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Being Unique: The Good of Being Different in a Time of Sameness

Mike Sarna argues that museums should look to their unique assets to challenge the way their public offer is delivered. Museums have benefited from formalizing their public offers and mitigating risk through business perspectives and approaches. But popularity has come with a price. Some museums have lost their uniqueness and authenticity. Sameness has crept into the public offer. While this can be popular it doesn’t create the most transformative of experiences. As times change so do audience motivations and needs. There is no better time to push for more inspirational and enriching experiences

About the author: Mike Sarna has extensive experience in museums internationally – including eight years as Director of Collections and Senior Curator at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, and six as Head of Interpretation and Design at the Natural History Museum, London. He is a Fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme and is currently Director, Collections and Public Engagement, at Royal Museums Greenwich where he leads the development of the public offer across four museums and the care and conservation of the collection.

This article was originally published in issue 15 of Museum-iD magazine (2014)

The curse of T. Rex – using your brand to help understand your uniqueness
What do you expect to see at a natural history museum? Odds are it will be predictable. Visitors expect to see dinosaurs. But is the audience simply meandering through a derivative cultural experience? While there are a plethora of worthwhile themes to explore in the natural world the queue is often for the T. Rex. Having worked at natural history museums for many years I have often heard people renaming the offer to the ‘Dinosaur Museum’. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with this bread and butter offer. It’s just that there is so much more to offer and inspire about the world around us than just dinosaurs. And if we keep on producing endless iterations of the same offer, we risk becoming the dinosaurs that we house – a one trick Probactrosaurus.

When I came to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London from Chicago the best bit of advice I got was from Sharon Ament – the then Director of Public Engagement at the Natural History Museum who is now Director of the Museum of London. Her advice was “make it your own”. She wasn’t suggesting I make it my own personal experience but rather to develop the exhibitions in conjunction with the personality and values of the Natural History Museum. When people came to our exhibitions they not only experienced the richness of the topic but also gained new insights into NHM as an organization. Exhibitions unique in delivery and authentically profiling the scientific work NHM does and the millions of amazing specimens collected over hundreds of years. That ethos has carried into my current job at Royal Museums Greenwich, exploring themes related to history, science and art, across four museums (including the Cutty Sark). But how do museums generate a compelling offer utilizing their assets and keep guests coming back for more?

Thomas H. Benton issued a challenge to natural history museums centred on the issue of uniqueness and authenticity. In his series of articles for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Getting Real at the Natural History Museum” he observed that smaller regional institutions were utilizing their unique assets in interesting ways in order to attract new audiences:

“…museums need to understand their own strengths. What is unique about your collections, institutional culture, staff, and relationship to other institutions and the local community? …Show patrons – even the ones who have been to the best museums in the world – something that they have never seen before. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. It does have to be authentic.” i

The provocation raises questions especially in a time of economic stresses in the cultural sector. Questions like: Can unique and authentic experiences be commercially viable and sustainable? Are we lazy in falling into models that are tried and tested and avoid taking risks? Do these models prevent us from being innovators? Do unique experiences appeal to audiences? And what audiences do you try and attract? Can something be too unique? What do success and failure look like?

“There is a problem with sameness in our museums. We have perhaps become a bit lazy curating what visitors expect instead of surprising them with a unique offer”

There is a problem with sameness in our museums. The assets that we tend to exploit are valued more because of their global resonance, often avoiding materials of local relevance and appeal. We have perhaps become a bit lazy curating what visitors expect instead of surprising them with a unique offer. In this essay I hope to demonstrate how uniqueness and authenticity can help to structure a museum’s public offer and differentiate itself in the marketplace; and also to understand the challenges and pitfalls associated with being different. I want to suggest ways forward – to understand the pressures facing museums and give some assistance in harnessing what is special about your offer. This article will also look at uniqueness and authenticity in terms of greater literacy and engagement. These are not always definitive responses; it’s intentionally provocative.

