Selling memories: the line between museum education and consumerism

Update: Thank you all for sharing your museum experiences via comments and tweeter!

Reader Brian Gratwicke shared another clever ad campaign (this time from Vancouver’s Aquarium) “If frogs go extinct, you’ll notice“. Readers: please continue to submit your museum experiences (good OR bad) via comments or twitter!

A whale’s heart goes for a ride. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

A few months ago, the science blogosphere was ablaze with an ad campaign from the a science museum in Vancouver. This campaign combines unusual ads with a quirky scientific message. A sign saying “a blue whale’s heart is the size of this car” is fixed, well, atop of a car. Another car drove around with a “woofasaurus” on the back seat; a fluid-filled tank encouraged kids to walk on water; a tiger’s litterbox littered the street; and a moving squid eye followed museum visitors. All ads promise Vancouver inhabitants that they will find answers at the museum.

As we mentioned in earlier blog posts, many adults visit museums after they are persuaded by their children. This phenomenon, called “the nag effect”, is widely recognized and taken advantage of in the world of advertising. One example of the nag effect in action is described in the article “how do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy food.”  The Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications used the nag effect in their advertising strategy. Their ad campaign, in place since 2004, combined print ads, billboards, bus stop ads, TV and radio spots, and a collection of “unconventional” ad media. Convincing a parent to visit a museum sounds like a better idea than pushing them to buy unhealthy food, but still: we are talking about using the power of advertising and consumerism in favor of a museum.

This ad counts on the voluntary participation of Vancouver seagulls. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

When is it honorable to use advertising as subterfuge for the cause of science and education?
The question of museum funding is delicate. Museums may receive public funds but must also balance a complicated mix of donations and private funding. Stephen T. Asma, in his instigating book “Stuffed animals and pickled heads: the culture and evolution of natural history museums” emphasizes how the origin of funds can end up dictating the content of the museum: “generally speaking, tracking the flow of money (public of private) provides many explanations of why curators curate the way they do, and even why one particular curator gets the job in the first place.” Unfortunately, this can be illustrated by the recent budget cuts to the Field Museum, which will also seriously affect the museum’s research program.

Besides trying to attract donors and sponsors, museums also try to raise funds by selling tickets. We now delve in the mystical (and very uncomfortable) territory where education must, to some degree, meet consumerism. How can a museum increase its consumer base and gain more repeat customers? In other words, how can a museum sell more tickets? Reconciling the educational with the commercial vision is a challenge. In order to thrive, museums might have to adopt commercial or consumerism concepts. Using the nag effect is just one way to accomplish that.

Quirky way to put sauroposeidon into scale. Photo by Vancouver Science World and Rethink Communications.

Is “edutainment” the solution to thriving museums?

The museum’s commercial role as a provider of entertainment (or edutainment) was already recognised in 1928 by a Field Museum curator, N. W. Harris. As told to Stephen T. Asma, N. W. Harris realized that “impressions obtained in childhood are the most vivid and lasting… [and] knowledge is most welcome when its acquisition is sweetened with a flavor of entertainment”.

Fast forward to 2012, when self-proclaimed Bad Astronomer Phil Plait agreed, specifically when discussing the Vancouver ads. As Plait points out, “[the Vancouver Science World have] set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which
keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase ‘We can explain’, which brings the message home. Awesomeness.” Awesomeness is an adequate technical term to describe it.

Interactive exhibits are one form of offering edutainment. Interacting with a museum exhibit falls under the “participatory museum” concept, advocated by Nina Simon. The recently-opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas has “interactive” written all over it. The New York Times reported on its opening, describing many of those edutainment exhibits, which includes “1.5 ton geode whose halves you can manipulate with a wheel…; sensors that allow you to launch table-tennis balls with brain signals; simple robots that can be programmed to maneuver through a maze.” But the one exhibit that makes me want to hop on the next plane to Dallas is “a 55-foot-long ‘running wall’ [where] you can race alongside moving images of a full-size cheetah, a Tyrannosaurus rex or contemporary athletes.”

