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by • 1 Nov, 2009 • Buildings, Expositions, InspirationComments (10)3064

Testing Amsterdam museums with Seb Chan

View on NEMOLast week I had the honour of having Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney around. One of the things we did was drop by a number of museums in Amsterdam to see how they designed their audience experience, what was good about it, and what could have been better. This taught me a handful of useful things about audience engagement and interaction design I’d like to share.

Museums we visited were: the Tropenmuseum, the Amsterdam Historic Museum, NEMO, the public library, FOAM Fotography Museum, the Tassenmuseum. In addition I included the Hermitage which I visited alone.

1. Deliver what the visitor expects

Museums are basically boring. They’re not amusement parks and shouldn’t be. A lot of multimedia and interaction in museums does not convey the museum’s basic objective, which is to show beautiful artefacts. Therefore, as Seb noted, “most interaction in museums is like an action-packed trailer to a slow-moving French movie.”

The ‘Tassenmuseum’ (Bags Museum) is a small, privately held museum in Amsterdam with a predominantly elder female audience. They come to see beautiful bags and have tea. They come for the traditional museum experience. The Tassenmuseum delivers exactly this, with a very traditional exhibition approach and a comfortable café. The museum delivers what the visitor expects.

NEMO is a typical science centre. The second you walk into the museum, you hear and see kids running around. There’s lots of opportunity for them to engage with the installations and discover the fun side of science. That’s what parents expect when they take their kids to NEMO.

Interaction would be completely out of its place in the Tassenmuseum, whereas it’s a necessity in NEMO. The lesson: Use interaction only when the audience expects it.

2. The first experience in the museum shapes the visitors expectations

Amsterdam Historisch Museum (2)The Amsterdam Historic Museum opens with a random selection of artefacts in glass cages. These are snapshots of the contents of the museum, quite chaotically (but beautifully) ordered. The first experience in the museum is pleasant, but also makes the visitor feel uncertain about what exactly will be on display. After visiting the museum, the visitor will take this experience home: there’s a lot to see and discover, but it’s hard to find a continuing story in the exhibitions.

After coming in through its wonderful garden, the Hermitage shocks the visitors with countless moving screens giving visitor information. With the long lines and the huge number of people wandering around, it’s an altogether unpleasant experience, one that promises chaos, information overload and people pressing together. After buying the ticket, an automatic gate opens, which promises a cold and impersonal museum. I’m sorry to say that although the building is beautiful and the exhibitions worth visiting, this is what the museum offers as well. It’s an altogether chaotic and impersonal experience, only made up for by their friendly staff.

The lesson: Be careful to design your first contact with the visitor (be it onsite or online) in line with the rest of the museum (and design it well).

3. Screens distract from beautiful artefacts

Seen in all museums of the test but FOAM and the Hermitage (where there were no screens): a screen, no matter how small, is the first thing that attracts the visitor’s attention. Beautiful artefacts lose their power when there’s a screen near. Best shown with pictures.

Tropenmuseum (2) Amsterdam Historisch Museum (4)

The lesson: Place your screens in such a way, that they don’t distract the visitor’s attention from the original artefacts.

4. Look at other institutions than museums to be inspired

Openbare bibliotheek AmsterdamA very smart move of Seb, when we mapped our visits, was to include the public library. Not only is the public library in Amsterdam one of the most beautiful new buildings, but also (although its function is quite different from a museum’s) there are a lot of useful lessons to be learnt from the library.

A library should be a place where you want to spend time. The public library is Amsterdam is a very welcoming and comfortable place to be. In fact, it easily beat all museums in the way it delivered a nice visitor’s experience. A library should also encourage discovery. With beautiful lighting and spacious shelves picking up a book seemed a very normal thing to do.

The lesson: Museums can learn a lot from other institutions, such as libraries and galleries, but also malls and offices, when it comes to designing the visitor’s experience.