A three storey, three thousand square-metre McDonald’s restaurant
Think about it. Really imagine what it would be like to enter into the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant. You are correct in thinking it would be more than a little absurd. It’s what I imagined, though, during one of my many museum visits. The museum will be nameless. You can always try and guess. It went through an incredible rejuvenation, out with the old and in with the new. It is based around community and is attracting the numbers. But something sits uncomfortably alongside the interactives and artefacts and that is sameness.

There is a reason why a gigantic McDonald’s is absurd. It’s about function and size but aside from that imagine how it might look from a brand perspective. Imagine the colours, the soundtrack and food selection and try and think about spending three hours in such an experience. It would certainly lead to madness. The reason is a stringent following of visual branding elements. At McDonald’s they strive for consistency and quality of experience across all their independently owned restaurants and they maniacally deliver. You know what to expect when you enter a McDonald’s restaurant anywhere in the world. Should that business practice, though, be applied to a museum?

Branding has been a big trend in museums. Consistency and quality of experience is a great thing but when that ethos is carried over to the design of an entire museum experience it can be a little scary. My museum example clearly followed a set of “brand guidelines”. Guidelines that included a house font, colour palette, 3D design principles that included the casework and interactive elements. The themes of the galleries changed as you travelled through the experience, but the “look” didn’t. It was a three-storey meandering McDonald’s with a little bit more of a food choice.

Branding is good – really good. But brand is more than a logo, font and colour palette and this really needs to be understood. Brand is an ethos. Let’s travel to another famous brand; Disneyland. Love it or hate it, you have the same consistency and quality as exemplified by McDonald’s but over a greater area. Pirates of the Caribbean sits alongside a fairytale castle and all around a set of cartoon characters meet and greet. It’s truly a magic kingdom of experiences. You enter experiences that have a consistency but there is something special, and that centres on uniqueness and surprises. It’s essentially what visitors want – quality and something new and interesting. It also has to be “true to self” – not borrowing or derivative. The USP (Unique Selling Point) really has to be – well, unique.

My favourite unique and authentic exhibition
Seurat and the making of the La Grande Jatte was an exhibition mounted at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. The exhibition made a deep impression on my view of interpretation in exhibitions. The exhibition centred on a single painting La Grande Jatte. Being a Chicagoan, I had often gone to view it whenever I visited the Art Institute. It’s located very prominently in the galleries. You might need to ask Institute staff where to find Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, but it is hard to miss Seurat’s masterpiece positioned at the top of the stairs as you enter the main galleries of the museum. The painting held a personal connection for many reasons. I won’t go through all the reasons why I love the painting, but mostly it comes from a purely emotional attachment to the work. Without wanting to sound too unsophisticated – I really, really like it. Even though I have a museum background and strong appreciation for art, I have no real expertise on the subject. I enter interpretation of art just as most visitors do, from a position of naivety. So when the Art Institute advertised an exhibition centring on the painting I was first in the queue.

Now, before visitors go through any exhibition they come with some “baggage”. For me, I have to admit to a great deal of baggage especially when it comes to art museums. I tend to know what to expect – many do. You don’t have to work in museums to know what is in store when you visit any art related venue. It goes like this: long intro text, paintings with ID labels leading to another intro text panel and row of paintings. Few interactive elements, though maybe an audio guide – interpretation pared down. It’s all about the art. You look for and determine meaning largely on your own. If you are perplexed there is a little safety net at the lower left that may give you some expert’s view. Heck, it’s a very comfortable model to navigate. It’s an endorsed model. It’s what everyone expects and it delivers – not only content but visitors through the turnstiles. So, while entering the exhibition, I sort of had an impression of what I would see.