Unfortunately, edutainment gone bad is also easy to find. Roaring animatronic dinosaurs might sell some extra tickets, but they lack the scientific groundwork expected from a museum. The animal’s voices, stance, behaviors, and colors are speculations, and might even perpetuate scientific misconceptions, thus being a disservice to visitors. Most of those exhibits still depict the T. rex and other dinos as scaly lizards, when it is now known that many were at least partially covered by down-like proto-feathers. Those kind of experiences make renowned scientists fear museums will become theme parks. As reported to Asma, naturalist Stephen Jay Gould believes that “theme parks represent the realm of commerce, museums the educational world — and the first, by its the power and immensity, must trump the second in any direct encounter. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.”

Paint by numbers T. Rex is another ad by the Vancouver Science World. Like this ad, I had to explain to Smithsonian visitors that the colors on the dinosaur dioramas were an artistic liberty — there is no way of knowing the color of pre-historic creatures. Color pigments are not preserved in million-year old fossils.

In another recent New York Times article, Edward Rothstein reported on some commercially-swallowed museums. Rothstein, after interacting with some museum exhibits, did not enjoy the experience: “I eagerly submit to their probes… The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.” A similar effect also happened at the Perot museum — praised above — that, according to the same author, might walk the line between the commercial and the educational: “It is difficult to absorb fully the history of cosmological exploration in a series of panels. Brief videos about particular scientists are meant to inspire aspirants, but few personalities are that intriguing, and most of them will probably remain unwatched.”

However, if done right, a combination of enticing ads, entertainment, and interactive exhibits can help. Museums will profit and the public will learn through enjoyable (informal) educational experiences.

Can we sell an educational museum experience?

I mentioned before some of the reasons that drive visitors to museums. According to one study, “It’s the artifacts, artworks, and objects… that [are] most likely to hit [visitor’s] emotional core and create meaning.” An entertaining object, exhibit, or even ad, can create an emotional experience for a visitor, making him come back.

Whale’s heart model. Photo credit: rickardberg flikr.

In a quasi “life imitates art” case, a blue whale’s heart has truly become an entertaining museum object. Special effects company Human Dynamo built a whale’s heart model commissioned by New Zealand museum Te Papa. The model is large enough so that visitors – especially little ones – can climb and crawl through arteries and ventricles. This museum object was a huge hit. Just by browsing flickr for “whale heart model” I could find dozens of photos of children entranced in crawling, and adults posing for scale. The model was so successful in bringing in visitors, that it was borrowed to tour the world and extra models have been requested to stay at Te Papa.

Museum objects — or even everyday objects like a car or racing track — can transcend into an entertaining experience. It can be a moa on the mall, a passing whale’s heart car, or a cheetah-T. rex racing track that will bring more visitors in. However, not only museums profit; simply walking in the street might cause someone to learn that a whale’s heart is a Volkswagen Bug-sized (instead of having to memorize a “two tons” fact). This is “learning by accident” on its core. Similarly, you might leave the museum and not remember the that the cheetah can reach speeds up to 75 mph. But you might remember that it beat you on that race, and crossed the finish line three times faster than you.

Update: do you know a museum exhibit that has crossed the line? Please share in the comments section below!

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23 Responses to Selling memories: the line between museum education and consumerism

  1. Hello. wonderful job. I did so not think about this particular. This is a remarkable tale. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Anatomically-correct giant heart | Dogs on Ice

  3. I volunteer in the collection at the Perot Museum. It is a little-known fact that the lovely new building does not house the majority of the museum’s collection, which is stored in one of the old museum buildings and an off-site warehouse. The Perot states on its website that “collections are the heart of any museum”, yet it chose to leave them behind when constructing “the building that will launch a million dreams”. Combine things like this with what is happening at The Field (where I also volunteer) and I see a lot of support for the commercially-swallowed museum being our future. Collections do not directly bring dollars in the door, but without them, do you have a museum?

