Why Don’t Museum Exhibitions Evolve?

At Blue State Digital, we sometimes talk about fireworks and fireflies. Many organisations launch fireworks-style campaigns—a big burst of activity around a single moment—but it fades fast and the crowd disperses. We like fireflies better—a collection of individual movements and actions that come together to form a meaningful whole. It takes longer to build, but the glow lasts longer. While we use this metaphor for campaigns and digital activity, it’s apt for museums as well.

Photo by Nevit Dilmen.
Photo by Nevit Dilmen.

Many of our museum clients are making huge strides with digital, whether it’s posting fresh content on social media, digitising their collections, or working in more agile and collaborative ways. But all of them still treat their exhibitions as something separate from digital, with a traditional approach—lots of advance planning, a big launch, and a static show for a number of months until it closes. But this doesn’t have to be case.

Just as we optimise digital campaigns, and find ways for people to engage with them repeatedly, there is huge opportunity for museum exhibitions to work in the same way. Sure, there are the realities of physical spaces and collection objects, but digital can offer an experience layer that leads to repeat visits, and allows the audience’s experience of the exhibition to change and evolve over time. Here are a few ways to make this happen:

  1. The humble audio guide. Audio guides are starting to be seen as relics, partly because of the physical devices they are often presented on (although bring-your-own-device guides are becoming common). But audio guides are an easy to way to create unique experiences—we just need to be creative with them. All kinds of audiences visit exhibitions, so why is there often only one audio guide for everyone? What about a comedian’s tour of an exhibition, music composed for the exhibition, sounds of nature for children in a natural history museum, different narrative angles—so many possibilities. And how about a guide for when you’re not in the museum, to relate the exhibition to the world around us? Multiple guide options would give a reason for people to visit more than once.
  2. Rotating collection objects. Collection items can rotate every week, based upon people’s interest levels, possibly determined through exit surveys or online votes. Adding a “choose-your-own-adventure” element to exhibitions, similar to immersive theatre productions such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, can keep people coming back for one-on-one interactions, hidden rooms, and secret activations. By layering digital on top of these rotating exhibits, you can expand the narrative to before or after the physical visit, gamify the experience, and let visitors customize their relationship with the museum.
  3. Expanding exhibitions. New items or areas can be “unlocked” over time, either based on attendance, personal participation, or solely through digital content that extends the experience beyond the physical museum.
  4. Optimising. Just as digital campaigns can use data to adjust over time, so can exhibitions. Whether purely through online (engagement with website and content), or offline (attendance, location-based wifi data), museums can understand where people are engaging, and how to fuel that engagement going forward. For example, if audiences tend to linger on one collection item, perhaps a follow-up email linking to more online content about that item would sustain interest and create a deeper, longer-lasting relationship.
  5. Digital tours and deep dives. Given that many museums are at capacity in terms of physical attendance, and seek to build global audiences, digital offers ways to create evolving experiences. Many exhibitions create a teaser or overview video of an exhibition—and that’s it. But similar to having options for audio guides, how about different views of an exhibition by different curators? Or a deep dive into a topic or object, telling the story of the object’s history and path to the museum.

Every museum we meet with has an abundance of ideas for great stories or experiences. But they’re often still taking a “launch and leave” approach to exhibitions—a quick, big bang. A firework. Digital is enabling all kinds of experiences that are more personal, that adapt and evolve, and that encourage repeat experiences. It’s time for museum exhibitions to do the same.