Daniella Briotto Faustino
How to Make Your Museum Experience Stand Out
It is a fact that museums have always amused me. Since I was a little girl, I would spend hours viewing paintings, sculptures and historical artefacts with my family and friends. In some cases, the art pieces viewed would create an indelible mark in my memory, such as the painting Pink and Blue, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which is part of the permanent collection of the Art Museum of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. The impressive shininess of the satin ribbons that decorate the white dresses of two little girls struck me in a way that even after 10 years, I still remember the enchantment I felt when I looked at it for the first time.
Figure 1: Pink and Blue, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Throughout the years, I visited lots of museums and art galleries in almost every place I travelled to, as a means to learn more about the place, its human development and its values. But I have to say that not all venues were captivating enough to become unforgettable. Some have been completely erased from my mind after a couple of weeks, but others turned into conversation topics for years to come. A good example of the latter is the Het Grachtenhuis (or Museum of the Canals) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, not because of its size, or because it contains rare art pieces, but because it provided me with a delightful user experience.
As you may know, Amsterdam is composed by an amazing canal ring (with 165 canals!), which received UNESCO world heritage status in 2010. So, it is not surprising that the city has a museum dedicated to telling the story of the canals. In 2016, my tour in the Het Grachtenhuis started with a staff member providing me with an audio-guide device. I know, that is not exciting at all, because this technology has been around for more than 50 years! But as soon as the staff guided us visitors to the next room, I noticed that I wasn’t going to have a typical museum experience there.
In one of the rooms, dramatic lights illuminated lots of city maps that were casually hanging in an overlapping manner on the walls, surrounding a wooden table and its six heavy chairs. In each chair, I could read in the second line (the first was in Dutch, of course) the name of an eminent position, such as Mayor or Chief Engineer. Before I could finish reading all the chair labels, the audio-guide started playing what I could quickly identify was a person starting a conversation, rather than the usual monotonic explanation. At the same moment, one of the chairs lit up to indicate that the person speaking was the Mayor. The representation of what I learned was an important meeting continued with chairs lighting up one-by-one as different people would speak. While discussing how to address the issues Amsterdam was facing when the canals were being planned, sketches and maps mentioned by the characters would be instantaneously projected onto the centre of the table.
Figure 2: Museum room with hanging city maps and chairs representing historical characters.
Similarly, in another room, construction workers chatted about the log foundation of a new townhouse they were building, while both animated models and a projection on the walls presented the building process to museum visitors.
Figure 3: Museum room where both video projected on the walls and animated models represented the construction process of townhouses close to the Amsterdam canals.
I confess I was truly amazed by the good use of multimedia and how the performance was well-synchronized, not only by the technological resources, but by the museum staff who conducted us in a timely manner through each room. In a total of five rooms, audio, video, city models and maps unveil Amsterdam’s 400-year history through a truly immersive multimedia experience.
I am sure that the experience provided by the Het Grachtenhuis is not capable of pleasing every single visitor. It is possible that a historian would look for more detailed information about the city than what is presented in the museum’s 1-hour tour. However, I believe a big proportion of tourists would agree with me when I say that the visit was worth every minute, not only because it achieves its purpose of unveiling the intriguing way Amsterdam canals were planned and built, but also because it does that by using an appropriate combination of technology and storytelling. If they had used the multimedia resources with the same tedious narrative of so many other museums, then the result would have definitely been different.
What does all this tell us?
So, what does all this tell us about UX design? First, that no design is able to fit all needs, so it is important to have the target group of users in mind when designing a solution (and in the case of the museum, it was clearly tourists like me!). Second, new technology by itself does not have the power to deliver a good user experience: it is the role of designers to plan every detail of an experience and apply technological resources to enhance it, and not to fill in the blanks of a deficient organization. Finally, good storytelling is still a great way to capture the attention of a customer and invite them to engage in a new experience.
If you want to learn more about the Museum of the Canals, access the website below:
Until next time!
Daniella Briotto Faustino