    If it truly is “the artifacts, artworks, and objects… that [are] most likely to hit [visitor’s] emotional core and create meaning.” Why do museums spend so much time and effort creating interactive and “Disneyfied” experiences rather than figuring out ways to put people and objects together? Rather than focusing on what is learned, I would like to see museums focus on increasing curiosity and wonder in those who visit, but I am not sure that is a commercially viable idea.

    • There are a number of museums which utilize off-site collections storage, but this is usually not by choice and is a side-effect of growth of the collection over time. It does indeed seem strange that a brand new museum with the good fortune to be building a brand new facility would not make provisions for housing their collections on-site.

      • Even when the collections are in-house, that doesn’t mean they are all accessible to the public. At the Smithsonian (Natural History) they have about four million items on the collections. However, most are locked out in cabinets backstage and in labs. Scientists and researchers can have access to items of the collection, but curators carefully choose a tiny subset to be on display on the museum floor.

        I do think that the collection is the heart of the museum, but we depend on the curator to decide which objects will be displayed. The curators might be under pressure to be more commercial and decide
        on the animatronic dinosaur versus a fossil.

        Thanks for sharing the information on the Perot. I was fascinated with the new building and did not know it was only an “addition”.

  4. Jay Haapala says:

    I work at a children’s museum, which I recognize is different in many ways compared to a museum that houses a collection. We have interactive exhibits and have created an environment in which children learn through play.

    We nevertheless debate on the comparative educational and promotional value of different exhibits and programs. For example, should we host cartoon characters in costume because they drive traffic? Should we host a great educational exhibit even if it doesn’t lend itself well to advertising? In my opinion, we best serve our community when we provide a mix and use one to accomplish the other – we use commercial exhibits and programs to get people in the door and then we hit ’em with education. What good does it do to have great educational exhibits if no one takes advantage of them?

    We also sometimes confuse educational messaging with advertising messaging. Advertising the educational value of our organization may resonate with a subset of our audience – but guess what – those people were coming here anyway. Promoting how educational we are is like advertising the nutritional value of a candy bar.

    • I agree with your approach of using a commercial idea to attract visitors, then offer education after they are inside. Specially if the commercial aspect is not cheesy or pushy. The Vancouver Science Center ad campaign was subtle (no logos or big cartoon characters present), and it showed curious facts of science. The ad itself seems to educate. In the other hand, there’s the danger of getting too deep into consumerism territory, with atrocious examples of meaningless science.. (like the costumed cartoons you mentioned and other examples in the comments below).

      As to your second point – how to attract an audience who does not seem inclined to visit museums? Lately I’ve been coming across the “science in a public space” concept, and I show one example in my previous post (“a moa walks into a mall”). In that case, ice age fossil models are displayed in a shopping mall. Here the science education is being offered to entire segments of the population who were not exactly the museum-goer type.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience in the children’s museum – I definitely agree children should be exposed to science, and learn that it can be fun.

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  6. The quest for getting and retaining visitors is becoming increasingly challenging for museums. I think that part of this has to do with the fact that in the digital age our means of experiencing the natural world is changing.

    Historically, if someone wanted to learn about exotic creatures or cultures (past or present) they had three choices: They could travel to the Amazon, the Galapagos or Easter Island, they could read about those places in National Geographic or at the library, or they could visit a museum. The second two options are more within reach for most, but only the museum could offer an opportunity to get close to real objects in real space and time. And whichever option they chose, they were not continuously barraged with other stimulus (no text alerts) and could take their time.

    Today, with vast amounts of information and images available instantly (on a phone, even!) the content volume is dizzying and immense. But no matter how high the HD resolution or how quick the download speed, pulling up a Google search image about T. rex still isn’t the same as standing in front of a complete skeleton of one.

    As we become more accustomed to obtaining both information and entertainment through digital formats, (all of it instantly!) many museums seem to be responding in kind by installing more touch-screens and more video displays while making their interpretive content increasingly brief. Multimedia can be a valuable supplement to exhibits, but it’s no substitute for well-displayed physical objects interpreted by insightful scientific staff.

