Museums Embrace Innovation, Immersive Experiences
Unveiling the secrets of the past, igniting curiosity, and immersing visitors in awe-inspiring experiences, museums have become vibrant hubs of innovation. No longer confined to static exhibits, they are embracing the winds of change, ushering in a new era of visitor-centricity and dynamic content. From captivating immersive environments to cutting-edge digital technologies, museums are redefining education and the art of storytelling. As these institutions evolve, print-service providers (PSPs) have a unique opportunity to cater to the diverse needs and objectives of these cultural gems.
In his book “Designing Museum Experiences,” Mark Walhimer, managing partner of Museum Planning, explains that “Museums are changing from static, monolithic, and encyclopedic institutions to institutions that are visitor-centric. He believes that “Museum content is also changing, from static content to dynamic, evolving content that is multicultural and transparent.”
PSPs that want to serve the museum market should understand the goals and objectives of museum clients.
The Evolution and Challenges of Museums
Museums were established to preserve and interpret primary tangible evidence of the evolution of human cultures and the natural world. Museum exhibits communicate directly to viewers in ways that are more tactile and impactful than educational media such as documentaries or textbooks.
According to an estimate by UNESCO and reported by Statista, there are roughly 104,000 museums in the world, with the regions of North America and Western Europe reporting the highest numbers of museums worldwide. Meanwhile, there are roughly 33,000 museums in the United States, roughly one-third of all museums worldwide.
Museums take many forms. In addition to traditional art and history museums, the museum market includes science and technology centers, botanical gardens, nature centers, historic homes, visitor centers, zoos, and aquariums.
New operating models include the Museum of Illusions franchises in 40 cities around the world, and Meow Wolf’s highly interactive, immersive art “playgrounds” in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Las Vegas; Denver; and Grapevine, Texas.
Museums are still recovering from the COVID shutdowns. According to reports published by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), museum attendance rebounded more slowly from the COVID shutdowns than attendance at outdoor theme parks and water parks. This can be attributed to the prevalence of indoor locations, the slow return of international travelers to major U.S. tourist cities, and the fall-off in visits by school tour groups.
A 2022 survey of 700 museum directors conducted by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) survey found that attendance at U.S. museums in 2021 was down nearly 40% from pre-pandemic levels.
“The museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue, and attendance,” says AAM President and CEO Laura Lott.
Revitalizing Museums Through Strategic Marketing and Innovative Graphic Solutions
With leaner budgets and smaller staffs, museum executives are paying closer attention to marketing. Some museums use social media to promote memberships and build communities of followers that can become donors or frequent visitors.
“To capture new audiences and expand the primary mission of museums as places of personal meaning, community impact, and civil society, we must relinquish part of our authority and learn new digital skills,” Walhimer explains in a blog on the Museum Planning website.
Digital technologies are being used in permanent and traveling displays. Some designers are experimenting with using virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality technologies and holographic projections to create immersive exhibits that attract and engage new visitors.
For example, the EYEPOOL immersive gallery experience uses 14 laser projectors to display content in a 1,000-sq.-ft. space within THEMUSEUM, an art and technology museum in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
“We wanted to create something permanent that also has the ability to change, allowing us to showcase different content or software,” says David Markell, CEO of THEMUSEUM. He believes immersive experiences will help the museum remain relevant over the next 10 years.
A traveling multimedia exhibition produced by World Heritage Exhibitions is on display at the at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago until Sept. 4. Using a combination of projections, photographic murals, a 3D experience, and a 4D theater experience, the exhibit helps visitors imagine what it was like to live in Pompeii before and after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Robert Hamilton, program manager for the exhibit design, fabrication, installation company Museum Arts, based in Dallas, believes that digital technologies won’t replace fabricated museum exhibits but will simply enhance them: “We’re seeing less desire to go fully digital than might be expected.”
He says the client’s budget usually dictates whether the display will be dynamic or static: “We always commit to creating the most dynamic static exhibit, even if it means the display won’t be dynamic in the same way a touchscreen or digital experience is.”
With everyone so locked into digital experiences with their phones, Hamilton observes, “there’s still a sense of wonder in spinning a cylinder or lifting a flip panel to reveal the answer to a question. These simple hands-on interactions are way more engaging than just another bright screen.”
Opportunities for non-exhibit graphics abound. In addition to exhibit graphics that provide context to the items on display, museums need printed materials for all three phases of a museum visit: the pre-visit, in-person visit, and post-visit. These include promotional graphics, direct mail, and event graphics for fundraisers and on-site activities.
“The goal is to provide consistent messaging at all touchpoints and create meaningful intellectual, emotional, and experiential value that will motivate visitors to return to the museum in the future,” notes Walhimer.
For example, building wraps, exterior vinyl banners, window graphics, and fence wraps call attention to a featured exhibit inside the museum.
Floor graphics, SEG backlit fabric backdrops, wall murals, and window films can help create immersive environments in permanent museum exhibits or satellite pop-up displays for museum outreach.
Directional signs guide museum visitors thought the exhibits in a sequence that helps them understand the story the designer intended to convey.
Smaller label signs and placards help identify the objects being displayed. ADA-compliant signs help visitors with disabilities appreciate what’s being shown in the exhibit.
