“Museums should create more real encounters”
Dutch consultant Jasper Visser works for cultural institutions around the world. His vision: museums are places of communication where the focus is on the visitors and not the collections. Because digitalisation, increased mobility and growing leisure offerings are also expanding the competition in the battle for the public’s attention. Museums should therefore do what neither Netflix nor video games can: hold a discussion on strategies and pioneers in dealing with the public.
Jasper Visser, for ten years you have focused on how cultural institutions can better meet the needs of their audiences. What do people really want?
There is no one answer to this. These days, people go to the museum as often as they go to the dentist: twice a year, because they know it’s good for them. But once they’re there, they hope it will soon be over. That’s a real shame, because a lot of money is still being invested in museums. There are valuable objects to see. Relevant stories are told. If a visit to the museum is a compulsory exercise or people don’t even go, that’s quite a waste.
So what are the museums doing wrong if people don’t want to stay longer?
Almost all museums still work the same way they did 150 years ago: the focus is on their collections. However, this approach no longer meets the needs of the public. Instead, the focus should be on the visitors and the experience they can have in the museum.
If anyone wants to know anything today, they go to Wikipedia. Good stories are also told on Netflix. When it comes to attracting the attention of visitors, museums now have a lot of competition. Take a museum on World War I, for example: anyone who exhibits artefacts and simply tells the story of the war will hardly be able to inspire a large number of potential visitors. Weapons can also be viewed on the internet. And a video game that turns players into active participants is much more interesting, offering an experience that often goes deeper than a simple visit to an exhibition would.
“Museums should put themselves at the service of the public.”
So what should museums do differently?
I would like to see museums open up and become places of exchange and interaction. Because neither Netflix nor a video game can create real encounters. Museums should put themselves at the service of the public, irrespective of location and content.
And how should the do that?
Developing strategies for the future of museums is not easy. And approaches that looked promising just a few years ago often no longer work. The only thing that is clear is that something has to change. Take the example of libraries: in the 1990s it was said that libraries were dead, that nobody read anymore and that the internet would replace this old cultural institution. In hindsight one might say that was both right and wrong. It was a wake-up call that led libraries worldwide to open up and transform. Today, many libraries are social and cultural meeting places. Parents come to the library not only to borrow books, but also to meet others and exchange ideas. And if you are looking for a quiet place to work in the city without having to buy anything, you’ll find it in the library. But no matter how modern these libraries have become, they still contain books.
“Museums should use their collections to facilitate social contact.”
What does this mean in terms of museums?
Here, too, the aim is not simply to show the collections to the public, but to use them to facilitate social contacts. The Helsinki City Museum is an institution that has implemented this transformation well so far. The museum has become a meeting place, and even its website has become a place to search and find like-minded people.
To what extent do technologies such as apps help to bring exhibitions closer to people?
Technologies are very valuable if they are used correctly. Because most visitors come to the museum with their smartphones. Museums can take advantage of this by offering audio tours via mobile phone or additional videos. But it wouldn’t make much sense to me if the experience in museums became increasingly virtual. In my opinion, museums should be a place where things can also be experienced physically. Or even better: it should combine the digital with the analogue, like the National Museum Wales.
What is this museum doing?
It created the People’s Collection Wales. Because people with roots in Wales now live all over the world, many of them in Latin America. They are also part of the history of Wales. The museum has therefore called on people throughout the globe to tell their stories, which it puts online. This creates community and makes history tangible. However, many institutions often meet the challenge by focusing, in terms of content, more on fun than on outreach and networking.
What do you mean by that?
For example, there are concert halls that have their classical orchestras play pop. This can be a short-term success and offers the audience a new experience. But let’s be honest: this exercise is purely distracting. Its deprives classical music of its value, its history, its meaning. Institutions are better off in the long term if they rely on outreach and help their visitors immerse themselves in often unknown worlds. By explaining the content better, telling stories about it, and accompanying people on their journey through the exhibition. Providing this kind of support is a lot of work and requires creativity. But if museums are supposed to be good at something, it’s being creative, right?
In the context of museums, pop is a blockbuster exhibition.
And I think this is a dead end. Studies show that blockbuster exhibitions work perfectly the first time around. But the second time it is difficult and above all expensive to top the first exhibition. This is called blockbuster syndrome. Especially for small and medium-sized museums with limited budgets, blockbuster exhibitions sometimes set a death spiral in motion.
“Smaller museums are particularly challenged.”
Large museums like MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Tate will always attract enough visitors, because their audience is global. Many visitors are tourists who sometimes only go to a museum to take a selfie to show they were there. Medium-sized and smaller institutions are the ones that are challenged the most: they may not have world-class collections and generally do not have budgets that are as large. But they are important, because they have the power to bring together the people who live in these cities, to bring them closer to their own history and to create a sense of community. I think that’s their job, too.
About Jasper Visser
Jasper Visser is a change agent for international cultural institutions. He will present his strategies for repositioning cultural and social institutions at the “Reframe! The Future Begins in Museums” incentive event hosted by Engagement Migros on 26 April, 2018. Visser has worked on strategy and audience development projects for the European Parliament, the State Library of New South Wales and the Canadian National Arts Centre in Ottawa. From 2009 to 2011, he helped set up the National Museum of History of the Netherlands as a project manager for new technologies and media. He started his career as an independent consultant and designer of educational programmes for NGOs, the World Bank and the EU. Jasper Visser is a senior partner at VISSCH+STAM.