    There exists a very real tension between the desire to cater to our “digitally-induced ADD” world, and the desire to encourage contemplation and wonder with thoughtful and elegant exhibit features. Often it seems that the winner in that struggle is determined by whether those making exhibit decisions have backgrounds in finance, marketing or science.

    • Pedram Razghandi says:

      I agree with most of your comment. The only part I want to pick apart is this: “the desire to cater to our ‘digitally-induced ADD world'”

      As an ADD person myself, I must disagree. I have always been fascinated by museums and the information they provided. Media in general has never held my attention–mere entertainment all looked the same to me. In fact, I am currently a molecular biologist (who is considering going into astrophysics). The difficulties with attention and inhibition in ADD comes with a flip side–we are capable of hyperfocus on things that stimulate us intrinsically. It’s not ADD that most people are experiencing, and I think it is best to stick to the symptoms of the situation. The digital age seems to only enhance an already present laziness about learning things, by providing new ways for people to stay entertained and navigate the world without being particularly well educated about its complexities.

      As far as museums go, I think the focus should be on this question: does the exhibit or ad raise give actual information or at least raises interest in gaining more information, or does it seek to entertain (and happens to use a scientific topic as inspiration)? There’s a difference between using digital tools and hands-on features as a supplement to convey a sensory experience that would not be possible with only the written info, especially to people who are not experienced with these ideas (just a random example: the ‘scales of the universe’ exhibit and the ‘your weight on surface of [X]’ feature in the AMNH). Or the objects and processes described are too small or big to be seen otherwise, or we want to see the interior, etc. In no case should the “hard info” be omitted–it gives audiences/participants too little credit, and the exhibit only fades into the background of more entertainment. The point is to teach audiences that this stuff is downright amazing and they should want more, not that “we can be flashier than your TV shows and iPad games–see, we have roaring dino puppets and stuff you can eat at the end! But don’t worry, none of those detailed nerd stuff to bore you…”

      ADD made me more of a scientist, downright obsessed with discovering more and more of the natural world. I think there’s a lesson in that. What we have to do is give people an intrinsic motivation, to inspire them to *want* more information, and for each trip to the museum to continue to give them more to think about. Increasingly knowledgable audiences should now be able to appreciate more technical aspects of the topics presented, while the newer audiences should be developing an appetite.

      Then there’s the kind of exhibit that simply clutters the area with things to play with. Those museums bored me as a child. Too many giant toys made it look, well, like a theme park or a live-action video game. I liked the natural world because it was so strange and different, I wasn’t looking for imitations of human games. I suspect that is true for most people when they are allowed to experience the wonders of nature accurately.

      • Thanks for your thoughts, Pedram. My point (which I believe you understood) was that the world today is so filled with “technodistractors” that it is getting harder to get people (especially those born into this digital world) to pay attention to things that don’t have video screens. They may or may not actually have the condition of ADD as clinically defined, but the constant barrage of images and text from all directions may make them feel similar effects. I’m pleased to hear that you’ve made the “flip side” of ADD work to your advantage, and I hope that my choice of terminology did not offend you. If it has, I apologize.

      • Thanks for sharing your motivations as a scientist.

        It seems we can all agree that we are looking for those wonderful science facts to be showcased in museums. Similarly, we are all concerned about the theme park effect.

    • You are right about the “digital age” of museums. I’ve recently participated on a panel assisting the design of a new exhibit. This exhibit has no objects at all, but only digital displays (with videos, maps, etc). I understand the goal is to depict very complex scientific concepts (for example, DNA), but I agree that I prefer to see an actual object (the actual T. Rex skeleton you mentioned).

      At the Smithsonian Natural History they have been working on this visitor experience research, and try to map visitors interests to “object” versus “idea”. Basically that means that some visitors are more interested in seeing a rare fossil, or in aesthetics (the beautiful arrangement of the collection). Meanwhile, others prefer to explore the scientific ideas. Museums try to cater to both audiences, and present a combination of both concepts.

      Personally, I don’t think things are so clear-cut. Visitors are a more complex mix of interests and emotions, and, like you said, are immersed in a distracting digital world.