Museums need additional graphics when they want to update the text, change out some of the artifacts on display, or host special events for museum members and donors.
Distinct Expectations and Objectives
Museum graphic buyers have different expectations. Although the range of museum graphics is comparable to the variety of graphics in branded retail environments or experiential activations, museum-graphic buyers often have different backgrounds and objectives. For example, a museum exhibit designer is more likely to have a fine-art background than an MBA in brand marketing.
And instead of measuring results solely in terms of financial gains, publicly funded museums are more interested in making a longer-term cultural impact and gaining widespread community support.
Full Point Graphics’ Commitment to Quality and Precision
One PSP who knows what museum buyers want is artist Hiroshi Kumagai. Kumagai started out by purchasing a vinyl cutter to produce his own vinyl artworks. It didn’t take long for him to realize how much more could be done with a wide-format printer/cutter.
In 2011, he purchased a Roland TrueVIS VG2-540 printer/cutter and founded Full Point Graphics in Brooklyn, New York. His goal was to serve museums and cultural organizations that were having trouble finding extremely high-quality graphics work at a reasonable price.
In addition to wide-format printing, Full Point Graphics provides help with exhibit planning, fabrication, and installation. Full Point also provides hand-painted signs and murals, stencil painting, gilding, metal leafing, cut-vinyl letters, and QR codes.
Although Full Point Graphics also works for high-end retailers and restaurants, their primary focus is New York’s thriving arts and culture community. Full Point regularly does work for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art including the Met Gala. It installed 60 window graphics at the Africa Center and produced graphics for an art fair hosted by the New Arts Dealer Alliance.
Many of the exhibit designers Full Point Graphics works with are graduates from top art schools, such as Yale, The Cooper Union, and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
“Their attention to details and demand for quality is higher than typical buyers of signs and graphics,” says Kumagai. “Our clients spend months, sometimes years, working on their projects. Our job is to realize their vision at the very end of it. We need to pay as much attention and respect to the production and installation of their projects as they do to designing them.”
Museum Arts’ Comprehensive Approach to Museum Exhibit Design and Fabrication
Museum Arts is an artist-founded company that provides exhibition design, fabrication, and installation services to museums, zoos, corporate visitor centers and other themed environments. Founded 50 years ago by commercial artist Charles Paramore, Museum Arts promotes its company as a team of professional designers, master craftsmen, and storytellers.
Its services extend well beyond graphics and signage. For example, they help clients with concept development, storyboarding, traffic flow planning, visual identity and branding, exhibit design layout, electronics design and control specifications, structural engineering, photography, and video production.
In addition to custom signage, Museum Arts can produce architectural elements, sculpted models, paintings and murals, custom millwork and metal work, synthetic casts, and exhibit updates and repairs.
This start-to-finish approach to exhibit production is a hit with clients, says Hamilton: “From the moment a client enters the building to the moment they inspect the finished exhibit, it all takes place under our roof. It allows for more creative cohesion, more build uniformity, and more schedule control over the process.”
Hamilton, who has a degree in fine arts, likes the fact that more fine artists are at the helm of creative museum exhibit design. Before they start thinking about aesthetics, they understand what storyline or message the exhibit should convey. As a result, Hamilton says “it’s easier to see the artistic mind at work in the final exhibits.”
Adapting to Changing Demands
Evolving museums in different locations require different types of services. Not all museums are adopting digital technologies at the same rate as big-city museums. But museums must change to keep museums relevant to new generations of visitors.
Hamilton believes digital technologies can be great enhancements to a physical display but should rarely be the foremost experience.
“If a client insists on a bank of content being displayed, we’ll choose the most important (or easiest to grasp) elements and display them as the static, large, reel-you-in graphics,” he says. “A secondary touchscreen will be included when they want to allow the visitor a deeper dive in the subject matter.”
At Full Point Graphics, Kumagai works with clients who use everything from hand-painted or stenciled elements to cutting-edge digital technologies to make impactful exhibits. He pays attention to what’s trending.
“I see many ‘immersive’ pop-up exhibitions,” says Kumagai. “Many of them have full floor and wall wraps along with projection mappings.” He is also seeing more SEG fabric graphics in museum exhibits, large LED touchscreens for wayfinding, and interactive graphics with touchscreens and augmented reality.
Bridging the physical and digital worlds matters, because museums that were shut down for an average of 28 weeks during the pandemic are scrambling to attract new generations of repeat visitors.
“QR is everywhere,” Kumagai says. “We provide cut-vinyl QR codes with almost every job.”
At a 2016 awards ceremony, the British rapper Akala accurately predicted that, “The museum of the future will likely be a hybrid of a startup, an art gallery, a gig venue, a theater, and a university.”
Museums have transcended their traditional role as static repositories of artifacts. They have become dynamic and visitor-centric institutions, embracing innovative technologies and immersive experiences. As the museum industry continues to recover from the challenges posed by the pandemic, there is a growing need for high-quality graphics and signage that captivate and engage visitors. PSPs who understand the goals and objectives of museums have a unique opportunity to contribute to the transformation of these cultural spaces. By bridging the physical and digital worlds, they can help create meaningful and unforgettable museum experiences that resonate with a new generations of visitors.