Museum and monument curation has come a long way since the days of a glass case, pins and bugs.
But not quite far enough.
We have audio guides, information panels, numbered maps and the obligatory bookshop and café at the exit. It adds a great deal to the experience, no doubt. But it could be so much more.
Consider the Papal Palace in Avignon: not so much a museum as an historic monument, but with similar issues. I was a recent visitor and found the audio guide and matching map useful, and in keeping with similar in Australia and the US.
Despite this the pitch fell somewhere between art historian, papal nuncio and medieval stonemason. Hardly an approach designed to reach ordinary people.
It’s an approach that represents what a curator might find interesting. That is, it lacks customer focus, which means it is ripe for service improvement. It assumes the visitor is a curator-type and wants to know whether the vaulting is the first of its type in Provence, or where the clay came from to make the floor tiles.
Worse, commentary can describe blue walls as, well, blue. Or talk about a missing feature without once indicating where it used to be.
Modern curation – as at the Pont d’Avignon – can also include a neat little documentary film where historians talk to historians about how they started a restoration project together. Rather than showing visitors the project itself. Fascinating for the dozen experts involved in the project. Of no consequence at all for any visitor.
The unhappy truth for the curator is that visitors may be more interested in gore and gossip, the connection of each room with anyone famous, or whether or not it’s been used in a movie. And given the current distribution of television ratings, that’s a fair assumption.
To their credit, technology, science and natural history museums have taken great steps to consider one subgroup: children. They provide interactive play illustrating concepts and history. Sadly, as I have often found, usually they don’t allow adults to play with the same displays. But it does show that curators are considering some different needs.
However, when audio guides allow users to select what they listen to, there is no excuse for ignoring the different interests and preferences of different visitors. All it requires is a real customer focus from curators. Which requires the capacity to see the world through the eyes of a tabloid reader, a builder, a child or a foodie, as well as people like the curators themselves.
None of this should be construed as dumbing down. An engagement with history is valuable whether or not that history involves architectural terms and a list of monarchs. Historic engagement involves thinking about people living in different circumstances, with different values and world views, and how we relate to that. None of that entails a commentary that sounds like a monotone reading of something written by one of the Eminent Victorians.
What would real customer focus look like? As a start, provide alternative audio guide channels for every stop along the visit through the Papal Palace. Mark each channel with a consistent colour or icon.
And I don’t mean the ‘for more detail on the 14th century use of towers as buttresses, press 201″ type of alternative.
Rather than trying to squeeze little bits of entertainment into a recitation of facts that could only interest a PhD in art history or civil engineering, split the guide up into clearly identifiable specialities matching visitor segments. Say, for the Papal Palace:
- art history, building and architecture
- gore and gossip
- a day in the life of Clement VI
- politics and religious history
- everyday life and its stink.
At each stop people could choose what type of commentary they wanted. It already happens with panels and diagrams anyway. With appropriate technology, customer-focused curators would even measure what commentary was most popular at each stop. Of course, like many a specialist wanting to educate the public, they may not want to know.