Beyond Artifacts: Museums Embrace Innovation and Immersive Experiences
Unveiling the secrets of the past, igniting curiosity, and immersing visitors in awe-inspiring experiences, museums have become vibrant hubs of innovation. No longer confined to static exhibits, they are embracing the winds of change, ushering in a new era of visitor-centricity and dynamic content. From captivating immersive environments to cutting-edge digital technologies, museums are redefining education and the art of storytelling. As these institutions evolve, print-service providers (PSPs) have a unique opportunity to cater to the diverse needs and objectives of these cultural gems.
In his book “Designing Museum Experiences,” Mark Walhimer, managing partner of Museum Planning, explains that “Museums are changing from static, monolithic, and encyclopedic institutions to institutions that are visitor-centric. He believes that
“Museum content is also changing, from static content to dynamic, evolving content that is multicultural and transparent.”
PSPs that want to serve the museum market should understand the goals and objectives of museum clients.
The Evolution and Challenges of Museums
Museums were established to preserve and interpret primary tangible evidence of the evolution of human cultures and the natural world. Museum exhibits communicate directly to viewers in ways that are more tactile and impactful than educational media such as documentaries or textbooks.
According to an estimate by UNESCO and reported by Statista, there are roughly 104,000 museums in the world, with the regions of North America and Western Europe reporting the highest numbers of museums worldwide. Meanwhile, there are roughly 33,000 museums in the United States, roughly one-third of all museums worldwide.
Museums take many forms. In addition to traditional art and history museums, the museum market includes science and technology centers, botanical gardens, nature centers, historic homes, visitor centers, zoos, and aquariums.
New operating models include the Museum of Illusions franchises in 40 cities around the world, and Meow Wolf’s highly interactive, immersive art “playgrounds” in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Las Vegas; Denver; and Grapevine, Texas.
Museums are still recovering from the COVID shutdowns. According to reports published by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), museum attendance rebounded more slowly from the COVID shutdowns than attendance at outdoor theme parks and water parks. This can be attributed to the prevalence of indoor locations, the slow return of international travelers to major U.S. tourist cities, and the fall-off in visits by school tour groups.
A 2022 survey of 700 museum directors conducted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) survey found that attendance at U.S. museums in 2021 was down nearly 40% from pre-pandemic levels.
“The museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and attendance,” says AAM President and CEO Laura Lott.
Revitalizing Museums Through Strategic Marketing and Innovative Graphic Solutions
With leaner budgets and smaller staffs, museum executives are paying closer attention to marketing. Some museums use social media to promote memberships and build communities of followers that can become donors or frequent visitors.
“To capture new audiences and expand the primary mission of museums as places of personal meaning, community impact, and civil society, we must relinquish part of our authority and learn new digital skills,” Walhimer explains in a blog on the Museum Planning website.
Digital technologies are being used in permanent and traveling displays. Some designers are experimenting with using virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality technologies and holographic projections to create immersive exhibits that attract and engage new visitors.
For example, the EYEPOOL immersive gallery experience uses 14 laser projectors to display content in a 1,000-sq.-ft. space within THEMUSEUM, an art and technology museum in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
“We wanted to create something permanent that also has the ability to change, allowing us to showcase different content or software,” says David Markell, CEO of THEMUSEUM. He believes immersive experiences will help the museum remain relevant over the next 10 years.
A traveling multimedia exhibition produced by World Heritage Exhibitions is on display at the at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago until Sept. 4. Using a combination of projections, photographic murals, a 3D experience, and a 4D theater experience, the exhibit helps visitors imagine what it was like to live in Pompeii before and after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Robert Hamilton, program manager for the exhibit design, fabrication, installation company Museum Arts, based in Dallas, believes that digital technologies won’t replace fabricated museum exhibits but will simply enhance them: “We’re seeing less desire to go fully digital than might be expected.”
He says the client’s budget usually dictates whether the display will be dynamic or static: “We always commit to creating the most dynamic static exhibit, even if it means the display won’t be dynamic in the same way a touchscreen or digital experience is.”
With everyone so locked into digital experiences with their phones, Hamilton observes, “there’s still a sense of wonder in spinning a cylinder or lifting a flip panel to reveal the answer to a question. These simple hands-on interactions are way more engaging than just another bright screen.”
Opportunities for non-exhibit graphics abound. In addition to exhibit graphics that provide context to the items on display, museums need printed materials for all three phases of a museum visit: the pre-visit, in-person visit, and post-visit. These include promotional graphics, direct mail, and event graphics for fundraisers and on-site activities.
“The goal is to provide consistent messaging at all touchpoints and create meaningful intellectual, emotional, and experiential value that will motivate visitors to return to the museum in the future,” notes Walhimer.
For example, building wraps, exterior vinyl banners, window graphics, and fence wraps call attention to a featured exhibit inside the museum.