The Thing Great Museum Experiences Have in Common

Have you ever compared your top few museum experiences to find what they had in common?

I remember a conversation like this coming up in a discussion at the National Museum of American History when I was an intern there in 2012. Curators throughout the room raised their hands to share which museum they thought “does it best.” After the fifth person said the US Holocaust Memorial & Museum (USHMM), someone said something different. “Sure, we’d love to use the USHMM’s model,” they said, “but they only have one story they need to tell whereas we have hundreds.”

Storytelling is a hot topic in museums now, and I’m sure it’s part of why many of the curators admired the USHMM experience. After all, the museum is a linear path on a timeline telling the global story of events preceding the Holocaust to its aftermath. Then there are more personal stories worked in, such as the cards visitors receive describing a person from the time period and revealing their story as the exhibition progresses.

I’m a fan of the museum, but I’m unconvinced that its impact has much of anything to do with its storytelling. Plenty of museums and exhibitions have done a remarkable job of telling stories, but those weren’t the first examples jumping to curators’ minds in the meeting. My theory on what makes the USHMM stand out is the universally perplexing nature of its topic. At some point, everyone who learns about genocide experiences a sense of bewilderment about how, even when empowered by democracy, people can do such things to other people. In other words, the USHMM isn’t effective because it’s somehow better than all other museums at telling stories or because it only has one story to tell. It’s because its visitors share one very powerful question.

In searching my mental archives of exhibitions that have held meaning for me over the years, I found this central element of a “universally human” question to be a common thread. The title of this blog pokes a bit of fun at how dinosaurs are crowd-pleasers and the ultimate museum fail-safe. But dinosaurs fit this pattern too. Who hasn’t held a question, at some point in their lives, about what the world was like before humans or what other great beings exist(ed) besides us?

Another example, the recent Wonder exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum tapped into the question of why do we seek, wonder, and marvel at things beyond ourselves. In visiting the exhibition, I found a place and time to meditate on the question I had previously only experienced as a fleeting curiosity. Each new artwork and room I entered challenged and expanded the theories I had built in the one before.

I’m not sure whether this idea holds value for museums. Many already theme themselves and their exhibitions around questions. However, I’d argue that it’s less common for these questions to be relevant to all visitors (contributing to systemic exclusion of less valued audiences). It’s also less common for orgs to choose these questions because visitors are already asking them. Often the opposite is true; exhibition developers hope to open visitors’ minds to new ideas and enable them to ask deeper, more informed questions. All of that in consideration, maybe visitor research would reveal there are no such questions that everyone asks, and my own biases distort my perspective on the universality of the questions I listed as examples here.

What I can surmise at a personal level is that the most memorable exhibitions I’ve seen aren’t the ones that have told me stories, or taught me things, or inspired me to ask new questions. They’re the ones that let me enter and leave with the same question, but provided a well-stocked sanctuary for asking it again.

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