This exhibition didn’t abandon the model but finessed it. The exhibition dissected the painting into parts, sometimes in ways that can only resonate within the confines of the Art Institute. The former Director and President of the Art Institute, James Wood, states in the exhibition catalogue: “La Grande Jatte holds a unique place, not only for the world as part of the larger history of modern art, but for the city of Chicago and for the museum that serves as the painting’s home”. ii You appreciated the painting from a variety of perspectives. What was so special about the exhibition is how it built up to the reveal of the masterpiece and by the time you encountered the work you viewed it with very different eyes than when you entered the exhibition. It’s a lesson in visual literacy and done in a way that wasn’t patronising. You saw contemporary painters/paintings like Camille Pissarro’s Peasant and Pierre-August Renoir’s Oarsmen at Chatou, to understand his influences. You could also examine charcoal sketches and case studies of his work, showing the detail and care he took with his compositions. The Art Institute also took the opportunity to X-ray the painting to show how the extremely large canvas changed and evolved as the painter began to see his sketches combined into the greater work. The single dots of paint (instead of brushstrokes) with adjacent coloured dots combine to create vibrant animated fields of colour. They even used imaging science to show how the colours faded over time and what the painting would have looked like at its debut. The exhibition “seeks to examine a familiar picture afresh…by situating La Grande Jatte in the context of Seurat’s artistic development, his dialogue with the impressionists, and the many preparatory studies produced over the two years of its creation…” iii

What this exhibition did was offer new insight to the visitor – fresh perspective on an often described painting. It took the passion of the painter and shared that with visitors. Personally it was a transformational experience. It’s an approach that I am proud my team took with our Turner & the Sea exhibition – “owning” Turner from our own unique maritime perspective. The design pushes the predictable and includes references to Turner the businessman and artist. The exhibition also included other painters from our collection that inspired Turner and supplemental materials that give maritime connections from contemporary voices like fishermen to links to objects in the National Maritime Museum.

“Exhibitions work their magic when they are less concerned with feeding visitors facts and more interested in allowing visitors to engage actively in their own handling and distilling of information – and following their own motivations”

Exhibitions work their magic when they are less concerned with feeding visitors facts and more interested in allowing visitors to engage actively in their own handling and distilling of information – and following their own motivations. “Adults require learning environments/situations in which their own knowledge and experience is valued and utilised – one-way transmission of information by an “expert” or “teacher” is of less value than two-way dialogue, in which adults can share and actively use their own knowledge and experience.” iv

Art museums wonderfully make audiences work a bit harder with a format visitors know how to navigate. What about narratives that are not centred on the art hanging on the wall, but rather themes embodied through artefacts related to topics like science and history?

Greater literacy through transformation/uniqueness and literacy and setting a foundation for reasoning – balancing best practice with sound advice
The reality of museums is that they are not encyclopaedic but many visitors expect them to be. Visitors often envisage museums possessing the ultimate authority on a topic and every single fact condensed into a gallery experience. They expect to be educated, as do the donors who support their development. In reality, they are starting points of inspiration – it’s often where your journey begins – you can learn lots of interesting things but you will not emerge an expert.

Museums have functions besides teaching, and motivations can be simple and unrelated to learning. Museums can be valued as civic and social places as much as centres for learning. But when it comes to uniqueness is it enough to just surprise and inspire? We can walk away from an exhibition with a smile on our face but appreciation is not understanding.

The goal for museums is for visitors to come away with more than just appreciation. That goal, though, can become a burden if the approach is heavy-handed. No one wants to be force-fed information. The experience shouldn’t feel like an old school classroom with a teacher at the front regurgitating facts. With this in mind, many exhibition staff and interpretation teams have assembled an ever growing arsenal of tools to ensure visitors have a good experience and walk away learning something.

The winding journey is becoming ever more prevalent in our wired society. Next time you sit down and execute a search on the internet be cognizant of the path you take. Simple retrieval of information in this day and age can take you on a most varied journey. While looking for information about a film, I Googled one of its actors which led me to his receiving an award from my hometown film festival in Chicago which then motivated me to check out what they were currently up to. In contemporary society we find information and relevance in strange and circuitous ways.

