When is a museum experience?

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?

13 thoughts on “When is a museum experience?

  1. This is a great topic and one that I am also trying to keep an eye on. For me the experience does start before I enter a museum as nowadays there is so much to see in museums and I try to make every experience worthwhile by doing research beforehand.

    The question is much wider for me I would say – what does the digital experience mean overall? What about online-only galleries as you mentioned and like a friend of mine had: Light & Wire Gallery (http://lightandwiregallery.com/). What value does that present? Lost Art worked conceptually with the digital media (intangible, theoretic) but what about the projects that don’t? What about smaller museums and regional galleries? What about collections? Museums Australia conference this year had a number of talks on this topic but I am not sure how ready museums are for implementing thinking outside the box.

    1. Ah, interesting. I was have a conversation with a colleague just last week about the way different people expect different levels of or types of information in the museum, and the challenge that presents, and one type mentioned was the visitor who researches the exhibition in advance. What is it that you’re looking for when you do so? Are there particular types of information that you’re seeking about the museum, or the exhibition, before you attend?

  2. Hi Suse,

    Many years ago I interviewed Ed Ruscha for a video I was producing about Jasper Johns. Ruscha described how, living in LA as an art student, he’d read ArtForum and experience John’s work through reproductions in the magazine. Then, when he finally got to New York and could see the real thing, it was like a bomb going off in his head!

    I would say his remote experience, via ArtForum, isn’t all that different from the museum experience that people can have via social media, if they find something there that attracts them. It won’t be the same as being in the physical building, standing in front of the actual object or work of art, but it has its own legitimacy nonetheless.

    “Brand” is such a marketing term, but if you want to use it, it’s valid. Museums, corporations and individuals – we’re all brands these days, with the ability to reach more people than we can ever physically meet. It’s an opportunity, but you have to have the resources to carry out the reach successfully.

    The Met has 70 people in its digital media department and is, as Anand Giridharadas wrote “an isle in the global archipelago of leading museums” ; the Brooklyn Museum isn’t and doesn’t have the same resources and I bet that makes a difference. They’re basing their decision on the evidence of their own work and all museums will have to do their own research to see where they fit best on the spectrum of local vs. global outreach.

    1. Robin, you make a few really good points, particularly in regards to the size of the Met’s team in relation to their ambitions. Nancy Proctor and I were talking at #drinkingaboutmuseums Baltimore last night about the gap between ambitions to be global vs the intention to be hyperlocal, and I wonder whether – for all the potential of the Internet to connect people around the world – we are now starting to see a divergence between those museums who can and will use its possibilities to be global, and those who will use them to forge stronger and more meaningful local connections.

      One thing I wonder, in regards to your interview with Ruscha, is whether there is something different between the ArtForum experience and an online experience, in the dynamic nature of many online communications. There might not be at all, but it’s an angle I’d like to consider more.

  3. Perhaps the question is not what a museum experience is but how experiences are leverage through museums. When I design programming for the Koshland Science Museum the goal is always how best to leverage the museum’s three platforms–onsite, online, and offsite. We may use one platform to test-bed an experience, evaluate it, and then iterate on it. Once the feedback from visitors/users has reached a satisfactory level, we launch it on other platforms with similar learning goals, evaluation measures, and iteration processes. Not all of our experiences are perfect but through this process, many more people encounter new insights or ask new questions. For us that is an experience that resonates.

    1. Plegro, I really like this reframing. How are experiences created and leveraged through museums? How can museums enable particular types of experiences? This offers the opportunity to define as important certain types of experience (educational, inspirational) over others, and maybe that’s a way of knowing whether someone’s experience as related to the museum was intentional?

  4. Thank you for this worthwhile reading. The museum experience for me is often from a digital source. Also traditional media sources: magazines, brochures, TV reviews and interviews have precipitated museum visits. However, I do think that museums can do better in building the museum experience! For instance the journey from the vehicle parking and arrival area could be enhanced to whet the visitors appetite through cleverly designed public art and architecture. It’s a lot about the staging of one’s anxiety to elevate so when they reach the door they want to capitalize on the experience.
    Thank you and great work!

  5. I believe that it is possible for interested ‘visitors’ to engage online with a public offering, such as a museum makes. As Ms Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum says in the NYT article, it’s one layer of the possible experience – not the whole deal; but it can enrich the physical offering and also in some cases begin to built an interest that might later be expressed in physical visits. In the case of the UWI Museum, I also see the development of a virtual encounter space as important to giving a sense of ownership to a broadly-spread stakeholder group: we have our physical footprint in just one of the 17 countries that are members of the University of the West Indies (UWI).

  6. There isn’t just one “museum experience” any more, there are several: in the exhibit hall, in the archives, in the virtual space, in the greater physical community, maybe more. If the institution that scaffolds the experience is “a museum” then it’s a museum experience. This leads us to the question: What is a museum? For example, can I have a “museum experience” in an airport that happens to exhibit ancient pottery? If the institution supports only one or two platforms – say a web site and a closed archive of artifacts but no physical exhibit space – is it a museum. If you are interested in defining Virtual-only museums please join us at http://hcle.wikispaces.com/Online_museum_working_group.

  7. Some fascinating insights into an increasingly important question as museums spread themselves in many different directions outside of the traditional museum experience.

    I think we should be looking at this from a holistic perspective. Using a gaming analogy, I would to note that these experiences are all important but vary across all the various multi media or analogue platforms. These variances are positive though because they offer something for a wider audience base.

    In terms of thinking about different types of museum experiences from this all encompassing perspective you could extend this & also consider this from the perspective of the museum audience. E.g. how does a blind person experience the museum & how does the museum cater for their experience?

  8. Hi, I work at the Australian War Memorial and have been thinking lately about online memorials – particularly those that are sponsored/created by museums/archives like: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/home (which brands itself as a permanent digital memorial) or http://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/
    Obviously the experience of visiting/commenting on/enhancing a digital memorial is very different to the experience of visiting an actual, physical memorial – but do they fulfill different purposes/roles? Are they complementary?

  9. Hi Suse, your comment ‘ What about if they visit a museum’s Facebook page? Is that a museum experience at all, or only a Facebook experience?’ made me wonder if Facebook, an aggregator of content, as museums are, could be providing one of many contemporary versions of the museum experience. I also wonder whether it’s important to differentiate between a museum learning, entertainment and marketing experience when thinking on this, especially if it’s with a view to apportioning resource.

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