Being responsive to consumer needs will help attractions reconnect with communities

Back in the day, municipal museums were built to look like palaces – awesome, cathedral-like spaces with marble floors and imposing doors. They were all about important personal collections and even more important audiences.

Thankfully things have moved on, and the conversation today centres around accessibility, combating ‘threshold fear’, and making these spaces more welcoming and inclusive. Rather than stuffy ‘curators of culture’, the dream has long been to make these attractions part of the fabric of daily life.

And there has been some success. Look at The British Museum. Built in the 1750s, it has four vast wings and 43 Greek temple-inspired columns, all designed to celebrate ‘the wondrous objects housed inside’ and convey a sense of national importance. Yet today, with its Great Court (designed by Norman Foster in 2000) filled with shops and eateries, it has something for everyone. Those wanting to absorb the two million years’ worth of culture within, and those who want to take in a smaller collection, perhaps with the kids, and then enjoy something to eat and drink, or a little retail therapy.

But where so many institutions still miss a trick is in creating cohesive, ‘whole brand’ experiences that appeal to allcomers, however they choose to access a space. Yes, they may have bolted on a museum shop, or even somewhere to have a coffee, but so often they fail to match up to the overall experience. It risks coming across as a bit of an afterthought – and doing nothing to make people with different priorities and needs feel welcome.

Creating a whole brand experience

The best museums and attractions are in the business of providing absorbing, immersive experiences for as wide a demographic as possible. Collections and shows are carefully themed to carry people through in a seamless fashion. Yet, all too often, usually due to budget constraints, when it comes to retail, food and beverage and other ancillary spaces, guests, fans and visitors are catapulted out of the moment. The magic is over. Many spaces will have paid lip service to the ‘whole brand’ feel, but so much more could be done to keep people in the moment and elevate their experience.

It’s a missed opportunity not to, budget restraints aside making these areas part of a whole brand experience – and keeping visitors in the moment – has the power to generate footfall, repeat business and income. It is also an opportunity to amplify brand messaging and turn visitors into advocates – so essential in this social media age.

The best compliment I ever received was when someone told me that they hadn’t realised they had arrived in the museum shop that we designed for The Making of Harry Potter, a walk-through exhibition and studio tour in Leavesden. There were no barriers, the décor mirrored that of the main space, no one was required to leave the Wizarding World.

Welcoming allcomers with open arms

At its heart, creating whole brand experiences is about welcoming everyone with open arms, and doing away with ‘that’s not for me’ thinking. It’s about innovating, getting creative and finding ways to connect with communities. And, of course, it’s about driving cultural commerce.

It responds to the fact that the concept of a museum and its role in society has evolved dramatically. No longer considered primarily a venue for those seeking to develop their educational and cultural expertise, the most successful museums now offer a variety of flexible social spaces that appeal to a broad visitor audience.

At the Schlossmuseum in Linz, Austria, we’re currently transforming the entrance hall of the 12th century castle into a living experience to support the museum’s artifacts. It’s part of a move to revive the museum’s fortunes and reconnect with the local community. Artisans will demonstrate the techniques that were used to create the ancient objects that lie within – weaving, wood-turning, pot-throwing, etc. People will be invited to watch, maybe even have a go, and then buy. And the pop-up style is flexible enough to be changed to complement new exhibitions.

As well as encouraging people to attend venues with offers of interactive displays, retail and ancillary spaces can serve to tell a wider story about the local area. Live music, wine tastings and talks, for example, add colour and provide a more immersive experience.

The OMM in Turkey found a nice way to make a connection between itself and its community. All the cutlery and crockery in its restaurant areas have been created by local makers – a lovely touch that roots the museum in its environment.

The rise and rise of flexible spaces

Whether connecting with communities takes the form of cafés, restaurants and bars, engaging retail spaces that draw shoppers away from the high street and through the museum doors, or open flexible venues that can be used for a multitude of social and educational activities, the make-up of our museums is changing.

The V&A Dundee, which opened its doors at the end of 2018, provides a strong example of the effectiveness of this approach. This expansive venue now has a series of free, open and inspiring spaces for the local community and tourists to meet, relax and enjoy museum culture. From the highly flexible café and shop to the second-floor restaurant which looks out over the River Tay, each social space within the museum has been carefully crafted to invite visitors to linger, socialise and explore.