“The goal of creating a more emotive journey though is a lesson that needs to be learned by us all. Because without emotion museums can lull you into complacency…you walk away with some facts but without the desire or need to know more”

The route for exhibitions has traditionally been rigidly linear. It’s a rat’s maze of linked content leading from learning outcome to learning outcome supporting an overall truth, though these models and approaches have been challenged. Outcome-based evaluation has been around for many years as one of the tools to ensure exhibitions deliver effective learning. The approach can give focus to exhibition projects and assist developers in creating an effective learning journey through an exhibition. For a science museum there really is an important purpose. It’s a learning scaffold that builds to greater understanding and it’s a rational approach that builds a firm base in how we navigate and understand science. But is it so bad that after exiting an exhibition with lofty learning goals to leave with purely emotional outcomes like appreciation? During my year as a Clore Fellow one of my peers challenged my voracious need to pass along knowledge-based outcomes instead of more emotional ones. Is it enough for a visitor to come away happy – especially when you work at a museum with its foundations firmly planted in science? The goal of creating a more emotive journey though is a lesson that needs to be learned by us all. Because without emotion museums can lull you into complacency with niche content and you could ultimately walk away with some facts but without the desire or need to know more. The key is what museum audience evaluator Tom Hennes refers to as the “The sphere of significance” or how we can “…enhance…capacity to discover the significance of what they observe, suggesting ways of discovering what is important, unique, novel or surprising…” vii

Recently, there have challenges to the notion of setting too prescriptive learning outcomes for exhibitions suggesting that by doing so you can march visitors down a content path and really miss that most important and transformational part of the museum experience. In his article ‘From Knowing to Not Knowing: Moving Beyond Outcomes’, Andrew J. Pekarik suggests that outcome based learning can be a controlling and paternalistic way of delivering content and really limit effective learning, further “…the use of pre-defined outcome frameworks tend to reinforce conventional wisdom about museum mission among exhibition creators; this mode of thinking ultimately limits innovation.” viii Outcomes though are not just imposed internally by mission driven organizations but also outsiders like government (curriculum links) and funders. There are ever increasing pressures placed on staff to deliver within a limiting and confining construct which can ultimately kill the visitor experience. Pekarik suggests opening up and exploring pathways instead of narrowing towards specific outcomes. Pekarik’s goal is to make the experience “personally meaningful… (and for staff) it means that the exhibition provides an opportunity to attain a deeper, richer understanding of the museum experience…” ix

Over the years I used a simple personal model or checklist I call my “Es” – a formula that builds relationships with visitors – engage, enrich, empower, extend. Engage with a dynamic topic, a provocation that gets people thinking. Enrich with rich and varied content. Empower your users and turn them into active participants. And then extend or sustain the relationship – this is just the start of their journey. This was a personal model and helpful for me to shape and ensure quality. It, in effect, led to predictability. Approaches like these are another form of a rat’s maze and if I were to enforce this approach on my staff I would have exhibitions that would run a horrible generic path. The key for our museums and cultural experiences is to find wonderful ways to take our users on unexpected and surprising journeys. It is important to make sure you keep your personal models and prescriptive strategies in check and be open in the creative process coming at you from all sides.

It is important not to let outcomes compromise vision. Beware a maniacal following that could edit interesting content that brings a bit of life and celebration to an exhibition. Vision is so important in developing exhibitions and you need to hold true to that vision and not compromise. Of course outcomes are important. We are in the business of learning but mapping an exhibition experience moving a visitor along a trail of learning outcome to learning outcome can lead to a boring exhibition. Studies on “museum fatigue” show that emotional impact and surprises along a visitor journey support memory. x We learn when we are engaged.

