How can museums use design to better connect with their audiences?

It’s Museum Week this week, so we’ve asked a selection of exhibition designers about which museums they think best use design to interact with their audience.

Jim Richardson, founder, Sumo
Jim Richardson, founder, Sumo

“My favourite museum engagement project came from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who asked members of the public to finish the sentence, ‘I went to MoMA and…’ These were submitted on small slips of paper that were posted into a box, which then automatically scanned the responses and posted them to the ‘I went to MoMA and…’  website. One response came from a young art critic called Annabelle, who said: ‘I’m very disappointed. I did not see a dinosaur. You call yourself a museum!’ The little art critic’s response went viral, getting the museum press coverage around the globe. The project was a very simple way of getting the public to think about their MoMA experience.”


Michael Smith, creative director, Cog Design
Michael Smith, creative director, Cog Design

“UK museums have leapt forward in the past couple of decades. They used to be dusty spaces, run by fusty crones who catalogued the stuff and resented the public. Now, museums are bright, welcoming and accessible spaces (in buildings and online), run by fascinating people who want to impart knowledge, recount stories and share their passion. That new generation of curators and commissioners had the vision; designers helped them to change every connection between the stuff and its audiences. Well done everyone.”


Angella Drinkall, co-founder, Drinkall Dean
Angella Drinkall, co-founder, Drinkall Dean

“For me, it’s all about the objects and the stories that load them. Retailers have long realised this through inspiring product displays, drawing out provenance and value. Now, as retailers curate their shops, museums are equally realising the strength and value of their collections: they are returning to object-focused environments in which clever design supports the authority of the objects, sensitively layering the stories and adding weight and emotion. So for an uncompromising, unashamed object-based experience I would like to recommend The Science Museum’s Information Age, The Grant Museum of Zoology, Sherlock Holmes at The Museum of London, and of course, Liberty.”


Dan Proctor, design director, Mather & Co
Dan Proctor, design director, Mather & Co

“My favourite project in terms of audience engagement has to be Archives+ at Manchester Central Library. The whole exhibition was designed to make the archives more accessible to new users, who may not even understand what an archive is. We brought exhibition content into the adjacent café, using projected tabletops which allow visitors to explore the collections while having a coffee and cake. They can also contribute to the archive through live dialogue software embedded into each interactive. These memories and contributions change the content every day, making it a true reflection of the community it serves.”


Calum Storrie, founder, Calum Storrie Ltd.
Calum Storrie, founder, Calum Storrie Ltd.

“It’s hard to think of a museum and exhibition space where design is valued more than the Wellcome Collection. I spend a lot of time trying to convince anyone who will listen that exhibitions are not just the objects that they contain, but should be seen as total environments. I never have to have this conversation with the Wellcome people – they are in an unusual position encompassing both art and science, and they have realised that the way their displays look has a huge impact on how their audiences react to their exhibitions.”


Kevin Palmer
Kevin Palmer, co-founder, Kin design

“Visiting The Museum Of Scotland recently, I was surprised to see a full-sized steam train on the third floor, wondering how on earth they got it up there. Talking to one of the staff, they informed me that the museum’s new wing was designed around the objects, rather than the other way round. Impressed as I was with this physical experience, I think it’s important that museums still maintain a balance with the pre- and post-visitor experience as well. At MOSI’s Revolution Gallery and the NMM Compass Lounge, we strived to collect data in fun and engaging ways, and to create personal microsites for each visitor to engage with after their visit. But I wonder even with digital advances such as Oculus Rift, whether we’ll ever be able to achieve online museum experiences that can rival the physical.”

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