When is a museum experience?

Posted on August 9, 2014

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How do you know if you’re having a “museum experience”? As museum work spills out of the building and onto the Internet or other places and platforms beyond the walls, I’m curious about when exactly museum experiences occur. Does someone have a “museum experience” if they visit an online exhibition, like the Gallery of Lost Art – an exhibition which only exists online and for a short time? What about if they visit a museum’s Facebook page? Is that a museum experience at all, or only a Facebook experience? What is the relationship between the museum, and the experience? And how do we measure such things?

According to the OED online, to experience can be to gain “knowledge resulting from actual observation or from what one has undergone”, but it can also mean “to meet with; to feel, suffer, undergo.” Experience, therefore, is something that can be gained or had. Is it fair to suggest, then, that a museum experience is something that can be gained or had from interaction with a museum? How direct does that interaction need to be?

John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write that:

The Museum Experience begins before the visit to the museum, includes experiences within the museum (interactions with staff and members of one’s own group, as well as with other visitors, exhibitions, interpretive materials, and programs), and continues long after the person leaves the museum. (p.33)

This continues to focus on the museum visit as being at the heart of the museum experience. The visit is viewed as the centrifugal act, around which all else pivots. But what about an individual who follows the Tate on Twitter or Facebook from another country, without any immediate or realistic intent to visit the museum? Is their experience of the museum in any way? Or is experiencing a museum’s content in a platform that does not necessarily relate to the building something other than a museum experience? In other words, is the museum the building or the brand? Is the museum the place, or the work that it does, regardless of where that work is located?

And if that same person who follows the Tate on Twitter one day wings their way across the world and makes it to the Museum? Does the possibility that someone can be engaged for years prior to actual visitation necessitate an expansion of the idea of the museum experience – and the before, during, and after visit realisation of that experience – from something short term and immediate to something much longer; to thinking about lifelong engagement?

These are big, abstract questions, but they relate to the need to apportion a museum’s resources in the most useful way, and to measure the impact of those resources. Does knowing whether someone is having a museum experience or not matter when measuring our impact, and when thinking about how and where to expend limited resources of time and money? Brooklyn Museum’s decision to leave many of their social media channels recently speaks to some of the challenges of maintaining a presence in many different online locations to greater and less impact, in tandem to those that are offline. So is the ultimate purpose of that engagement or energy still focussed on the physical visit, or is it about something else, and another kind of museum experience?

An article in the NYTimes this week speaks to these challenges, focussing on the experiences of the Met and Brooklyn Museum:

[The Internet] can make even the oldest-school art museum wonder: Could our collection reach the villages of China and the universities of Peru and perhaps a prison or two? Could it touch those who have no chance of entering our physical doors? Could it spread to the whole world?

This is an account about how two New York museums seized this dream — and how one of them clings to it still, while the other has found that the Internet’s true value isn’t in being everywhere but in enhancing the here.

Conceptually, these questions matter to me too. I want to try to understand what it is that makes something a museum experience, because I think that will help me better understand museums qua institutions. I still battle with questions about how much museum work is necessarily about the building and the objects, and how much about the expansion and spread of knowledge via any channels possible and necessary. Articulating what and when a museum experience is seems to offer a mechanism for thinking through that tension further.

I’d love to know what you think. What exactly is a museum experience, and how do you know when you’re having one? Is a museum experience something that can take place online, and if so, what are the necessary ingredients of such an experience? What differentiates a museum experience online from any other kind?