Taking the leap…a BIG leap – a case study of a more participative approach
Your historic palace is in need of repair and rejuvenation, so you put together a restoration plan and then realise “hey what do we do for the few years that the museum will be surrounded by a mud pit? What happens to our visitors?” What do we do to replace all that lost revenue?” Historic Royal Palaces decided to turn Kensington Palace on its ear. In their words: “The builders have arrived and the Palace is being transformed – its stories and secrets are being shaken out with the dust.” The resulting ‘Enchanted Palace’ at Kensington Palace was a brave foray into interpretation. So brave that as you paid to enter, the cashier warned you not to expect what you might think when entering a historic palace. It was a labyrinth of a tour, to search for seven of the princesses who lived in the palace. Rooms befitting royalty transformed to rooms befitting Edward Scissorhands. The installations were accompanied by wandering troubadours who challenged you along the journey. I sat on the ‘Throne of Power’ and exercised a fair amount of authority to my kneeling subjects/fellow visitors. ‘The Room of Royal Sorrows’ with a weeping princess and ‘The Gallery of War and Play’ didn’t necessarily make this experience exclusively for the kids. It was a wonderful theatrical event that certainly rejuvenated the typical historic house “shuffle”. A fun frolic balanced by thoughtful areas related to more difficult topics like war. The spaces served as a centre for dialogue with installations that turn visitors from passive consumers to actively and enthusiastically absorbing content. “We believe that our palace stories are going to be the best remembered if visitors have had to work a little to find them out. Rather than providing them with detailed captions or an audio tour, we have set them loose in the state rooms with a map in their hands.” v A game-like hunt for content – it was a clever production that focused your attention on the interpretation and not the dust in the corners (there was a great deal of construction and disruption on site). It was also subversive and clever in the way it passed along information. The balance of learning was countered by sheer enjoyment and pleasure. The experience succeeded in that you walked away energised and it propelled you to want to learn more.

The Enchanted Palace was a partnership with Historic Royal Palaces and WILDWORKS who came in and gave a fresh perspective. It worked and certainly made money for the HRP in a time of disruption (11% over target with 86% who never visited the palace before).

Enchanted Palace was in reality a special exhibition, though one which had a long-run (2 years) and opportunistic in that instead of shutting down during a time of renewal, decided to find another way forward. In talking with key staff that worked on the project, it is clear that although they found it difficult to recapture the full “enchantment” in the new permanent offer (which opened in Autumn 2011), they were nonetheless inspired by the experience of co-production with artists and community and hope to never lose the ethos they have gained, nor the new younger audience that came to see Enchanted Palace. They have created a broad framework and holistic approach to development that favours a bit more of a “fancy free” approach. A realisation that co-production and a bit of an outside perspective, including artists, can be powerful. It’s an approach that empowered staff to do something very different and brave. Most importantly, it was not a fairy tale or fictitious experience, but centred on the real stories of Kensington Palace. Powerful stories unfolded before your eyes. I was moved as I read poetry describing the lives of Princess Margaret and Diana. I experienced some of the isolation that the walls of Kensington Palace created. Emotional appeal as much as facts were important drivers of the Enchanted Palace experience.

There is no better time than now to really get a handle on audience needs. Getting people in the doors is a key factor in being relevant to your community, gaining support and ultimately being sustainable as an organisation. It’s not just about KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or visitor numbers but also the quality of your delivery. You need to stand out in the marketplace. Your audience wants you to deliver something special and unique – it’s about building a relationship. Today we compete for audiences and the competition is not just with the neighbouring museum. Audiences have a plethora of mechanisms to receive content. You need to put your visitors at the centre of everything that you do. In the case of Enchanted Palace, success was met with some disappointment to core visitors, with some audiences reacting negatively. The true bravery of the experience is that they decided not to water down the content to placate those dissatisfied. It worked because it was special and word of mouth drove its popularity. It is a risky business, though, as revenue as well as resonance in similar measures drive success.

KPIs and Kindling – fostering creativity and doing it with uniqueness and authenticity in mind
It is often difficult to get woolly ideas and individually held visions through the gauntlet of many organisations, especially when they are large. How is creativity fostered in order to deliver uniquely?