5. Make sure all your multimedia content is available online

The Tropenmuseum and the Amsterdam Historic Museum are packed with multimedia content. There are so much movies to see and games to play that doing all of them would take hours. Especially if a visitor comes in a group, s/he might not be able to enjoy all multimedia content. Nevertheless, this visitor might be interested in these games and movies. Therefore, they should be available online.

Seb asked this question with basically every movie we saw, “Is this content available online?” The lesson: Make sure all your multimedia content is online.

6. The visitor’s expectation of what they can do with multimedia changes over time

Amsterdam Historisch Museum (1)One of the first objects in the Amsterdam Historic Museum is a touch screen. It shows a map of the central hall and it gives additional information about the artefacts show in it. The first view you get is a map. Immediately I tried to zoom in on the case in front of me, using Apple’s two-finger approach. Nothing happened.

In five years time, all people will expect touch screens to react to them as other touch screens do. Zooming, rotating, scrolling… By then a touch screen as the one in the Amsterdam Historic Museum will annoy visitors, as it already annoys the iPhone using generation. The lesson: Design interaction based on contemporary standards, and adjust it when these standards change.

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  • This is very intersting, and a very worthwhile thing to do. We recently had a visit from Elaine Heumann Gurian, the respect museum consultant from Washington, and she met with groupd of staff during her time with us, during which she took us on a walk through the spaces at the Powerhouse and asked us to reflect on what the visitor experience might be. We spent a lot of time looking at our entry, front of house and signage experiences, and from that have an action plan of (sometimes small) changes that will better communicate who we are and what we offer. I found the observations in you post very relevant.

  • This is very intersting, and a very worthwhile thing to do. We recently had a visit from Elaine Heumann Gurian, the respect museum consultant from Washington, and she met with groupd of staff during her time with us, during which she took us on a walk through the spaces at the Powerhouse and asked us to reflect on what the visitor experience might be. We spent a lot of time looking at our entry, front of house and signage experiences, and from that have an action plan of (sometimes small) changes that will better communicate who we are and what we offer. I found the observations in you post very relevant.

  • Hi Jasper

    I don’t agree that a museums objective is to ‘show beautiful artefacts’ surely if that was true no museum would try and explain what the artefacts are.

    Is the objective of a museum not education? To educate a person about an artefact, to educate a person about the world, to educate people about themselves?

    You are quite right that a museum should not be confused with an amusement arcade and I think many institutions think that communicating ‘we are fun’ will somehow trick visitors, but everyone knows that a museum is an educational experience not funland.

    Jim

  • Hi Jasper

    I don’t agree that a museums objective is to ‘show beautiful artefacts’ surely if that was true no museum would try and explain what the artefacts are.

    Is the objective of a museum not education? To educate a person about an artefact, to educate a person about the world, to educate people about themselves?

    You are quite right that a museum should not be confused with an amusement arcade and I think many institutions think that communicating ‘we are fun’ will somehow trick visitors, but everyone knows that a museum is an educational experience not funland.

    Jim

  • Jasper Visser

    @Jim, of course a museum’s function is to educate (apart from maybe the art museums). A beautiful an original artefact can be a tool to do so, as can a multimedia installation. I think what we’ve seen in this tour is that too often screens distract the visitor’s attention from the artefacts before s/he had the time to quietly observe the artefact. I think that is a bad thing.

    Communicating “we’re fun” is probably the worst a museum can do, imho.

    @petermo, what were your findings? Can you share them?

  • Jasper Visser

    @Jim, of course a museum’s function is to educate (apart from maybe the art museums). A beautiful an original artefact can be a tool to do so, as can a multimedia installation. I think what we’ve seen in this tour is that too often screens distract the visitor’s attention from the artefacts before s/he had the time to quietly observe the artefact. I think that is a bad thing.

    Communicating “we’re fun” is probably the worst a museum can do, imho.

    @petermo, what were your findings? Can you share them?

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