Monday, April 20, 2020

Imagining Interactive Museum Experiences Post-COVID 19

A question swirling about in museum association emails, social media, museum colleague conversations, on blogs, and soon, no doubt, in museum journals is: how will museums manage in a post-COVID-19 environment? The scope of this question is far-reaching and overwhelming, affecting funding, attendance, programs, exhibits, facilities, impact, etc. Difficult as this question is, we don’t have the luxury of side-stepping it with a shrug of the shoulders.

We do know the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in profound ways and that includes museums, cultural, and public institutions including zoos, orchestras, libraries, schools, and playgrounds.

In short order, museums have risen to the occasion with creative, adaptive responses to the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders across the country. I have been impressed with how museums have responded and adapted to a complex, rapidly changing environment. Their public presence, messaging, and variety of experiences have quickly found their way onto social media and into e-mail boxes. Many museums are delivering their missions more actively than ever in spite of the challenges. They have stepped into a more visible public role in helping the public understand COVID-19 and pandemics, working with partners to reach out and support communities, becoming a resource for parents who are homeschooling, and documenting the pandemic itself.

We are in the midst of a gigantic experiment that will push museums in ways and directions they hadn’t imagined. Just what the nature and implications of the pandemic are and how they will unfold will take months, if not years or even decades, to become apparent.

Full of trade-offs and tough decisions in this dynamic environment, these times are, and will be, challenging and full of change. Some change will be within the control of an organization, its director, and trustees while others will be well beyond any organization’s control. Some shifts may be transitional, temporarily useful and lead to new adaptations. Other shifts will, undoubtedly be more difficult and complex, especially initially. As public spaces where many people come together, museums’ physical settings and beloved objects are likely to be problematic in returning to business as usual.

We can only guess at the changes we will be encountering. On re-opening, there is likely to be pent-up demand to visit familiar and favorite public spaces and do something new. People will be likely to look forward to going somewhere that has been off limits for months; museum visitation may enjoy an early bounce. At the same time, some people  are likely to stay away out of health concerns. Many who do visit will return with new expectations around hygiene in public spaces. If, or when, a second peak of the virus arrives, museum visits are likely to plunge again. Other unknowns are how long post-COVID-19 concerns will affect attendance, whether visiting patterns will vary regionally, or if particular types of museums will be impacted more.

The interactive museum experience that invites touching is likely to undergo transformations in a post-COVID-19 world. With hands-on, multi-sensory engagement with objects and materials at the heart of children’s museum and science center experiences, the impact is likely to be significant. However, since most, if not all, types of museums rely on hands-on, interactive spaces and experiences to some extent in their galleries, programs, family spaces, and festivals, changes to interactive experiences will affect the field more broadly.

2020 in the Rearview Mirror
I believe we will look back at 2020 and recognize the beginnings of a generational shift in museums. Less of a dramatic departure from current approaches, we are likely to see new versions of current practices that are grounded in:
• A commitment to the fundamental value of learning from experience—objects, social interactions,
The learner as active, engaged, curious
relationships, and play across the life-span
• Recent trends in the field especially where museums have been intentional around equity, diversity, and inclusion
• A view of the visitor as curious, active, motivated, and engaged
• A collaborative, creative response of many museums to the pandemic in rethinking the interactive experience

Some changes are already underway, even if emergent and fluid. Channeling the thinking and creativity of museums around the world, they reflect museums’ complex, integrated functioning of spaces and environments, objects and materials, staffing and interaction, operational practices, and resources. Adapting practices from other public-facing settings like libraries, gyms, cruise ships, hospitals, and grocery stores, museum operations and services are going beyond higher standards for cleaning and hygiene. New awareness and practices are differentiating among the variety of loose parts. While digitizing museum content and experiences and presenting them to audiences remotely will undoubtedly be part of this new scenario, museums are also innovating around the value of direct experience with objects and other people. 

In considering what will make returning visitors feel safe and comfortable and nourish the public’s trust and affection for them, museums will be drilling into what is core to their value. Children’s museums will be looking for new ways to stay true to their fundamental purpose as champions for children, valuing interactions and relationships with others and the material world, and the essential role of play in children’s development. Resilient museums will work to be nimble in keeping the visitor at the center and finding new ways to support meaningful engagement and durable connections.
Looking Ahead
Considered both a disaster and an opportunity, these times present creative and innovative opportunities to become better versions of ourselves.