Leadership manifests itself in many forms. For all the learning you can undertake it is ultimately held and delivered in very personal ways. Leadership that is visionary and inspiring comes ultimately from passion and the ability to share and express that passion. Sustaining that passion and drive though is a difficult endeavour especially if you undertake it alone. Personally, my career has been a bumpy ride – an exciting roller coaster of ups and downs. If I look back on the more exciting or motivational times of my life, they all centred on the ability of a leader to lead passionately and give freedom for others to deliver around a shared set of values or vision. For myself, and this is not a measure for everyone, success is in the numbers. I am driven by the KPIs. I love to be loved. The numbers to me indicate relevance, understanding and transformation in individuals. But getting that big payoff doesn’t come easy. The kindling is bravery. What do audiences want really? They want us to wow them. They want us to wake them up from the blandness of everyday life and take them along on that roller coaster ride.

“What do audiences want really? They want us to wow them. They want us to wake them up from the blandness of everyday life and take them along on that roller coaster ride”

It starts with a big idea, a rallying point that your staff can get their heads around. It ends with variation and the multitude of creative ways that vision can be manifested. For years I had a vision for the Natural History Museum. A vision that while we appealed to many visitors, we could be a bit more niche at times and really show a different and unexpected side. The strategy was to expand our audiences and include more adult content. The first of the offers was an exhibition entitled Sexual Nature. What better kindling then an exhibition about the sex lives of animals while drawing connections to the human animal? The success of the exhibition was less of a revelation to me than the success it generated in other ways. It became a rallying point for other staff to do their own interesting things related to the overarching theme that sex drives evolution. Sitting through a dynamic adult late programme listening to speakers talk about the spectrum of sexuality, and watching trustees going through the exhibition with pride boosted by the confidence of doing something different and edgy fanned – for me at least – a flame at the Natural History Museum that through the years has been steady but could burn much hotter.

What makes a good exhibition? There’s the professional answer which centres on a recipe of audiences, design, narratives and a compelling visitor journey. Working on exhibitions for twenty years you draw upon that recipe book to create an effective and engaging show that delivers a learning outcome. But it can’t all be done by a set of best practices. To really achieve something special you need to “make it your own”, be unique within your discipline and your brand, and be authentic to your organization. It’s taking care and time investing in the topic, finding ways to mitigate risks and overcome barriers as set by many organisations – often justifiably so. It’s a bit brainwork but an equal measure comes from the gut or inkling that you have something interesting and unique.

Our exhibition at Royal Museums Greenwich, Visions of the Universe, used just over a hundred astronomical images to tell the story of how photography has transformed our understanding of the universe. The exhibition consisted only of 2D images, ranging from digital pictures taken by modern instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope through to reproductions of historic photographs and drawings. We were faced with an immediate challenge as to how to make the exhibition unique: the images from most modern telescopes are freely available on the internet and many historic items can also be viewed in online collections. Anyone could just Google half the pictures and see them at home on their laptop. Given that the images themselves were neither rare nor inaccessible we decided to capitalise on two of the Museum’s greatest assets – the dramatic space of the gallery itself and access to the expertise of curators and guest scientists – to make the show both unique and compelling. Working with an external design company, the gallery was turned into an atmospheric and contemplative space with an evocative but unobtrusive “soundscape” provided by composition students from a nearby music conservatoire. Meanwhile the curatorial team wove the images into a series of compelling narratives which mingled history, science and the personal stories of a diverse range of astronomers while taking the audience on a journey further and further into the depths of space.

A key decision was to give as much weight to the aesthetic and emotional appeal of the images as to their historic and scientific importance. Although undoubtedly a show about science, Visions of the Universe was designed and presented as if it was an art exhibition and to cement this dimension the show included a series of astronomy-themed artworks by the Turner Prize winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. This approach won us plaudits from both science and arts journalists, but all agreed that the showstopper was a 13-metre long curved projection wall that cycled three interactive panoramas of the Martian surface sent back by NASA’s rover missions. This was something so unique and immersive in its delivery that it even brought tears to the eyes of visiting NASA scientists. Those special “wow” moments are essential in transforming interested visitors into museum converts.

