Why don't people come back to museums? We've all heard the excuses: "I've already seen it all," says the family that visited half the exhibits. "You don't change things often enough," says the person who conveniently deletes monthly emails with info on new exhibits and programs. Under all of these excuses is one not-so-informative reason: "I don't want to."
Why not? To grapple with this question, I started considering other content and venues in our lives that we do and do not choose to have repeat experiences with. Why do we go to the same restaurants again and again, but not the same movies? Why do we hit replay on the game console but don't flip back to reread the novel? What defines the experiences that we like to repeat?
Things I repeat: poems, games, recipes, restaurants, outdoor spaces, songs, some museums
Things I don't: novels, movies, plays, some museums
Many of the factors that we typically use to define quality museums--strong narrative, unique content, large variety--don't play a strong part in how I decide whether or not to repeat an experience. Consider, for example, narrative. Except in cases where the content is deeply loved, most people don't repeat experiences with the same story. You pick up the novel, and even if you've forgotten the bulk of the tale, you realize you've read it before and put it down. Been there, done that. When I worked at the Spy Museum, many visitors expressed a lack of desire to return not because the experience was dissatisfying, but because they'd experienced the whole story. Repetition, they felt, wouldn't bring new insights.
Similarly, collections alone do not repeat visitors make. We already know that there is an identity problem in museums where visitors perceive that they have "seen it all" even when they have seen a small bit. What they really mean is that they've seen enough. Assuming that our content is good, and the exhibits well-designed, what factors could we consider that might motivate more visitors to want more?
REPEAT it if you love it. This is a cross-genre, cross-venue reality. Yes, I will reread Borges' Ficciones until the pages fall out, and my husband will watch The Lord of the Rings (extended version) almost as many times. We all have our pet movies, books, bars, beaches, and these predilections, while powerful, are so idiosyncratic that they aren't very useful unless you are a universally loved place. Lesson 1: Be adored? That's a tall order.
REPEAT if it provides a strong and desirable atmosphere. This is probably the most likely reason that you return to a venue or even a story you've seen before. If the feelings that the experience provokes are powerful, then the experience is worth repeating just to enjoy that sense again. This is the reason that people who sit through two screenings of the same movie often cite; the movie put them in an emotional state that was unique and desirable, and revisiting the feeling was worth retreading the narrative. This is why teenagers listen to the same song over and over, to tattoo the anger or love or whatever emotion the sound provokes into their ears. This is also (part) of what brings people back to the same bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. It's not just the guarantee of good content. It's the guarantee of a good time. Lesson 2: Be a nice place to hang out.
REPEAT if it puts you in the driver's seat. Narratives become infinitely repeatable when couched within games. The story of Mario saving the princess is neither a compelling nor atmosphere-inducing one. But we play the story again and again because we are in it, and we can change the outcome. This is another weird thing that separates songs from books; you can sing along with the song, which makes it enjoyably repeatable. You can grow by learning the words, singing it better. Whether improving your Tetris score, fine-tuning a recipe, or rocking out, you are the master and pupil of the experience. Lesson 3: Make room for people to grow within the experience.
REPEAT if it's dynamic and about you. This may seem identical to the above concept, but this is a more passive expression of narcissism. We repeat activities that give us more information about ourselves, or that change in relation to us (without us taking active roles as players or drivers). I was recently asked what websites I frequent most often. I was embarrassed to realize how high Facebook has climbed on that list in recent months. Why do I revisit Facebook? Because it is a website that is constantly being updated with new content just for me. Really just for me, about me and my friends. It doesn't send me generic emails about new features; it sends me emails about my friends' weddings and campaigns. This is what so many Web 2.0 sites do so well, and it's the reason Seb Chan calls Facebook "crackbook." And while we can't do this with everything in museums, there are certainly ways to personalize the membership newsletter and the email blasts (topics for other posts). Lesson 4: Make content changes personally relevant to the visitor.
REPEAT if it's bite-sized. Can't eat just one? I love to reread poems. Some people watch the same YouTube videos again and again. This may have to do with attention spans, or it may be related to the above lesson about user control. When the experience is both good and small, you can own it, and the idea of repeating it seems less daunting than, say, rereading War and Peace. This is another thing that brings people back to Facebook, where you get incremental news tidbits about your friends and associates. They don't bombard you with "everything you ever could imagine about everyone you know." Instead, the messages dribble out like little offerings, reeling you in and conditioning you to check back, stay tuned. Lesson 5: Portion the experience so that visitors can grasp individual elements and revisit them.
REPEAT if it's rewarded. A "buy ten get one free" card is a simple thing, something that coffee shops and burrito guys have going but few museums offer. When you let the visitor know on the first visit that there is a potential reward to be had after several visits, you prime the irrational part of the visitor's brain that thinks, "aha! This is a potential Good Deal." Some stores even go further and post a wall of fame for regulars and their punch cards. Lesson 6: Let visitors know you appreciate their repeat business.
Put all of these together, and you get some of the most addicting experiences in our culture. Casual flash games. Pop songs. Twitter. Cupcakes. And ultimately, repeatability comes down to a kind of addiction. You HAVE to make the giant bubble, see your favorite painting, or hear that same old song. We need visitors to need us a bit more, and then, once again, they'll come around.