Museum Manifesto

I’ve visited one or two museums per week for two months. Based on these experiences, here’s the “museum manifesto” I wrote up detailing what I think makes for a powerful, interactive learning experience in a public setting.

  1. A museum should immerse visitors and encourage them to explore and discover for themselves. Visitors should feel like they are wandering and finding their own path through the exhibits.
  2. Didactics should be easy to find and present information clearly and in bite-size chunks so that information isn’t overwhelming. The American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo do this well.
  3. Museum employees should be informed and friendly.
  4. Exhibits should be beautifully designed and well-maintained.
  5. A museum must provide visitors with access to something they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to, or provide them with information and content in a new way. They should feel as if they have gained exclusive access to the content. If something isn’t normally seen up close, bring them closer to it.
  6. You are the center of your world. A museum should enable visitors to see themselves, personally relate to the exhibit or provide opportunity to change the exhibit in some way as a result of their interaction with it. The solar panel at Cooper-Hewitt that looked like a series of mirrors had me transfixed for a while, and the didactics in the Bronx Zoo made me aware of the issues facing animals in their lives, and how certain animal features relate to things in our daily lives, e.g. “a beak is better than a Swiss Army Knife.”
  7. Technology should be seamlessly integrated into exhibits so it doesn’t look like the museum is using technology for technology’s sake. The technology should be well-maintained.
  8. Memories, personal stories and emotions play vital roles in how people experience a museum. Some museums should try to trigger these emotions to provide a richer, more memorable visitor experience.
  9. A visitor should leave the museum with some understanding that they’ve personally gained something – knowledge, memories, or a feeling of accomplishment.
  10. Exhibits should be designed with photo opportunities in mind. Parents love to take pictures of their kids in front of dinosaurs, tigers and huge pieces of art. Teens and young adults may be seeking interesting Facebook profile picture opportunities. For example, there are always two queues of tourists on Wall Street waiting to have their picture taken with the bull. In my experience, the queue at the back of the bull waiting to have their picture taken with his backside is always much longer than the queue waiting to have their picture taken at the front.
  11. There should be “breather” spaces between exhibits or sections of the museum, with natural light and seating, that enable visitors to take a short rest if needed, catch up and talk after the exhibits.

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