By Steffanie Golliher, Experiential Strategist at The Marketing Arm
Growing up, museums were places we went on field trips. Filled with signs, placards, dioramas, and specimen-filled shadow boxes, they taught us what life was like in ancient Egypt or how scientists unearthed and reconstructed a T-Rex skeleton. They were, more or less, places of hands-off education we went to learn the prescribed facts and figures needed to fill in the blanks of a worksheet.
These days, however, a new kind of museum has emerged. The experiential museums of the 2010’s focus on celebrating the likes of ice cream, pizza, Cheetos, and selfies through multi-sensory, interactive experiences.
They invite you to jump into a pool full of sprinkles, learn how to toss pizza dough, and display snack foods like precious artifacts. Leveraging unexpected subject matter and communicating through interaction and sensation, these experiential museums effectively destabilize traditional museum conventions.
They are not only more ostensibly engaging – and attractive – for visitors due to the novelty of their subject matter, but they provide visitors with the agency to interact and participate, as well as the motivation to rethink which subjects and artifacts are worth display.
Leveraging “Museum” Nomenclature
While interactive experiences like the Dream Machine, 29Rooms, and Candytopia are similar in many ways to experiential museums, it is the actual appropriation of the “museum” label that merits examination in such current day spaces as the Museum of Ice Cream.
To leverage the classification of “museum” is a rhetorical act – one that places the Museum of Selfies and The Museum of Pizza in the same contextual framework as, say, The Metropolitan Museum of Art or The American Museum of Natural History. In this way, experiential museums imply – even if inadvertently – a sort of education and refined cultural value that cannot be found in other spaces.
Likewise, I understand FOMO is a thing and Millennials love to feed the ‘gram, but to sum up the entire power of these museums as mere social media fodder or relegate them to being “Instagram Funhouses” is to underestimate the very power of museums as cultural institutions and undermine the strategic prowess of both sensation and interaction.
The Evolution of the Museum
As centers of scientific and cultural knowledge, museums carry a certain cultural and educational authority. They bear scientifically-proven facts, widely-agreed upon narratives of history and artwork that are considered culturally superior (or at least worth framing, hanging, labeling, and charging people to view). Beyond merely showcasing these artifacts, they actually deem which are worth sharing and, through the acts of curation and display, create narratives to provide historical, political, and cultural context to the items they showcase.
In so doing, they transform singular fossils, mummies, and paintings into loaded rhetorical objects, which work collectively to communicate a specific version of events. This is not to say the narratives are not based on a true story or by and large representative of facts, but the very acts of strategically selecting, displaying, and contextualizing artifacts are necessarily biased and inherently subjective. As such, traditional museums not only tell us what is important to know, but expect us to take their account, as a cultural authority, as incontrovertible fact.
While interactive museums, like Dallas’s Perot Museum or San Francisco’s Exploratorium, also strategically select the artifacts and accounts they display, these museums employ interaction as means of visitor empowerment. These interactive science centers merge the subject matter of traditional museums with physical interactions to encourage engagement and learning through trial. Instead of merely reading about how fast a cheetah runs, museum goers race cheetahs – with the help of a little technology – to understand how fast 70 mph really is.
Allowing visitors to test, try, and otherwise engage with displays, these interactive museums offer visitors the chance to reach their own conclusions. These conclusions, of course, are guided as most engagements have been constructed in a way that leads to a predetermined truth about a conventional museum topic – a truth that is ultimately reinforced explicitly through signage and placards.
Enabling Visitor Agency
In many ways, the experiential museum picks up where the interactive museum leaves off.
Like the interactive museum, the experiential museum encourages visitor participation and communicates through various senses.
However, unlike the interactive (and traditional) museum, the experiential museum selects, displays, and invites visitors to examine new subjects that are unconventional for museums, like ice cream.
By choosing an untraditional subject – and communicating through sensation and interaction, these museums encourage us to rethink not only the degree to which people should be active participants in their own education, but what constitutes culturally-sanctioned knowledge.
Rethinking the subjects worthy of study (or at least experiential immersion) and coming to an understanding for oneself – rather than simply being told facts and figures ripe for worksheet blanks – enables the type of agency that is lacking from many traditional and interactive museums.
Employing the Experiential Museum
As marketers, it is important for us to recognize that while the concept of a museum can be leveraged for a branded experiential space, it should be considered a strategy – not a tactic.
The true benefit of a museum doesn’t lie in its positioning as an “Instagram Funhouse” full of photo ops, but rather in the cultural authority it holds and the multi-sensory immersion and interaction it enables.
Interactive, multi-sensory experiential museums let visitors explore new subjects of interest, engage all of their senses, and actually have a hand in determining their takeaways from museum narratives.
When employed strategically, these spaces can offer a powerful combination of education and emotional connection – consequences that will ultimately provide not only meaningful social media fodder, but also an informed and engaged consumer base.
This is the second in Steffanie Golliher’s Experiential blog series. Check out her previous post, Experiential Marketing: Understanding the Power of Sensation.