A museum experience I’ll always remember: In 2002, I worked at the Boston Museum of Science with a program in which high school students from a nearby charter school spent half their school time at the museum. They took regular classes, museum-specific classes, and had internship-style museum jobs. One day when we didn’t have the students, I was walking the floor with another staff member. We ran into two of the kids, sitting on a bench outside an exhibit, talking. “What are you doing here?” my coworker admonished. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”
They shrugged, sheepish. And it dawned on us: these kids were cutting school to come to the museum. It was the best and worst of problems. The museum had achieved something I thought only possible in malls and skate parks: it had become cool.
Okay, I admit it. I haven’t been in a mall in years, mostly because I dislike and am overwhelmed by them. But I grew up in L.A. I’m a valley girl. And like most kids, I spent a lot of time at the mall. We ice skated. We ate in the food court. We tried on clothes, listened to new music, and threw pennies in the fountain. We brought our roller blades and zipped through the cool, dark parking lots until security threw us out.
Why do Americans love malls? Part of it is about consuming, but that’s not the whole story. People don’t hang out at Target the way they flock to malls. Malls are safe, stimulating public spaces for casual social interactions. They are open to everyone. There’s no minimum purchase requirement. Malls feature lots of seating in open, bright spaces. They provide entry points to a collection of discrete, varied content experiences. And the mall experience is entirely user-oriented. You choose which of those experiences/stores to dip into. You choose how long you stay and what you do. In most stores, you can “try” the content in some way without making a purchase. Part of the mall experience is aspirational, but it’s also deeply personal—the stores are there to sell to you, to (supposedly) improve and support you and your interests.
Plus, malls are cool. It’s ironic, when you think about the great pains that museums and libraries go to to create spaces that are “teen-positive,” that malls attract kids effortlessly with fluorescent lights and lousy music.
I don’t think that museums need a full mall facelift, but there are some good lessons from their successes. Malls are places where visitors are repeat users who feel ownership over their experiences. They have successfully cracked a number of obstacles that hinder most museums from becoming true user spaces. For example…
Malls are open to all sorts of experiences. Above, I mentioned the lack of barriers to entry in a mall. Malls, more than retail stores, are open to anyone—whether you have cash in your pocket or not. Malls support browsing. They support eating. They support pointing at things and laughing. You can’t get violent or egregiously offensive in a mall, but beyond that, it’s a space that you can use as you wish. I’d love to imagine that museums are the same way, but they aren’t. Museums both implicitly and explicitly set expectations about what kinds of behaviors and interactions are appropriate in the galleries. (Many) museums put an admissions desk at the door and charge you for the experience before you even get to wander in and see what you are buying. With the possible exception of children’s museums, there are few museums in which you enter the door and feel as if the world inside is entirely yours to explore in your own way. There are things you “ought” to see and do. There’s no such feeling at the mall.
Malls put the customer first. The basic question consumers ask when they enter a store is: “What does this place have for me?” If the answer is, “nothing,” there’s no hope for a sale. How clearly and compellingly can museums answer this basic question? There’s a lot of debate about museum branding and advertising that can promote strong value propositions for museums. I think museums would do well to think of each visitor/consumer and their “me” desires. What does each exhibit in your museum have to entice visitors? Does the collection of experiences constitute a place that has something for all kinds of people? It’s not just a question of whether museums have something good to sell; it has to be something that visitors want to buy.
Mall content connects strongly to people’s lives. The mall has the stuff that you need to be a hip, attractive, up-to-the-moment person. Even if you don’t have interest in some of the content, it’s there “for you,” and the retail structure is focused on providing for your needs. Staff will go out of their way to help you find things that particularly interest you, rather than rattling off the day’s specials or providing a predefined cart demo or exhibit presentation. Museums are about “push” communication; retail is about pulling out that which will most excite the consumer.
Malls offer changing, contemporary content. If you want to keep up with movies or fashion in a physical space, you go to the mall. Malls offer consistently branded experiences, but the seasonal cycle of fashion means that you have to keep coming back to see what’s new and stay on track. Museum exhibits don’t have that same pressing connection to our personal lives such that we care whether the Blue Hall has changed or the Impressionists got a facelift.
Mall architecture supports users. There are open central spaces with ample seating. There are private dressing rooms. There are big windows in each store so you can see out onto the main area. Whereas museums often send you down twisting pathways behind walls, malls keep everything close to the main thoroughfares out of respect for consumers’ desires to get into and out of stores as quickly as they like. I’m surprised that more malls don’t put their food courts right in the middle of the action so people can sit and enjoy the beehive of action around them.
Malls offer competitive content. Every store in the mall advertises their content in the window, trying to draw people in. Museum exhibits, on the other hand, are not designed to compete with each other, so visitors don’t get a lot of information at the outset as to whether an exhibit will be of interest to them. They have to buy first, then browse, rather than the other way (the mall way) around.
The good news is that none of these things that make malls user-centered are particularly complicated to enact or achieve. “What does this place have for me?” Let’s focus on finding exciting, easy ways to answer the most basic consumer questions, and perhaps the museum can become as relevant, as personal, and as social a place as the local galleria.