Over the past decade, I've seen two distinct versions of this term:
- the user-centered museum, in which visitors are active participants, invited to contribute to and co-create the experience
- the customer-centered museum, in which visitors are valued guests, invited to enjoy personalized experiences that cater to their specific needs and interests
To be clear: I'm not a fan of all aspects of customer-centered museums. At their worst, instead of human-centered, they become commerce-centered institutions, overly focused on the shop, the restaurant, the spectacle, and the highest ticket price the market can bear. But at their best, they focus on the humans walking in the door, providing them with value on their own terms. One hundred years ago, John Cotton Dana, founder of the Newark Museum and godfather of modern museums, famously said: “A great department store, easily reached, open at all hours, is more like a good museum of art than any of the museums we have yet established." I believe that Dana's department store museum is best exemplified in the customer-centered museum. The customer may not always be right, but she deserves to have an experience that brings her comfort, satisfaction, and joy.
I felt that comfort, satisfaction, and joy on a recent visit to two museums in Glasgow: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and Riverside Museum. Kelvingrove is an encyclopedic museum, the kind where pachyderms, mummies, and Impressionists rub shoulders. Riverside is a museum of transportation, packed with trains, bicycles, and motorcars. Both of these museums delivered incredible experiences for me and my husband. These museums were terrific examples of customer-centered institutions because:
- They engaged our curiosity. The objects were interesting, the stories surprising. At Kelvingrove, a display of knights, swords, and shields (one I'd usually skip) was peppered with animals whose skin and scales formed body armor, drawing me to look closer and better understand the connections between how living creatures defend ourselves. At Riverside, a torn-up Ford Escort explained how car thieves cut up and weld together stolen chassis, displaying the ingenuity and dangerous implications of chop shops. These displays were memorable. They taught us something new. They prompted dialogue and a desire to keep looking.
- They catered to different audiences. Kelvingrove in particular was impressive for embracing an eclectic, "we all belong here" approach to gallery design and display. You could come for the Scottish first peoples or the World War II art or the dinosaurs or the collection of funny shoes. All were given value. I never felt like I stumbled into the gallery where no one else dares to tread (as I often feel when I enter the dioramas in many natural history museums, or the period rooms of art institutions). And they did a good job calling out and tailoring areas for families and young ones without making those spaces feel segregated from the overall experience.
- They offered immersive, powerful environments. Both institutions made good use of their very different spaces. Kelvingrove is in a hundred-year-old palace of galleries around a central court in a park, whereas Riverside is a 2011 Zaha Hadid open-plan warehouse on a riverfront with a dramatic contemporary exterior. In Kelvingrove, we strolled easily from gallery to gallery, through open thresholds that encouraged exploration while maintaining distinct character from room to room. At Riverside, we wandered from display to display around the open floor, again, feeling comfortable, accommodated, and stimulated by bicycles racing around a velodrome overhead and 1920s buses squatting on the concrete. The objects in both museums were varied, and the display techniques incorporated movement, varied sight lines, juxtaposition, and humor to keep us intrigued and engaged.
- They offered genuinely interesting learning experiences. In each museum, we saw thematic displays and labels that surprised and engrossed us. At Kelvingrove, we were particularly taken by Looking at Art, a gallery that invited us to check out a painting in various stages of restoration, to look at the backs of paintings and the things that were crossed out, and to learn more about the stories and influences behind specific artworks. I'd seen each of these kinds of elements in other museums, but never in such a clear way that respected visitors' intelligence and provided us with genuinely new information. At Riverside, I was impressed by the consistent integration of community voices in label text, and the very human take on a genre (transportation) that is often presented strictly in terms of technology and provenance. There were displays about the terror of motorcycle accidents, the freedoms public transportation affords, and the ways vehicles can enable people to enjoy places that are otherwise inaccessible to them. I'd heard before about Riverside's development, which involved many community focus groups, workshops, and talkbacks. That work showed in the human voices and stories throughout the museum. Of course, these are tools of user-centered institutions! It was lovely to see their integration into such strong customer-centered experiences.
- They acknowledged our desire for comfort and variation. One of the best bits of our trip to Kelvingrove was taking a break to enjoy the free pipe organ concert in the central court. We took a break from the galleries, had a drink, and listened to the music as we chatted about our experience. This kind of accommodation in museums is nothing new, but it was made special because of how it fit into the flow of the building. We didn't have to go outside or to some segregated area to have coffee. It was there, in the heart of the museum, where we could gaze up at the galleries we'd been to and the ones we'd skipped. It wasn't a destination or a set-aside place of respite; comfort and social activity were at the very center of the building.
Glasgow Museums include other institutions--notably, Glasgow Open Museum--that are far more user-centered. (Glasgow Open Museum, which co-creates exhibitions with and in community spaces across the city, served as a case study in The Participatory Museum.) But as a tourist on a summer day, I didn't seek out that user-centered institution. Instead, I walked into Kelvingrove and Riverside--two fine department stores of humanity--and walked out a satisfied customer.