      • Thanks for your comments, Cristina. I very much agree that the “average” museum visitor is a complex creature, and that there likely is no “one size fits all” answer here. However, I do believe that when those of us employed by museums are conceiving ways in which to convey content to the public, we can and should have some expectations from them.

        By this I mean that while gearing all scientific content strictly to the Ph.D level would be a big mistake, we certainly don’t have to “dumb down” our content to the level of sheer spectacle. But this does not mean we can focus on science at the expense of aesthetics. One of my criteria for what makes a good exhibit is to ask, “if I didn’t know anything at all about what I’m looking at, would I still be able to find interest in it?” Aesthetics and design have a lot to do with the answer to that question.

  7. Rob says:

    I’m not sure about the other examples of museums in your piece but Vancouver’s Science World has always been more aimed towards children – I think it does a great job in piquing kids’ interest in science from an early age and their ad campaigns reflect their creativity in achieving this. They’ve always had an interactive, hands-on entertaining approach to introducing the world of science to children. In other words, it makes sense for them to be more “edutainment” oriented given their target audience – I’m not sure if other museums are as comparable in the same way if they are more adult oriented – or the entertainment factor is just more subtle.

    • You are right, a museum can have different target audiences. Multiple audiences can even coexist in one museum. For example – the Smithsonian Natural History has a “Discovery Room”, a place where little kids can play with replicas of hominid skulls and other fossils. It also has a great collection of awarded nature photographs, which attracts older visitors. Besides, there is everything in between. The interaction/edutainment options have to cater to each public: entertainment activities that appeal to children, and others to adults. The level of subtlety is up to the museum…

      Also, one concept in advertisement is “hook them when they are young”. The younger the audience you are trying to get “addicted” to your product, the more efficient the advertising will be. Is the Vancouver Center taking advantage of this concept in their ad campaign?

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  9. Chris Smith says:

    Research on free-choice learning at museums and science centers shows that people visit these places for “something to do” – learning is not an explicit reason though visitors often learn something. What I’m wondering is whether these “for fun” visitors feel less than engaged – or feel as if they didn’t get their money’s worth – if they don’t feel like they learned something. Could consumerism and entertainment in the museum setting have a saturation point where visitors stop coming because the museum is no longer serving it’s function as an education center?

    • Exactly! As I pointed out in my previous post, the number one reason for visiting is leisure, and my personal belief is that those visitors leave the museum satisfied (regardless of the “amount” of learning).

      Your question about the saturation point is very interesting. I imagine reaching the saturation point would mean a museum becomes a theme park. I’m a scientist, so the concept of “Disney Science” would make me a little worried… But, like you said, the “fun goers” might have no problem with that. What do you think about the saturation point?

      • Chris Smith says:

        I agree with you that leisure-visitors leave the museum satisfied regardless of how much they learned, and everyone takes something different away from the visit. On the saturation point (which may not be the best way to describe it), I think a museum that’s found itself serving as a theme park will lose it’s sense of place. That museum would no longer serve the community as an educational/cultural/historical resource. It would no longer serve to reinforce the identity of the community that visited. The museum would in line with the movie theaters and theme parks, but more than just a shift, the community would lose out. I think it takes careful education planning and goal-setting to keep “Disney science” in check.

        Great piece! I’ll be checking this blog out much more frequently now. Thanks!

        • Chris Smith says:

          I should mention that I love this ad campaign. I think it’s brilliant, and the facility is promoting educational content. A museum near me has a giant machine that you pay to ride. Kids sit down in an open-air cabin with insect-like wings out either side. The wings do this slow, mechanized flapping and the machine raises the kids up about 10 feet and down, up and down. I’ve watched kids and parents around this thing come away with no better an idea of how insects fly. So as I was suggesting poor execution of education goals leads to little learning, or in this case, even little entertainment.

          • Wow. That looks like the Disneyfying, animatronic-dinosaur effect. Scary to think that museums might choose that path. More power to clever ad campaigns then!

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