Museums Need a Customer Experience Revolution

UX is everywhere, even museums.

Upon visiting a third museum in Washington DC, it struck me that museums don’t seem to be designed with CX principles in mind.

As much as I enjoy learning about history, politics, and science — and exploring museums—I was mostly disappointed with my experiences. There were definitely several high points, but as a whole? {Shrug.}

During my 7-day trip, I visited 11 different museums including 4 of the Smithsonians, Ford’s Theatre, the US Holocaust Museum, Gettysburg National Park, the White House Visitor Center, the National Archives, Mount Vernon, and the International Spy Museum.

Most museums are designed in pretty much the exact same way: a large display of photos, videos, storyboards, and artifacts behind glass cases—all crammed together in a relatively small space surrounded by slow-moving crowds. Interactive stations are constantly mobbed by other people’s kids.

It’s overstimulating and quickly fatiguing.

Measuring Museum CX

After visiting the Holocaust museum, I started thinking about how I might reimagine the museum experience to be more customer-centric.

Obviously, a museum has business goals such as increasing the number of museum memberships and securing grants. But what might be museum curators’ and exhibit designers’ goals? I imagine they think about metrics beyond just putting together an aesthetically pleasing exhibit and that all artifact captions are factually correct.

After giving it some thought, I came up with 4 museum experience metrics:

  • To move someone – Is the visitor moved emotionally by what they see or hear? Does the experience create empathy or action?
  • To spark curiosity – Does the visitor discover a topic that they want to learn more about upon leaving the museum, such as reading books, watching documentaries, or searching for more information online?
  • Likeliness to recommend to others – How likely are visitors to recommend the museum or specific exhibit to a friend?
  • Customer lifetime value – What is the value of each visitor over their lifetime? What brings back the visitor again and again?

What Great Museum CX Looks Like

Of the 11 museums I visited, there were 2 experiences that especially stood out to me.

At the Holocaust museum, there is a smaller exhibit called “Daniel’s Story.” It’s geared toward children, but I was deeply moved by it.

In this exhibit, you walk through corridors and rooms that are designed to mimic Daniel’s real life. I saw his bedroom and his kitchen. I walked along smashed out glass storefronts on a cobblestone street. I heard shouting and city noises. I turned the pages of Daniel’s diary and read his handwritten thoughts and feelings. I went to the concentration camp where his mother and older sister were murdered.

This experience touched me more profoundly than the 3-story “adult” exhibit I had just spent 90 minutes walking through. I cried for Daniel, but never connected with any one individual in the other exhibit — there were just too many sad, gaunt faces. I was overwhelmed.

Why? Why did I push down my emotions and look away from the model of the gas chamber, but let myself fully envision Daniel’s heart-wrenching experiences? Was it because it was a single person’s story? Was it because everything was lifesize and 3-dimensional, and therefore more experiential?

When I try to pinpoint the exact reason, I’m not sure — other than it broke from the typical museum template.

The other museum experience that stood out was my family’s trip to Mount Vernon. After the regular mansion tour, we went on the “National Treasure Tour.” My 11-year-old was absolutely captivated — as was I.

We heard behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” including how the ice house inspired the plot.

We went underneath the mansion to see where one of the movie scenes was filmed. (An area padlocked and closed off to all other visitors.)

We were led by an engaging tour guide, who told us multiple stories about General Washington’s daily life at Mount Vernon.

Again, I’m not sure what made this tour more special than the others. We certainly had other informative tour guides during our trip. Was there something different about this particular tour guide? Was it the fact that we were a small, intimate group? Was it the privilege of seeing something few others have seen? Was it the content itself?

That is the mystery of CX. Creating exceptional customer experiences evokes a strong emotional connection — not a clear-cut assessment.

5 CX Takeaways

If you design museums or exhibits, here are my takeaways for building a more enjoyable or memorable customer experience.

Understand the Customer Journey

Take apart each stage of the customer journey and examine it from the visitor point of view. Where do they begin their journey? What are they doing, thinking, and feeling? How does this change by target audience: school field trip vs. a family?

Test Signage + Wayfinding

I cannot stress enough the importance of clear and strategically placed signage. If you haven’t done so, usability test your signage with brand-new visitors by watching them as they attempt to find their way around. Time and follow them. How long does it take when time-pressured or navigating crowds?

Measure the Customer Experience

Use a combination of observational and self-reported research methods to measure the customer experience. Where do people linger the longest or skip altogether? What paths do they take? When and where do customers feel frustrated, confused, or delighted?

Tell More Stories

Think about how to tell smaller stories and create micro moments within the larger narrative of the exhibit. Don’t just lay out the bare facts in a 3-minute video or placard. Experiment with longer formats.

For example, at Ford’s Theatre there was a small story about how the hole drilled in the door behind Lincoln’s head actually came to be. (Hint: it wasn’t Booth.)

Incorporate Gamification

Almost everyone loves games. Is there a way to present information in a playful way? Think about incorporating your mobile app, so that the game can thread throughout the experience.

My visit to the Spy museum started out promising. First, I selected a secret identity, complete with a back story I was instructed to memorize. Next, I learned techniques used by real, professional spies. Mark a mailbox with chalk when I’ve made a drop. Carry an identical shopping bag as my comrade to make a swap. And I thought, “Oh wow, this is going to be like an escape room.” But that excitement soon evaporated — the rest of the experience was a regular museum.

At the National Air + Space museum, my kids enjoyed the trivia game about astronauts — playing against other museum visitors.

Bonus CX idea: create more opportunities to sit and learn. After walking all day, I desperately wanted to sit for a few minutes — but not stare at a blank wall. Give resting visitors something to read or look at!

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is a CX insights leader, UX researcher, and strategist in Minneapolis. She helps organizations drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. She never misses the Minnesota State Fair and loves dark chocolate mochas, kayaking, escape rooms, and planning elaborate treasure hunts for her children.