Visitors in front of the African Elephant Diorama at the Natural
History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC photo)
“I love it! You’ve made it better without changing it.”
Those words haunt me. The person who said them is a member of our Board of Trustees. He’s one of our biggest supporters. He is committed to our aspiration of creating a new model of what museums can be in the 21st Century. Yet he was thrilled that we had not changed what he loved – any of it – when we installed our new signage system.
This isn’t an isolated issue. Loyal museum visitors – members, patrons, volunteer docents, people who grew up coming to the museum -- love the old exhibits they are used to. Familiarity may breed contempt in some contexts, but apparently not in museums. Familiarity with our museum seems to breed loyalty, love and a desire to have things preserved rather than changed. Dioramas. History exhibits with hundreds of objects and no coherent story. Schizophrenic bird halls with 5 different design and content presentation styles. How do we grapple with this difficult fact - that what staff may see as old-fashioned exhibits, those with no stories, just lots of coded content – can be visitor favorites???
The specifics of what visitors love is often hard to tease out. A couple of months ago, my middle school age daughter and her friends were in the back seat of the car talking about the museum where I work. One of them broke the unwritten rule against talking to the parent driver and asked me what was coming next. They got excited when I told them we were bringing in an exhibit on mummies. Then one of them asked me where we were going to put it. When I told him - into a hall that held what remains of our old California History Hall - the kids protested loudly that the old Hall is one of their favorites. When I asked them what they love about it, they named a few objects, but then one said “the whole thing” and my daughter said “the smell.”
Their loyalty, that fondness for the familiar, the smell--these precious memories do not drive attendance or keep us relevant. Even at a museum like ours, where more than 70% of our visitors are bringing others to facilitate a social (often family) experience, only new things can reliably motivate a visit.
In museum circles, there is also a widely recognized need for us to be relevant, to tell big stories that matter, to create experiences for the widest possible range of audiences, and - in the case of science museums - to help solve the STEM crisis by making science fun, accessible and interesting. As museums work to fulfill visitor-focused missions – in our case to inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds - we face some ironic paradoxes.
Each month, during our visitor intercept surveys, we ask a sample of 200 visitors whether they came to see anything in particular, and if so what. The most popular answer among those that say yes is Dinosaurs. When asked what they want more of they say Dinosaurs - and more hands on experiences for kids.
No visitor has ever told us that s/he came to the museum to learn a big story or to see science in action. And yet, as museum professionals, we are constantly talking about our responsibilities to tell those big stories, to display a wider range of our spectacular stuff, to help visitors make sense of change through time, put current anthropogenic climate change by putting into the context of climate change throughout the history of the earth, and to display our collections as evidence for the history and evolution of the earth and life on it.
So how do we balance that perceived obligation to tell big stories – of the history of our planet and life on it, of evolution, extinction and survival, of how science works, visitor motivations for social experiences -- with great objects and specimens and memorable stories?
Most museums, including us, might answer this question by changing our approach as we create new experiences. But as we look at creating new layers for iconic, historic exhibits this can get dicey. In our case in LA, we’re addressing this now as we consider our diorama halls. We have some of the best diorama halls in the world. They are incredibly detailed depictions of scientifically and visually accurate moments in time and place with backdrop murals made accomplished artists – including some famous Plein Air artists who created them as part of W.P.A. projects during the Great Depression. How do we make them relevant, engaging, must-see experiences without changing them? Can we? There are plenty of models out there – and the range of options keeps increasing with technological innovations. We will learn from them all, but none that we have seen yet quite fit the full range of inarticulate needs of our visitors.
No matter what we do, I know this: we will test and test and test before we install anything in the diorama halls, lest anyone complain that we changed them.
Thanks to Karen Wise for this thoughtful post. Please share your perspective below--Karen and I both look forward to the conversation. If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.