Art enthusiasts have noticed the spectacular transformation of museum galleries in recent years. What were once cold, cobweb-laden corridors filled with technical descriptions have now evolved into cultural clusters at the center of social networks, attracting not only families wishing to amuse their young children but also Instagrammers and techno-indie clubbers. Gone are the days of the passive spectators, trailing behind a guide who pours them with an overflowing knowledge, User Experience has naturally flourished in these cultural spaces to make your visit a complete educational and entertaining experience.
This transformation is not new and has not yet become a paradigm in cultural mediation, but the introduction of new technologies and economic viability issues have created an impressive synergy among stakeholders that delights user-centered design researchers.
How can we explain such a shift?
Looking at the history of museums — which are institutions steeped in social and political memory — helps shed light on this dramatic entry into the digital era. All the more, they have a head start over other public domains in implementing new tools and methods to enhance the attractiveness of the digital experiences they offer.
Experiment behind closed doors
Despite what centuries (or even millennia) of displayed memory in these immense linear alleys may suggest, the museum, as we conceive it today in the West, is a relatively recent creation.
The origins of what is currently considered as one of the greatest achievements of republican democracies can be traced back to the Renaissance era, more precisely in the confinement of princely courts and aristocratic domains that shaped the fabric of the European elite culture of the 16th century. While international exchanges were experiencing unprecedented growth while empires and merchants were reaping the benefits of this abundance, showcasing one’s artistic and intellectual wealth became the new trend. Guided by an insatiable desire to understand the natural world, past civilizations, and to demonstrate their cultural capital, these collectors and scholars laid the foundations for scientific methodologies by collecting, organizing, and exhibiting their possessions according to a logic that modern museums were to adopt.
It is fascinating to note that the objectives guiding the field of UX today manifested differently in the past. Consider, for instance, the pursuit of visitor engagement — which today’s designers see as an efficient way for customer retention — In the 16th century, a parallel effort was evident in the categorization of collection objects (a global standard now). This endeavor aimed to cater to the intellectual pursuits of collectors, showcasing their scientific thinking and their material wealth.
From a more emotional perspective, this was achieved through the promotion of aesthetically informal frameworks known as “cabinets of curiosities.” The term itself underscores the emphasis on crafting an inviting visiting atmosphere and eliciting emotional responses, reminiscent of the storytelling techniques employed in many contemporary exhibitions. These cabinets served as homes for an assortment of miscellaneous objects, with the creator’s objective being to amass the rarest, strangest, or scientifically most intriguing wonders. Deliberately situated in locations distant from residential areas, these cabinets aimed to establish a clear distinction between the commonplace and these stimulating realms of imagination.
Move along, there is everything to see here
The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the emergence of the first public museums. The democratic and republican ideals of the time led to the opening of the British Museum and the Louvre to symbolically make knowledge and culture accessible to the entire population, not just the political elite (1).
During the 19th century, both governments and enthusiasts underscored the educational role of museums, necessitating their accessibility to students and researchers. This concern led to the proliferation of specialized museums in fields such as natural history, archaeology, and ethnology. Knowledge increased in cities to such an extent that museums became more accumulative than informative, inconsistent in their deployment, with little consideration for the regular visitor.
Simultaneously, art galleries remained a magnet for urban elites, functioning as a hub for social interactions. Consequently, significant portions of the population lacked access to those places due to physical exclusion (museums were not evenly distributed across the territory) and intellectual exclusion (education was not yet widespread).
The legacy of this vision still persists today, with museums often perceived as intimidating, tedious, and downright unwelcoming. Even though they garnered much attention during that period because they were one of the few public places for open discussion at a time when salons, courts, and private clubs were prevailing, their inherent conservatism greatly limited experimentation to enhance attractiveness, unlike other popular cultural venues such as music-hall.
New challenges for museums
In the 20th century, a spectacular movement of modernization and democratization occurred as museum conformism became far too evident in a time of scientific and artistic revolution. Popular education became a promising path to explore, leading some countries to implement bold cultural policies that paved the way for current experiments. Consider the Centre Pompidou, this architectural oddity inaugurated in 1977 is a cultural hub in the heart of the French capital: it houses a museum, a cinema, conference rooms, and a library for students, all under one roof. It is a fine example of what political willpower can achieve.
Today, museums continue to function as repositories of collections, yet the emphasis lies on exhibition. The objective has evolved beyond merely attracting the curious and connoisseurs, now it extends to to bringing them back through an increased effort in marketing and the proposition of various cultural and commercial services. While the scenographic and educational means deployed in the organization of the exhibition are certainly valuable, it’s important to contextualize them as initiatives for economic appeal. The enormous collections, their maintenance, and the symbolic weight of these institutions have a cost that can be offset by increasing the number of visitors. And for cities, having their own museum is a guarantee of tourism and political attractiveness: that’s the Bilbao effect (2).
Visitors have become consumers, albeit of a particular kind, as they consume an intellectual production that carries a positive symbolic value. As a result, exhibitions and visitors’ expectations swing between entertainment and education. Institutions must delicately maintain the balance of preserving their leadership in the national cultural landscape while distinguishing themselves in an increasingly competitive international arena.
I would also emphasize the significance of technological advancements in this paradigm shift, an aspect that is worth highlighting when discussing the progress of user engagement. How could we accommodate so many visitors and disseminate such knowledge without the help of electricity? Electronic tickets? How can we talk about UX today without mentioning the tremendous possibilities offered by interactive installations? Gamification? It is the possibilities offered by technology that make the design of visitor experience so creative.
It is a wonderful era full of initiatives for UX; by considering the needs, preferences, and behaviors of visitors, today’s museums have initiated their renewal through the enhancement of the visiting environment and accessibility for individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests. However, museums are not ordinary places of entertainment; they bear the conflicting historical visions of cultural mediation, and this fact should not be buried under the requirements of economic viability.
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1 : The Louvre Palace, originally built as a royal palace, was constructed in the 12th century. It served as a royal residence for several centuries until the court of France moved to the Palace of Versailles in 1682. The Louvre then underwent various transformations, and it officially became a public museum in 1793 during the French Revolution.
2 : The Bilbao Effect refers to the transformative impact that a cultural or architectural project can have on the regeneration and revitalization of a city or region. The term gained prominence after the success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, which, through its innovative design and cultural offerings, played a pivotal role in reshaping the city’s image and attracting tourism and investment. The Bilbao Effect is often used to describe similar endeavors that aim to leverage cultural and artistic initiatives for urban renewal and economic development
Impey & MacGregor. The Origins of Museums: the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe. Ursus Press, 2001
Poulot, Dominique. Musée et Muséologie. La Découverte, 2009
Schaer, Roland. L’Invention des Musées. Gallimard. 1993
Schnapper, Antoine. Curieux du Grand siècle. Collections et collectionneurs dans la France du xviie siècle. Flammarion, 1994