Oct 28, 2020

Museums: to educate or to entertain?

4 min read

Two kids sitting in front of canvas at the Digital art exhibition A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains" in Chongqing Lijia Smart Park using G60 projectors

Fun fact about the author of this article: I can tell you a bunch of random trivia facts about the Titanic and its tragic fate. And no, it’s not because I’ve just read the entire online encyclopedia entry. (Nor because my mother watched the romanticized Hollywood story on VHS at least once every two months when I was younger.) It’s because a few years ago, I had a fun day out at a travelling exhibition with real artifacts retrieved from the iconic shipwreck and displayed in an interactive setting. Was the storage capacity of my brain just particularly high that day, or could there be another reason the information got stuck in my long-term memory?

In its early years, museums were mostly considered as intellectual institutions that preserve and collect objects for public education. Even after the democratization and popularization of museums, informing and educating visitors remained their key focus. Labels, brochures and lectures with educational content became regular features in the institutions. Today, people can find everything about anything online with just one simple search.

Does this mean museums are doomed? Most certainly not, on the contrary! Barco talked with four museum panelists about all the reasons why the museum visit stands out from and is even superior to online experiences.

Museums vs. Wikipedia

Curated experience

You can find everything about anything online, but it can also be posted by anyone. There’s no filter. Online disinformation, fake news and hoaxes lurk around every digital corner. “The museum visit is a curated experience,” says Dorothy Di Stefano, founder of Molten Immersive Art, “you’re not just scrolling and drowning in content.” It’s a readymade experience that offers you all the relevant information in a clear format, versus the abundance of online information where you still have to clear out all the noise.

Nothing beats the real thing

“There’s no comparison between looking at the image of an iconic object and standing next to it,” adds Dave Patten who runs the New Media department at the Science Museum in London. You can read about mammoths and about how gigantic they must’ve been, but it’s not the same as walking in a museum and look up to the ginormous tusks and the real bones of the prehistoric colossus. “It’s still a special thing to be in proximity of things. That’s not changing. On the contrary, people want to engage even more with the physical and tangible things, because already so much of our lives is spend in front of screen and online.”

Museum experience as leisure activity

Additionally, museums used to be perceived as prestigious knowledge centers, but that’s no longer the case. They are tourist attractions and places for leisure activities. “Most people don’t come to museums wanting to find out about a particular thing. They come because they want an entertaining day out,” confirms Patten. You don’t call your friends to join you on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art because you want to learn about Vincent van Gogh’s specific brush stroke techniques. (Unless you’re an art student writing a thesis on the Dutch artist or painter yourself trying to perfect your style – but still most of us don’t.) You want to enjoy the company of your friends, share the experience and create memories together. And if you learn something new about the post-impressionist art movement along the way, that’s a plus. “The web is not at all good at replicating those intimate social experiences.”

Edutainment in museums

So what’s the goal then for museums: to educate or to entertain?

As with so many things, there’s no black or white answer. Dorothy Di Stefano notes, as also firmly confirmed by the other panelists, “you can’t separate the two: entertainment is crucial to the education process.” It’s called edutainment: learn/teach something new through a fun experience.

Entertainment brings a level of engagement that motivates learning and stimulates retention. The release of dopamine and endorphins in the brains during enjoyable experiences trigger positive associations and stimulate long-term memories.

To realize this dual mission, museums increasingly rely on the integration of new storytelling techniques and technologies to immerse and engage audiences. Hilary McVicker works for The Elumenati which is specialized in incorporating innovative technology to create transformative educational experiences in museum exhibitions. Her roots lie in the game industry and she sees “a lot of potential in bringing the interactive technologies from that industry to new applications like museums. Gamification and interactivity can be beneficial for museums and really transform the engagement levels.”

Museums: to educate or to entertain? To edutain!

Our panel

Arnold van de Water
 is partner at Factorr, a creative consultancy agency, founded in 2005, that provides global services in Strategy, Spatial Concepts, and Transformations. In addition, Arnold is acting as general manager of the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience for the Van Gogh Museum. With over 15 years of experience in the arts and culture and touring exhibitions sectors, Arnold believes in using technology to create more personalized experiences and immersive storytelling. 

Dave Patten is Head of New Media at The Science Museum, London, where his role includes managing all aspects of new media and AV, from conceptual design, prototyping and production to project managing external developers and production companies. He has a background in electronics and computer science, and has worked at the Science Museum for over 30 years, developing exhibitions and leading development teams. Dave Patten runs the Science Museum Groups Digital Lab Initiative which experiments in emerging technologies and visitor experiences.

Global thought leader, speaker, creative strategist, founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, Dorothy Di Stefano leads a collective of experiential artists who create large-scale, site-specific, digital immersive experiences. As an ambassador and consultant for the arts and with 20 years' experience, Dorothy sits on many cultural committees and is the International Partner representing Australia in the Global Startup Leaders committee of the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF).Awarded LinkedIn's Top Voice for 2019, Dorothy has a worldwide following on this platform which she uses to highlight the importance and impact of art on our world and to showcase global artists to a business-focused community.

Hilary McVicker is Communicatrix at The Elumenati – a title that would translate to VP of Sales and Marketing at most companies. The Elumenati are thought leaders in the field of immersive projection design, creating innovative applications in education, enterprise and entertainment. Partners and clients range from NASA and NOAA to Dreamworks and Deloitte. Hilary has managed collaborative projects for The Elumenati with leading museums from the California Academy of Sciences to the American Museum of Natural History, with a focus on incorporating technology to create transformative learning experiences.