The 21st Century science museum and wrap-up
Museums are incredible places. Places of inspiration, celebration and transformation. They can entertain and delight and lead to greater understanding and literacy. They come in a multitude of forms and are supported by a multitude of donors. For some twenty years now I have been working in museums, mostly science museums. Science museums tend to be the low man on the totem pole. They don’t seem to have the cachet of some of the other disciplines. Donors never seem as interested in taxidermy or an old radio. I feel there should be greater focus on engaging people about science and the natural world, not only for inspiring tomorrow’s scientists but also for influencing the cultural scene. Where would we be without our mobile phone and internet interactions? Science and culture walk hand in hand, though some in society don’t seem to realise this.

Science-based museums tend to attract more of a family audience and supporters tend to value them for the ability to educate the young. But there are all types of opportunities for a variety of audiences. Science museum audiences of all ages respond to exhibits centred on scientific principles and actively demonstrating that principle in one way or another. Because of the popularity of science museums they have proliferated worldwide. Science and natural history museums dot the globe and if you visit internationally you will see a repetitive and derivative pattern for good and for ill. The grand daddy of interactive museums – The Exploratorium in San Francisco – is either flattered or goaded by the Exploritorium located in Suburban Chicago.

The sameness of Science Centres and Natural History Museums is perfectly exemplified by the special exhibitions programme. A while ago I travelled to the American Alliance of Museums conference to check out what was being offered as touring exhibitions and to hawk my own exhibitions, including Sexual Nature, and there I spotted a worrying trend. Today’s P.T. Barnum in science museums is the Hollywood blockbuster. Exhibitions with slight science connections were on offer from Muppets to Harry Potter. Certainly a draw for visitors but I would argue a dangerous long-term route to take for museums because uniqueness is ceded and specialness comes less from their authentic assets and more from a homogenised and globalized machine. As a result, the value of museums is diminished. Visitors will decide in the future where their entertainment pound/dollar should be placed and the lines between public and private are being blurred (O2 to the Coke Museum). In effect we are putting ourselves in direct competition with the Hollywood Studio machine and in terms of capital alone it is clear who will lose. It is certainly a difficult path for science museums to sustain, and science centres are big enterprises to keep afloat especially when they are low man on that donation totem pole.

But it doesn’t have to be like this – the Wellcome Collection in London has built an identity with some eye-popping experiences from exploring death to discussing drug use – they have even made dirt interesting. A new model of science museum is emerging through an approach that centres on attributes equated to 21st century organisations. Big is being replaced by small, slow and lumbering by nimble and fast, not always specialist-led and more centred on participation. Science is fast-moving and ever changing and you need a 21st century museum to match the velocity and pace of that change. When I go to the Wellcome Collection, Science Gallery in Dublin or Le Laboratoire in Paris I see a glimmer of what a 21st century museum should look like. I even see larger organisations working to break down silos and deliver more swiftly and more effectively. It mirrors where society is heading and how information is gathered, digested, discussed and delivered. These museums are responsive, flexible, and provocative and the impact is, well, a lot more impactful.

Coming back to my original questions I offer only insight and no definitive answers. Uniqueness and advancing creativity in museums should be a fun and exciting ride and one ultimate model might be too hard to find and too prescriptive to be worthwhile. Here’s what I have personally learnt.

Can unique and authentic experiences be commercially viable and sustainable? Of course, and they ultimately distinguish your institution in a competitive marketplace from other museums and what is on offer in the wider society. In the long-term authenticity and uniqueness are the goal in differentiating yourself in the homogenised and derivative culture we navigate.