Some of the shifts I have been noticing and thinking about are highlighted below. More like hunches than promises or predictions, they are far from comprehensive. Hovering around the interactive experience, they are adapted to a particular museum, its community, audience, and mission. Because they are more like shifting currents in museum practices than completely new directions, here they are cast as changes in emphasis, from where we are currently to what we are seeing more of.

Recognizing changes in the learning group
Currently… in most museums, children are viewed as a distinct audience group with parents and caregivers as an important, but separate, audience group.
We’re seeing more of …families actively learning together. With families sheltering together at home, parents stepping into the homeschooling role, and parents as more active participants in the at-home science experiments, families are playing a larger, more active role as multi-generational learning groups.

Working on multiple fronts
Currently … museums describe themselves as destinations, recognized public spaces that serve locals and tourists. To serve their visitors, museums develop experiences to bring visitors to the museum.
We’re seeing more of … museums developing themselves as multi-dimensional resources, creating more experiences that reach their audiences in multiple locations and through diverse formats. These include activities broadcast into homes, home-based and mobile projects in a park and neighborhood, partnering with experts on current topics, and found encounters.

Prioritizing the interests of visitors
Currently … museums work to understand the interests of their visitors and reach out to invite their input into museum-created experiences.
We’re seeing more of … a greater permeability between the museum and its community and visitors that follows and supports visitor and learner interests and ideas. Self-directed explorers and learners are children starting a neighborhood newsletter, laying out a solar system across city blocks, setting their own challenges, and families originating content through stories and projects. 

Opening up for new kinds of engagement
Currently … visitors’ person-to-person interactions occur at the museum with staff and facilitators, family members and complement self-guided experiences.
We’re seeing more of … the museum as an instigator of family engagement. Museum-inspired ideas launch family explorations which are then shared with the museum and other doers. Teddy bears in the window involve families in a similar activity at home that is shared with others; families go on treasure hunts with maps, flashlights, and backpacks and share their adventures; the museum sends its recorded stories to families to share.
Photo credit:

Shifting from immersive environments to immersive experiences
Currently … interactive environments are favorite spaces in many children’s museums. These rooms, settings, and vehicles are familiar in the child’s world: the grocery store, post office, the bus.
We’re seeing more of … immersive experience. Less like containers for activities or prompting scripts from daily life, immersive experiences wrap, bathe, and envelop the visitor and engage the senses. Sometimes relatively simple full body explorations with color, light, movement, shadow, and sound, they can also be more complex motion-activated experiences, foot-activated floor projection systems, and visual tricks. 

Re-framing experience for a new context
Currently … children’s museums and science centers offer self-guided exhibit activities, demonstrations, and programs, often planned to fit within timed segments of a field trip visit, classroom activity, birthday party, or curriculum topic.
We’re seeing more of … projects that unfold over time, evolve through multiple iterations, and respond to new ideas. Initiated by motivated family learning groups, they respond to a museum’s challengeinvestigate ideas through drawings and research; head outdoors; and use digital experiences as departure points.

Improvising with materials
Currently … objects and materials that encourage hands-on exploration invite children to push and carry, build and take apart, pretend with and create, test and transform.
We’re seeing more of … ways to not lose the richness of abundant materials and objects to hygiene concerns and cleaning needs. Museums are finding new ways to distinguish among tools that are easy to wipe down frequently; volumes of consummables in smaller quantities frequently resupplied; multiple sets of props rotated and cleaned frequently; quarantining objects and materials; and rethinking media like sand, rubber granules, and bubbles.

Keeping close
Currently … museums are staying top of mind with frequent, helpful messaging across multiple platforms.  
We’re seeing more of … messaging as high-engagement dialogue. More than ever, communication is a two-way dynamic that strengthens museum relationships, whether it is personal connections developing between families with Zoom-based facilitators like Children's Museum of Houston's Mr. O; visitors sharing what they are making with the museum; or children working on projects at home and sharing them with residents at a retirement home.

Rainbows as a symbol of resilience. (Louisiana Children's Museum)

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