Top Ten Ideas to Build Effective Museum Experiences

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A couple weeks ago, I was part of a workshop on building effective museum experiences on June 3, 2013 at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, Maryland.  Thanks to a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, they’ve partnered with the Maryland Historical Trust to present a series of workshops for museums and historic sites in the region.

For this workshop, they assembled an outstanding team of speakers:

In the afternoon, we broke into several groups.   I led a discussion with Tom Mayes on creating tours using techniques from narrative non-fiction, giving participants a chance to try some ideas using the history of their site and offering examples from Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I closed the day by asking the participants for the five or six best ideas they heard.  They were so enthusiastic, they gave me ten:

  1. Follow Minda Borun’s theory that, “conversation is the currency of family learning.”  When family visitors talk among themselves, you’re doing something right.  Be sure to give them the opportunity to have conversations.
  2. Answer Tom Mayes’ rhetorical question, “Why would I bother to go to your site rather than watch tv? (and there’s a lot of good tv).”
  3. Create compelling narratives using storytelling techniques, such as a protagonist facing a challenge, incorporating senses and emotion, and starting the tour or exhibit with an engaging event.
  4. Hold back and let your visitors experience the place.  Don’t talk constantly; instead, give visitors some quiet time to absorb and reflect.
  5. Move beyond the auditory and visual to include more senses, such as something to touch, smell, or taste.   At the USS Constitution, visitors can lay on hammocks below decks, so it’s possible to even provide an alternative to standing or sitting.
  6. No matter their age, people connect with objects in some manner.  By answering questions that start with “why, what, how, or if,” you’ll more effectively engage all of your visitors.
  7. Do more with less.  Avoid too much information, define your narrative, work within limited space, choose small interactives rather than wordy one.  Make tough decisions.
  8. Try to limit exhibit labels to fifty words.  Don’t overwhelm visitors with text and look for other ways to teach a concept or idea.
  9. Know your history from different perspectives.   We usually talk from the perspective of upper class men, but what about the other people involved in the story:  women, children, servants, tradespeople, and workers?
  10. Encourage “magical thinking.”  When people encounter an object, room, or place where something significant happened, they can get goosebumps, a shiver, or feel transported to the past.  These encounters can be deeply affective and meaningful, and they are significant enough that academics even have a name for them:  “numinous museum experiences“.

Thanks to Mary Alexander of the Maryland Historical Trust and Rod Cofield at Historic London Town for coordinating this workshop.  More are planned so if you’re in Maryland (or close by), contact them for more details, including the September 10, 2013 workshop in Frederick, Maryland on museums as agents of change with MaryLynn Mack of the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona.

4 thoughts on “Top Ten Ideas to Build Effective Museum Experiences

  1. Randi Korn

    Max,#7 slightly to read: “Achieve more by doing less.” By making tough decisions about what you won’t do (because they don’t help you get to your ultimate destination) you will be spending more time on things that do make a difference.

    Randi Korn


  2. Mary Alexander

    Thanks, Max, for a wonderful summary of the 6th workshop in our IMLS series. I do love your list of ten, but in truth experiencing the day was waay better than reading your summary. These workhops are so rich in experience for the participants (and they are even valuable for the organizers). Keep up your good work on our behalf.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I agree! Even if we doubled the list, it wouldn’t describe all the great ideas I collected that day. The speakers, facilities, and lunch were all outstanding–and the registration fee was a bargain.


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