Kajsa Hartig

A blog about Cultural Heritage and Digital Communication

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How not to create a memorable museum experience #museweb

Skärmavbild 2015-08-12 kl. 09.44.45

This is NOT the cave that I visited, but a random French cave. Photo: Gilles Bonin, Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA.

During the holidays this summer I visited a few museums in southern France and one of the pre historic caves in the region. Connected to this cave there is a small local museum. I will not explicitly point out which cave and which museum.

On this particular day we started by visiting the cave. At the entrance of the cave there was a sign indicating that photography was forbidden. Already here I seriously hesitated to enter though I had paid the entrance fee. The reason for the no photo policy was……copyright (!?). Confusion.

After a short walk we entered into a large, amazingly beautiful and impressive cave. Though an extensive light installation completely disguised the cave, not to mention loudspeakers suddenly filling the cave with Mozart’s Requiem (!). The guide assured us, slightly sarcastically, that the different species of bats living in the cave however seemed to endure the concert that played every time a group of visitors came by. In another cave further ahead there were more art installations, that were as well totally irrelevant to the historical and natural aspects of the cave.

I do appreciate art, but when the art becomes a reason for prohibiting photography in a pre historic cave, there is something terribly wrong. And again, the art did not, in any way whatsoever contribute to the understanding of the magnificent history of the cave, the people living there and the beauty of the environment.

Apart from the art, the no photo policy was what truly ruined my personal experience. Taking photographs and publishing them on social media is how I create my narrative. Many museum visitors visualize their visit and communicate their photos to a personal audience, as a way of creating a personal narrative. It is a way of remembering and understanding, even though the photograph in itself rarely materializes as a physical memory (apart from being looked at closely in the smartphone, held in the palm of the hand). But more importantly the photographs become a social glue in an ongoing conversation, to reassure and strengthen relationships in a community. It puts me in touch with the museum. And I am not even mentioning here the benefits of visitor photography to the museum. That is for another blog post.


After visiting the cave we visited the local history museum, which was displaying artifacts from the cave. Again, a no photo sign at the entrance. Watching rather sad showcases filled with arrowheads and beads without being able to take pictures, again limited my experience of amazing historical artifacts.

The point of this blog post is not to point out a singular tourist attraction. I believe the lack of understanding the role of photography in the visitor experience is widely spread and of course not limited to southern France. I am also very much aware of small museums lacking enough funding to create awesome experiences.

The point is that truly understanding the museum audiences as well as being able to take a step back and fully understand the museum experience, from an audience perspective, and meeting the needs of the audience, is something vital and also achievable without a large budget. Though in this and most other cases of inadequate museum experiences, I am positive that this problem is primarily the result of either poor digital competence within the management (which was probably not fully the case here as they did have a few interesting digital installations in the cave), or decisions driven by personal agendas.

As a museum professional I am of course trying to understand why, and analyze the consequences. I am sure I will visit the cave agin some day, but most probably choose another cave and museum to visit next time.







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What is in fact a museum?

Every now and then I come across situations where museums and museum-like institutions interact on the same premises. I am then often referred to the definition of a museum according to ICOM:

”A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

The words ”acquires” and ”conserves” the tangible and intangible heritage catch my eye. To acquire something means that you collect, wether it may be objects or stories, photographs or songs.

However there are both institutions and organizations that, to the general public, are perceived as museums, but as they don’t collect, they are not defined as museums. For example, in France there is Cité de l’Espace, in Toulouse, that doesn’t use the word museum anywhere, but have exhibitions very similar to a museum of natural history, a science museum or even a children’s museum.

There are historical sites like caves with 14 000 year old paintings, that have a higher ambition than just to entertain or give an experience. (And then there’s in fact the museum showing replicas of the very same paintings, telling stories about the people who lived in the caves.)

And there are historical sites like the castle of Chenonceau, Indre et Loire, that perpahs don’t necessarily have the ambition to educate the visitors, but rather give a memorable experience.

Château Chenonceau, France, 2010.

In Sweden there is the Fotografiska, a center for contemporary photography, who doesn’t define itself as a museum but calls itself ”not an ordinary museum”.

To the general visitor, the experience is pretty much the same. Therefore the ICOM definition of a museum is often irrelevant.

Ofcourse the museum has a different goal, especially within education. There are resources set aside especially for schools etc. The pure historical site, or tourist attraction, will not have the same ambitions. On the other hand Cité de l’Espace does receive school classes, just like any museum.

Again if we ask the visitors, not ICOM, isn’t it fact so  that not only is the difference between the ”attraction” or ”historical site” and the museum in many cases irrelevant, the expectations on both experiences might in fact be the same. There is a desire to be entertained, have a memorable experience, but also a desire to learn something. This is possible in museums, but also at historical sites like the Pyrenéan caves that preserve and communicate paintings.

That is why I am interested in these ”almost museums”. How do they attract visitors? How do they communicate in the digital world? And what can we learn from each other? And to what extent does the definition matter when talking about digital communication?.