Are we lazy in falling into models that are tried and tested and avoid taking risks? It is so easy to simply gravitate to “products” with proven popularity. The great test is to find ways to take on riskier and more innovative projects by mitigating risks and overcoming the barriers in your path. We should always be striving to produce something new that delivers new insight. Business models are great for working effectively through issues but with any speculative venture there is risk that cannot be explained away fully. A programme’s overall riskiness needs to be offset by revenue-generating models. You can’t just be interesting without being sustainable. This approach can give senior managers confidence in trialling innovation.

Do these models prevent us from being innovators? Commercial models, including business cases and robust audience evaluation are great tools in overcoming barriers. Beware, though, the watering down of something unique. Can visitors really understand something in an hour-long focus group? Use evaluation to inform decision making – but it’s not law. Business cases can set a “critique culture” or an exhausting gauntlet for creative teams to navigate. It is important that senior teams look for the opportunity and not constantly search for the reason not to do something new. The museum bookshelf is an ever growing overflowing shelf of best practice. There is always good guidance to help mitigate issues, but show some bravery and move things forward in your own way.

Do unique experiences appeal to audiences? And what audiences do you try and attract? Uniqueness ultimately builds a lasting relationship with your visitors. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, though, and audiences need to be targeted and prospected in relation to personal motivations. Do it differently. A bold stance means that you are seen as an innovator and that every exhibition you produce will push the boundaries of understanding.

Does uniqueness lead to greater literacy? We learn when we are activated and energised. Feeding people facts on a ladder of cognition is a lofty goal but not how informal learning occurs. Tomorrow’s museum is a bit of a messy circuitous journey of discovery. There are plenty of worthy topics but it is more important to find what is compelling about an issue. Passion drives the creation of a great experience and drives relevance and learning for visitors.

Can something be too unique? What do success and failure look like? It’s important to make sure audiences are part of the equation. The reality is that it can go wrong. Being special can lead to being niche. Niche is fine just as long as it’s not snobbery and utterly inaccessible.

Museums are faced with tough decisions in times of renewal. Disruption impacts attendance revenue and severs the ongoing relationship with your audience. The unique and authentic approach represents what I would like our culture in general to look like from art to theatre and it values not what audiences in America want but what your local community values and what your international guests should know about you.

Uniqueness touches people emotionally, and that in turn builds on their literacy. Uniqueness helps to form an individual’s personal rationale that assists them navigating and exploring throughout their life. It’s more about the process and journey and less about the outcome. Uniqueness ultimately leads to transformation.

Mike Sarna
Director, Collections and Public Engagement,
Royal Museums Greenwich

This article was originally published in issue 15 of Museum-iD magazine (2014)


i. Benton, Thomas H. “Getting Real at the Natural-History Museum, Part 2” The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 August 2010
ii. Herbert, Robert L. Et al “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, The Art Institute of Chicago in association with University of California Press, 2004.
iii. The Art Institute of Chicago (2004), “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte” Retrieved 28/05/2011
iv. Knowles, M. S., et al. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
v. Marschner, Joanna and Sue Hill. “The Enchanted Palace” Historic Royal Palaces, 2011 p. 76
vi. Marschner, Joanna and Sue Hill. “The Enchanted Palace” Historic Royal Palaces, 2011 p. 90
vii. Hennes, Tom. “How Can Exhibits Support Richer Visitor Experiences?” The Informal Learning Review, No. 59, March-April 2003.
viii. Pekarik, Andrew J. “From Knowing to Not Knowing: Moving Beyond Outcomes” Curator January 2010 p. 107
ix. Pekarik, Andrew J. “From Knowing to Not Knowing: Moving Beyond Outcomes” Curator January 2010 p. 114
x. Miner, Susan (session chair) Schacter Daniel L, Gabriel, Paul, Falk, John. “Mind, Memory and Museum Experience: Today’s Research, Tomorrow’s Museums” AAM Annual Meeting, April 28, 2006

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