The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I’m connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner. These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation.
I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience. It’s been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn’t hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.
My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn’t previously visited heritage site with. The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.
For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen. He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best. Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn’t seem to engage him – regardless of what was in the display case.
Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth. Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities. But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading.
One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station. In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement. Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.
Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience. The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences. It’s impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.