Art engagement is at a crossroads. Leading international museums are posting record visitor attendance – recent statistics indicate that around 75% of Swedes attended a museum or gallery in the past year. Education and outreach programmes ensure museums reach a broader demographic than ever before, while major museums have increasingly become destinations in and of themselves, featuring on the weekend agenda of most urban tourists.
75% of Swedes attended a museum or gallery in the past year
Which is all terrific news. On the surface, our societies are increasingly culturally aware, despite the tough funding situation for cultural enterprises. What’s even better: greater visitor numbers help museums pay their way – museums’ sponsorship, donations, admission fees and public funding all benefit from higher attendance.
But museums have, by and large, stuck with a one-size-fits-all engagement model: gallery wall text, maybe an audio guide, a few paragraphs of label information (often detailing exactly what you see in the artwork), a detailed catalogue you can buy but likely never really read.
It’s a subpar solution, at best. Visitors bunch up in front of the wall texts, then pass through the galleries spending more of their time trying to read the microscopic label texts that accompany the artworks – while often devoting just a few fleeting glances at the work itself, as if to check that the label truly depicts what is going on in the work.
How can attention be brought back to the artwork? How can informative and educational information, historical context and expert insight come together without sacrificing the visual experience of the exhibition? And how the whole experience be inclusive and educational, providing content to satisfy knowledgeable fans as well as first-time visitors?
I can envisage three forms of solutions involving changes in storytelling, formats, and technology.
Storytelling is key to involving audiences. It’s about taking people on a journey. A sort of narrative contract forms when the visitor enters the exhibition space. People need to know a few things up front, among which might be why the exhibition is framed the way it is and why that’s important; what to expect in terms of overall size and the relative merits of different elements of the exhibition; a clear starting point and, possibly, a conclusion the exhibition builds towards.
This is the outline against which the exhibition hangs, giving visitors an insight early on helps them invest more energy in looking at the art itself, rather than trying to puzzle out why they’re looking at whatever it is, how it’s linked to the last room, what’s coming up, and all the while wondering if, like the White Rabbit, they’re late and going too slowly.
Moving on to formats, what is it about museums that limits experimentation in presentation? While every semi-indie movie and magazine is overdosing on infographics, user interface design is about reducing text as much as possible, and the bullet point continues to dominate ‘high-impact’ business presentations, museum texts continue to use long format paragraphs, often in unspeakably small lettering, especially for the descriptive text in artwork labels.
One of the brilliant things about galleries is the free wall space. Works have room to breathe. That means there’s also a lot more potential to be free with the way that contextual information is displayed. And it doesn’t have to be in 12pt font, either. No one should have to squint in a museum. It’s a visual experience that audiences are having, let’s make it a nice one.
60% of online visitors to an online exhibition are likely to attend in the real world
Next, building technology into the museum experience is usually expensive and underwhelming. Invariably it’s immediately outdated on release. So how can museums leverage technology to help deliver a fuller visitor experience?
It’s not a question of money. Museums don’t need to build their own expensive apps. In fact, 78% of mobile apps are used only once. So even if the app is downloaded, you’ll have spent huge sums of money developing an app that, if you’re lucky, visitors might use once in the museum, most likely as a game or as some kind of audio guide replacement. Why would anyone use a museum app when they’re not in the museum? Do your visitors return frequently? And if so, would they remember your app – and would the content still be relevant for them?
Rather than developing new technology, let’s have smarter technology; practical, cost-effective, creative solutions that use existing products to help give visitors an experience that starts before they arrive and continues after they leave. Web and mobile experience can help prepare audiences for their visit, so they get the most from it. They’re also great for building loyalty with audiences after they leave, so they have more reasons to come back.
Most museum and gallery websites are only used to get information, people spend maybe a minute on the site, using it primarily to see what’s on, what the opening hours are, checking location details and rarely returning. Part of the thinking behind ArtStack, the social media platform for art enthusiasts we built, was because people weren’t engaging with art on museums’ own websites and there was no way for museums and galleries to keep in touch with these interested visitors.
The digital audience is as important as the offline one – 60% of online visitors to an online exhibition are likely to attend in the real world. These online visitors are not looking to replace your offline experience. If anything, they’re likely to become your offline visitors.
Use your website and platforms like ArtStack to reach your audience before they visit. Help prepare them for what they’ll see. Before I go to a concert, I often spend some time listening to the band I’m going to hear – getting to know their music bit better so I’ll enjoy the live experience more. I now do the same thing with art, frequently using ArtStack to quickly see an artists oeuvre, read up on their bio and learn more about what I want to see.
In a way it’s sad that so much of our offline experience is now mediated through the screens of smart phones, but technology has it’s role in exhibitions, too. I’m not wild about the notion of visiting an exhibition and having enhanced reality apps add to the visitor experience; real world art experiences should remain just that, real world. But I applaud recent moves by some museums to let visitors to photograph art on their phones.
People photograph things they like in order to share them, and to keep a memento of a beautiful experience. Smart museums use this to their advantage: images posted on social media are free advertising; visitors following the institution on social media gives an easy return path to encourage repeat visiting.
These were some of the problems we were trying to help solve when we set up ArtStack, and, of course, any solution should have a multi-prong approach to tap into different communities and demographics.
Intelligent engagement solutions aren’t about throwing money at the problem – they’re about finding the simple, cost-effective ways to increase understanding and enjoyment, before, during and after the visit.