The Modern Museum: Trends in Cultural Institutions

Museums and historical sites are keepers of the past, but the ways they convey and share stories are constantly evolving. Today, institutions are actively redefining what it means to be a steward of history by updating interpretation, broadening audiences, and investing in new technologies. At HAI, we attend conferences, seminars, and other training sessions, read the latest literature, and collaborate with creative partners to keep up to date on modern museum trends. This blog post takes a look at some of those trends we have recently observed in the field.

Digital Dimensions

visitors using their smartphones to interact with an exhibit

Smartphone apps ensure that visitors use their phones in ways that add, and don’t distract, from their experience.

In a world of smartphones and Snapchat, there are countless opportunities to engage visitors in new and effective ways. Institutions are making an effort to digitize their collections and put them online, often using content management systems that store, organize, and present images, video, text, and other materials. Responsive design ensures that web content will be user-friendly across platforms. But it doesn’t end there. Virtual reality headsets and smartphone apps add new layers of exploration and discovery that feels exciting and personal. Social media campaigns encourage participation and build a community that extends far beyond the physical confines of the museum. These are just a few of the many ways that museums are going digital—a trend that will no doubt continue to grow and evolve in the coming years.

Learning from Visitors

Simple interactives like these—from the Museum of Vancouver and the Plains Art Museum—invite visitors to become active participants in the museum experience.

Simple interactives like these—from the Museum of Vancouver and the Plains Art Museum—invite visitors to become active participants in the museum experience. Photos courtesy Museum of Vancouver, and National Endowment for the Arts

More and more, cultural institutions have embraced the idea that learning is a two-way street.

Museums and historical sites are at their best when they actively engage audiences in the development and presentation of content. Rapid prototyping gets preliminary ideas out of the conference room and in front of visitors, where they can assess the effectiveness of different approaches and interpretations. Public meetings allow community members to provide feedback at the early stages of design. Tracking website analytics demonstrates what content users gravitate toward and how they are interacting with the site. This information helps institutions build better experiences, better websites, and ultimately a stronger, more committed stakeholder community.

Encouraging Interaction

The phrase “museum interactive” often conjures up visions of slick, expensive touchscreens, but sometimes the best interactive is just that—a way to get visitors to interact with one another. Many museums seek to be dynamic spaces that promote civic engagement by encouraging visitors to think about and discuss contemporary issues. Posing a question and asking visitors to respond on sticky notes or creating visual polls where visitors cast their vote can encourage meaningful participation that is low-tech, low-cost, and easy to sustain.

Universal Design

Visitors touching a relief map of the Grand Canyon

Relief maps like this one of the Grand Canyon help all visitors learn more about the landscape.

Each visitor has a unique set of needs and expectations. Increasingly, museums are exploring ways to make their content accessible to a wider range of audiences. Audio labels, screen reader technology, and three-dimensional, tactile elements engage visually-impaired visitors, but also add new, interesting layers that benefit all audiences and give them more choices for how to experience content. Virtual tours can allow people to get closer to spaces they might not otherwise get to visit, whether due to accessibility issues, conservation concerns, or barriers to travel. Presenting the same story or event from different viewpoints can also ensure that all visitors feel welcome and represented in an exhibit. Taking these steps during the exhibit development process helps create spaces with universal accessibility and appeal.

Getting Started

Looking to dial into these trends at your institution? We’ve found that the most successful projects begin with an assessment and planning phase that maps out key goals, themes, and educational objectives and identifies target audiences and their needs. Next, brainstorm creative ways to achieve these objectives. You may find that a simple sticky note interactive is the perfect solution, or that a custom smartphone app is in order. Need help? We’d be happy to discuss your exhibit project, just give us a call!

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Comments 1

  1. Your info and presentations are excellent. I am now old and retired from working with several history groups as a volunteer. The biggest single issue for most of the Colorado and Wyoming history groups is funding. This has always been a tight fit but it is extreme right now do to energy prices and there is no rebound in sight.
    The question becomes “How can history organizations develop sponsorships, cooperative ventures, partnerships, exhibitions, educational connections, and tie-ins operate from public funding agencies?”
    I have seen museums from years ago do this, and service clubs make projects flow and associations assume responsibility to do things. What ideas do you see that can help?
    Lastly good history operations run good retail stores that can help do some funding but become self supporting and often attract volunteers to help manage them in many ways..The stores often bring light and energy to a museum. Many Thanks

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