may be, and what their experience can be. Many more people are able to visit a website, download an app, and participate in online programming than will ever be able to visit a museum in person. Younger visitors are used to paying for content, which opens up entirely new membership models. Why not create art history modules that could be marketed not only to the general public, but also as a curriculum to cultural and educational institutions? And why not give all those artifacts in storage an opportunity to shine from the dark, through exclusive on-line exhibitions? The tools for dynamic storytelling on-line exist, as John Branch’s story in New York Times so elegantly demonstrated earlier this year. There are so many opportunities for museums to demonstrate leadership in this area. Done right, visitors may be so engaged by what they experience online that they will strive to visit in-person.
Having said all this, there’s a lot on offer by different institutions that I haven’t yet experienced. So I’m going to use this space for an occasional series on my visitor experience with museums, in-person, on-line, and anywhere else I encounter them. Suggestions for museums, shows, sites and blogs I should visit? Please share.
Next up: my recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the John Singer Sargent Watercolors show, on view until July 28th, 2013.