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The Future Of Museums Is Reaching Way Beyond Their Walls

Successful museums are creating relationships with visitors that extend before and after the visit.

The Future Of Museums Is Reaching Way Beyond Their Walls
[Top Photo: LehaKoK via Shutterstock]

The American Museum of Natural History has always been one of the most popular destinations in New York City. With about 5 million visitors a year, an increase from 3 million in the 1990s, it–along with the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art–is among the top 10 most-visited museums in the world. According to its president, Ellen Futter, the museum (AMNH) is only behind Disney World and Disneyland as the top destination for families in the country.

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Even with this influx of people coming to its doorstep, however, the museum is now equally focused on drawing a crowd beyond its campus.

“In the old days, a visit to a museum like ours would be a one-off. You come, you visit you go home,” says Futter. “Now people have a relationships with us very often before they get here. They come, and [their visit] is like a giant exclamation point–and then they return home and continue to engage with us wherever they are.”

AMNH today is a sprawling outreach institution that is using apps, social media, and educational programs to slowly grow its reach. More than 100,000 people have so far enrolled in its free online courses, available through the platform Coursera. Many in the target audience are teachers themselves, who will presumably train students around the world in topics related to science, natural history, and today’s environmental challenges. (AMNH also became one of the first museums in the world to launch it’s own PhD program and recently received approval to start a masters program for teachers). In New York City, it hosts a wide array of programs for the general public, including seminars on how to understand climate change–and explain the science to others at, say, a cocktail party

Marco Prati via Shutterstock

Mobile apps are also now playing a role in extending the museum’s reach to connect visitors to additional learning. “One of the challenges in museums is that you see lots of really great stuff, but then you have no more ways to find out information about it,” says AMNH chief digital officer Catherine Devine.

The museum’s exhibition staff has created apps to accompany certain exhibits, such as “The Power of Poison” game, which allowed users to investigate poisoning cases in connection with a special exhibit last year. The museum’s digital and technology staff is also working with an outside agency to develop a 2.0 version of its museum guide app, Explorer, which will allow create interactive components to the exhibits both while at the museum and at home. Its most popular app to date, however, is still a much more basic exploration of its world-class dinosaur exhibit. Over time, AMNH also hopes to make more of its hidden catalogue and shelves—33 million artifacts and objects in all, little of which can be displayed in the museum at once—available to the broader public.

The museum’s exhibition staff has created apps to accompany certain exhibits, such as “The Power of Poison,” which allowed users to investigate poisoning cases in connection with a special exhibit last year. The museum’s digital and technology staff is also working with an outside agency to develop a 2.0 version of its museum guide app, Explorer, which will allow create interactive components to the exhibits both while at the museum and at home. Its most popular app to date, however, is still a much more basic exploration of its world-class dinosaur exhibit. Over time, AMNH also hopes to make more of its hidden catalogue and shelves—33 million artifacts and objects in all, little of which can be displayed in the museum at once—available to the broader public.

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AMNH is definitely not the only museum evolving in this way. MoMA’s Art Lab app gives people the chance to create their own art work in the styles of famous artists. In September, the New York Times called the new app for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (previously viewed as one of the less digitally-savvy institutions) a work of art in its own right, built to “engage and entertain whether you’re at the museum or not.” Its Instagram account won a “Webby Award” last year. And the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is slowing working to digitize its massive 137 million object collection, but is only about 1% of the way toward that goal. To share it’s most popular objects, it’s turning to the more intensive process of 3-D scanning.

For museums, there’s an overall sense that their educational roles are more important in a modern society and that they must evolve to meet these demands, as detailed in a report by the Center for the Future of Museums. That’s because of a growing recognition that education systems must foster childrens’ analytical, creative, and critical thinking skills in a real-world context–as opposed to forcing them to memorize material and regurgitate content.

Of course, that doesn’t only mean outside of the museum’s walls. AMNH is investing $325 million in a new building on its campus, which will focus on science research and education. Futter says the building’s design will be based around the idea that visitors will “flow from their visit to online engagement.”

“The essential element of it is going to be that the audience is everyone, no matter where they are or what time of day it is–whether they are in China or in the building in New York City. We’re really going to consider the visit to the museum as this seamless back-and-forthing across different media. And that’s what’s quite thrilling,” she says.

This article was corrected reflect that more than 100,000 (not 70,000) have signed up for AMNH’s classes on Coursera and that its in-house team has created some of its apps.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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