The changing face of the museum

Emily Antoniadi
11th May 2017

New research released this week has highlighted that UK museums are failing to close the gap in participation, with visitors predominantly white, and from higher socio-economic groups. As communication aficionados, the Kin&Co team couldn’t help but ask, why?  

When I was six, my parents dragged me round many of the UK’s best known museums. They wanted me to absorb information like a sponge. From fossils to spacecraft, Rodin to the Romans, I saw it all. How much actually sunk in is a different matter. And now with two little girls of my own, of course I want to show them all the wonderful exhibits that I saw. Except, if I could speak to my six year old self, I’m not sure I would be recommending it to them.

‘You can look, but don’t touch’ is possibly the worst thing you could say to an inquisitive child. Yet it’s this statement that was uttered time and time again by parents in museums and art galleries across the world. I wanted to get involved, to touch, feel and explore, but this just wasn’t possible. Even the fabulous Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is a room full of toys hidden behind glass, which seems unspeakably cruel to a six year old.  

In this example, it’s clear that not all museums have put their audiences front and centre of their exhibitions. Children learn best when using all their senses, which often goes against the standard museum offer. For museums to thrive, they must appeal to audiences with different motivations. At last, change is coming and museums are responding to the trend for more meaningful cultural experiences.

Recent research found that consumers are spending their cash on experiences, rather than owning items. In correlation with this, sales at retailer, Next, fell for the first time in eight years. We are a nation of people that want to live and experience the everyday, rather than just own something. People, and young people in particular, want to try new things, create memories and share an adventure with friends. This is a huge opportunity for the museum as we know it, and many have been smart in embracing this new trend already.

Take for example, the new pop up museum opened by Institute of Imagination. Billed as a ‘maker space’, each six week exhibit is created by the visitors. Curators have absolutely no idea what the exhibit will look like at the end of the six weeks, and this is part of the charm. Every visitor has the chance to build part of the final display, and leave their own unique fingerprint on the exhibition. That’s a memory worth creating.

The V&A has also been banging the drum for experiences over exhibitions. Their latest exhibition promises an unprecedented, innovative and multi-sensory journey through Pink Floyd’s extraordinary world’s.

So what will a museum built for the next generation look like? Here’s our take on the top five features of the museum of the future:

1. Exhibitions will be multi-sensory – immersive experiences that tap into our sense of sound, smell and even taste go far beyond the one-dimensional, visual feast

2.  Spaces will reflect different groups in societyarguably the most important aspect for museums is how to place audiences front and centre of any exhibition.

3. Think outside the norm – exhibition design can be as much architecture as it can theatre. Embracing different disciplines makes exhibitions more compelling and interesting. As one example, the Museum of London’s recent announcement to move to West Smithfield will transform their space – complete with London’s old Metropolitan line!

4. Good for the environment – not so much as a trend, but a necessity, museums will consider their impact on the environment far more than previously. How will temporary exhibitions be created with sustainability in mind? What role does design have to play in this?

5. Stimulate debate – our future museum will be a place where we can safely debate and discuss controversial topics, armed with information, but that provokes a response. Recent political events have proven that we’re a global population that wants to be heard. Museums must embrace the cultural zeitgeist.

– Tause Page