As museums and galleries are slowly reopening and events are on the agenda again, what should designers and curators offer cautious visitors longing for immersive encounters? Petra Rieger and Tobias Kollmann, creative directors of experiential design agency Milla & Partner present four scenarios aimed at expanding museum communities, maximizing individual experiences and co-created spaces. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, museums and exhibitions have been in the throes of transformation; presentations and offers have been successfully digitalized and made accessible. With reopening approaching, museums and their audiences will be finally coming together again for the in-person visitor experience that both sides have been longing for.

But people have changed: they will be bringing new distance-based habits, experiences and fear of contact with them, and museums and corporate exhibitions must respond empathetically to this. In addition, people have made a huge leap in digital competence. On one hand, this results in the need for the transformation of museums. On the other, there are things that will never change and are now appreciated more than ever: the immersive effect of notable spaces – the aura of the original. And it’s inevitable that people will increasingly want to interact, both with each other and with the museum. 

This gives designers and curators the chance to create unique and unforgettable experiences in real spaces, no matter if they are individual or shared.

Experience the transformation 

Museums have an invaluable advantage over all other communication channels: they are visited with a purpose, entered consciously, and visitors freely entrust the museum with their time, their interest and their attention. As a result, space, time, content, contact and learning need to be designed. Experience and conveyance are the foundations of spatial communication. Furthermore, participation, interaction, dialogue, a guest’s desire to understand and appreciation of the subject are the power of museums and brand worlds, and how sustainable conscious and emotional relationships are forged.  However, the pandemic has disrupted such visitor experiences and will continue to visibly impact them in the near future. Distance rules and hygiene measures will eventually be scaled back – to what degree remains an open question – but will remain in the consciousness of people.

The enormous increase in digital literacy brought about by the pandemic means that visitors will become even more demanding about museums’ digital equipment. This is not about technological ends in themselves, but about the ability of institutions to engage in dialogue and enable participation far beyond the visit.

We predict yet another consequence. People have learned to behave digitally, even as a group: in the future, individual visitors will not only play a greater role as responsible individuals, but also as an active part of a larger community. Museums will need to expand their community with the help of digital interfaces. Being close to visitors and being innovative can create new opportunities as well as new formats for dialogue and encounters. Skilful storytelling can optimally dovetail learning, which generates new, holistic experiences that involve everyone individually, collectively, actively and locally. 

In the following scenarios, we explain these forecasts and show promising themes and potentials. 

Intensify the individual experience 

Visitors will confidently establish their individual exhibition experience in their own flow. Emotional moments and intensive learning experiences will shape their engagement with exhibited topics. 

In corona-compliant spaces, the personal visitor journey will intensify. Visitors will decide even more purposefully to visit museums, but in return they will also expect more freedom to achieve a lasting impact of what is shown to them and then reflect on it individually. Do people prefer to be active or passive? People were challenged for more than a year in terms of autonomy, independence, responsibility, activity and discipline. How does this affect their needs in exhibition experiences? Just as there are different types of visitors, expectations will go both ways. In addition to space for activity, they’ll want to momentarily stop thinking – to be enchanted and enthralled. In moments of inner peace, they will recognize their own limits of receptivity and accordingly take breaks, appreciating spaces designed accordingly.

The potential: Visitor journeys and so guidance systems will become much more adaptive to the needs of individuals. In dialogue and/or with the help of (digital) companions, applications and smart systems, guided and thus plannable – but always unique – visitor experiences can be generated.

Create collective experiences 

Targeted exhibition formats for small groups will awaken team spirit, foster a sense of community – even in chance encounters – and create bonding memories. 

Collective experiences in exhibition spaces pave the way for surprising shifts in perspective and generate new learning experiences. In the post-Corona era, these group experiences will strengthen social cohesion within diverse groups, tangible for everyone present. The power of the group will gain importance and result in small projects that can be designed together, as well as collective spatial experiences and interaction. It will not matter whether the group knew each other from the beginning or met by chance. Cooperatively, they can conquer and experience immersive spaces that are even more strongly linked to content or concrete questions. 

The potential: Thanks to new formats for collective experiences and conscious use of storytelling, new groups of visitors can be reached in a targeted manner, exchange, dialogue and discourse can be promoted, and the value of togetherness can be learned and experienced – an important social aspect in times of increasing polarization. 

Let the audience co-create 

In a fluid process, visitors and staff become an active part of interventions and self-participation, evolving them into impulse generators and co-creators of the experience. 

After lockdowns, it will become even more important to establish museums as safe, yet lively, places that allow such interventions and generate spaces of possibility. Space is used for communal purposes and serves the cause. Activity will become a given. But not only the visitors are activated in their actions, the staff will also become lively companions and impulse generators. The link with the virtual space adds infinitely to the dialog, the shared experience is virtually enriched and will linger in communities way beyond the visit. 

The potential: Visitors get creative and so themselves become curators and co-creators. They make the museum or exhibition space their own. Visitors can grow with this place in the sense of lifelong learning, be close to it over generations and leave their own traces. Museums recognize the value of user-generated content. 

Think global, experience local 

Museums and science centers are increasingly experienced as third places and become local identification spaces as well as the starting point for worldwide networking. 

The spirit of a museum reveals the amazing development potentials of the institution: The place and its people create connectedness, strengthen local roots and offer space for community, for exchange with others with a similar range of interests as well as for active participation in locally influenced topics. The pandemic has shown that exhibition venues cannot rely on tourism. 

It will be increasingly a matter of making institutions attractive to the city and region and, in the best case, turning them into places of identification. Physical and virtual homelands will be increasingly interlinked in this process, enabling intensive and authentic experiences on all channels. 

The potential: Hybrid formats and community platforms mean that museums can be experienced more intensively not only from home, but also on site: while diverse encounter, exchange, and conveyance formats can be used individually and across regional borders in the digital space, the real space is perceived even more intensively collectively. 

By transforming the visitor experience, exhibition venues can leverage enormous potential: for themselves, for people, for the places where they are located, and for the impact of their contribution to society.