We’ve spent much of the last ten years tucked up in bed with museums large and small – think the Morecombe and Wise in pyjamas sketch – and some of the last year flirting with major brands. Of course, we’re not tempted to leave the comfort of our happy marriage, but a little polygamy hurts no-one does it? Other than providing us with a bit of healthy variety, is there anything that these two worlds share? In fact, we’ve found that there are quite a few useful lessons that they could learn from one another.
Can brands learn anything from museums? We’re used to thinking of brands as unrivalled experts in communicating their message. But there’s still a few things they could usefully take away from a conversation with a good curator. That curator might gently advise them to…
‘Have some confidence in your consumer’s ability to engage with some complicated ideas.’ Despite the occasional accusation of dumbing down, museums are still, as a rule, excellent at providing different levels of information so that the more knowledgable or interested can drill down for more. Everyone hates being talked down to – never assume your visitor/ consumer is uninterested, uneducated, unable to think for themselves.
‘Remember that intellectual access is important.’ Intellectual access isn’t just about answering DDA requirements if you have to and breathing a sigh of relief if you don’t. Most museums realise this and don’t aim simply to follow the law but instead to provide exhibitions that can be enjoyed in many different ways. I hate reading captions but love visual surprises. My friend Dave will notice the way that Art Deco chair has been put together. My dad will read any and all text religiously and then bore anyone who’ll listen later. One size doesn’t fit all, however beautiful, clever or funny it is.
‘Why not aim a little higher?’ Fascinating, inspiring, moving experiences. The ones we struggle to find a word for. Some recent evaluations have started categorising these as ‘spiritual’ responses. Yes, it’s a slightly embarrassing term, but it will do as a good enough description of that shiver down the spine you get, if you’re lucky, in an art gallery, in the cinema, walking through a beautiful landscape. If you can help people to have an experience that is something like this, not only will they be grateful for that, but they’ll also be far more open to listening to what you’ve got to say and far more likely to go away and bore people with how great you are. Evangelism is what we want.
At this point perhaps our brand expert will take a long sip of their cup of tea, lean across the table, and point out to our curator that actually there are a couple of things they could take note of too. For instance, maybe they could think about…
‘Simplifying the story.’ Unlike many museums, brands are never afraid not to be comprehensive, never afraid to edit, précis, choose something interesting and leave the rest out. As educational institutions, many museums instinctively feel that they should be encyclopaedic. Treating the museum like a collection of short stories instead of a text book not only makes it more inclusive and interesting but actually helps learning. Human beings have a natural inclination towards stories – making them up, listening to them, writing them down, reading them, singing them. We like stories and stop to listen when we come across one. And we remember what’s in a good one. Most of us remember the plot of Little Red Riding Hood far more clearly than our first physics lesson.
‘Don’t be afraid of change.’ Brands aren’t worried about coming up with new stories so long as they fit under the umbrella of their brand message and rarely fight the idea of their key message changing and evolving over time. This is a useful lesson for museums. Visitors are impatient for new ideas, so give them what they want.
‘Intellectual access is all very well, but why don’t you get more emotional?’ While the curator’s lesson on intellectual access is a good one, we shouldn’t forget that engaging the brain isn’t the only way to get someone’s interest. Emotional engagement can be just as satisfying and, of course, one can lead to the other, and back again…
While our two friends fall into giggly gossip about our shortcomings over their cups of tea, we’d probably butt in and gently remind them that there are a couple of ideas that they could both perhaps usefully take on board at times. Such as…
‘Sort out the clarity of your ideas first. Draw a diagram and make sure it’s neat!’ A poorly structured message loses your audience straight away. Human beings look for patterns to make sense of things. If they can’t find them, they lose interest. Draw your message hierarchy as a tree diagram and be strict with yourself about only joining up boxes that are clearly related. If it’s not joined up and symmetrical cross it out and start again.
‘Give them a bit of space. If they love you, they’ll come back…’ Some of our most rewarding experiences aren’t created or directed by other people in their entirety. Give people some gaps to fill in with their own meaning and their own interpretation. If your story is interesting, thoughtful and well structured they’ll definitely find something to fill the gaps with and most likely come back for more.
Getting the message: working with brands and museums