What is Immersive Storytelling (and Why Should You Do It)?

Immersive storytelling will unlock the true potential of your museum or attraction. But what is it precisely? And how can it increase visitor satisfaction and attract new audiences?


“Stepping forward, you feel a slight shiver of trepidation as your eyes struggle to penetrate the gloom. The first thing you sense is the noise – the distant howling of an Antarctic wind outside and, more loudly and worryingly, a series of ominous, sometimes downright alarming, creaks all round you.

You can feel the wooden planks of a ship’s deck under your feet and the smell of pitch fills your nose. As your eyes adjust, you realise the dim light is cast by oil lamps, gently flickering. Suddenly, the lamps sputter out and you’re pitched into utter darkness. Your breath quickens and your heart thuds loudly in your chest as, frantically, you wonder what will happen next.”

Those aren’t the first few lines of Patrick’s Cornwall’s latest naval blockbuster but the first few seconds of our Shackleton Immersive Cinema experience at the Fram Museum in Oslo. The experience of those first few moments demonstrates the power of immersive storytelling and highlights its two key aspects.

Shackleton Immersive Cinema at the Fram Museum, Oslo.

What is Immersive Storytelling (and Why Should You Do It)?

Firstly, this is all about placing your audience at the heart of the story. They’re there – in this case, stepping back 100 years into the gloomy hold of Shackleton’s Endurance as the life is slowly crushed out of it by the asphyxiating sea ice. They may be able to influence events, or they may be mere bystanders, but they’re going to experience the same events, the same emotions, as the people who were actually there.

Secondly, all of their senses are engaged. The distant howl of the Antarctic wind, the dim glow of the oil lamps, the feel of the wooden deck underfoot, the strong smell of pitch assailing their nostrils and snaking through their mouth on to their tongues.

So if that’s answered the question “what is immersion?”, what about the “why immersion?” query. Well, there are multiple reasons.

I’ve worked in marketing for over 20 years and the holy grail for marketers is word of mouth. That’s because people telling other people about your product or service is free. Of course, the theory’s the easy bit – in practice it’s much harder. But there are 2 key principals principles to generating word of mouth. The first is “unexpectedness“. The second is “emotion“.

It’s still the case that, the expectation of a museum experience involves lots of glass cases and lots of reading. Pitching people into the heart of an Antarctic ship as the sea ice squeezes it so hard it shoots out of the water, well, that’s unexpected – even in the most high profile of attractions.

Words can stir the emotions no doubt but nothing can top the emotional impact of being there – of seeing what those involved would have seen, hearing what they would have heard, feeling what they would have felt. Each emotion stimulated creates a little hook in the memory – making it more likely they’ll recall your story long after any written account would have been forgotten. The sheer impact of stirring all those emotions will mean they’ll be desperate to share their experience with their friends and family.

So immersion can help your stories live longer with your visitors, and compel them to tell their friends. Not bad. But I also think it can do more. It can not only can it bring you new visitors but, it can bring in a different type of visitor.

Two groups are key to audience development – they’re Out and Abouters and Explorer Families (as defined by our friends at the National Trust – you can read more about their audience segments here.)

For these two groups, museums and heritage attractions are just one of a number of leisure time options. They have the desire to learn but it’s balanced with the desire to have fun – either with their partner or with their kids (or both). The traditional museum experience holds limited appeal but the chance to have fun while adding to their knowledge – well, that’s very attractive. Immersive storytelling ticks all their boxes

But there’s one final reason for this approach, and it has nothing to do with your visitors. When I was young, I used to run around castles and yearn to be a knight – to experience the pomp and chivalry of the joust, or the adrenalin-pumping adventure of battle. I’m sure you had similar childhood fantasies, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing what you do.  With immersive storytelling, you can fulfill your own fantasies, and those of your visitors, even if they’ve been buried for decades. What could be more rewarding than that?

Immersive storytelling is groundbreaking, a little risky and may take you out of your comfort zone (although people like us are here to help.) But looking at your visitors ‘ wide-eyed stares of wonder and hearing their cries gasps of excitement makes all that effort worthwhile.

That’s why we do it, and why we think you should do it too.

Hallucinations and Why They're Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations and Why They’re Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations are both much more common and benign than you may expect. And the art of engendering them in your audience is the key to effective immersion.

Hallucinations and Why They're Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations are both more common and benign than you might expect,

Let me tell you about some weird things that have happened when I’ve been listening to binaural (3D) audio.

Some years back, I was listening to the first cut of our ‘Walk with Lady Mary’ audio trail for Conwy Council and the Forestry Commission. One sequence involved us journeying back to the 16th century to meet Lady Mary’s Tudor ancestor, who comes barrelling out of the woods on his trusty steed. On the soundtrack, a horse neighed and, from the corner of my eye out of my office window, right on the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw a horse trotting along the road outside. When I turned, it wasn’t a horse at all but a car. But I was sure I’d seen a horse…

Another time, I was listening to an underwater track for a piece of scuba diving VR. Now, I haven’t spent much under the sea but I did do some scuba diving when I was a backpacking around Australia in the early 90s. That track alone created a strange sensory reaction – my skin went cold and goosebumps started to rise on my arms. The track had clearly surfaced that 30-year-old memory of diving off the Great Barrier Reef – but not the visual part of it, just the feeling of being under the sea.

I had a similar sensory reaction when I was sitting in my office listening to a soundtrack recorded on a tropical lake in South America. It was a cold, winter’s day and I didn’t have the heating on (it was the early days of PastPorte and I had to mind the pennies…) Even though I was wearing two pairs of socks, my toes were getting a little stiff with cold. But I was listening to this sound track and the strangest thing happened – my toes began to warm up, as if my brain believed I was really in the tropics.

How do you explain all of this? Well a recent article in The Atlantic on the nature of hallucinations may go some way to doing so.

As soon as I say ‘hallucinations’ that will make you think of people seeing things that aren’t there. That’s a partially correct definition of the word but a hallucination is actually any sensory perception of something that isn’t there. Ever felt your mobile vibrate in your pocket, taken it out and found there’s no reason why it would have done so? Or felt a phantom rain drop on a cloudy day when it wasn’t raining? Or thought you heard someone in your house calling your name, checked and found that nobody had? Well, all of those occurrences are forms of hallucinations. And before you question your sanity (or I question mine) you should know that hallucinations are remarkably common things and for the most part, entirely benign and not the result of any deep seated psychosis.

So what causes us to perceive things that aren’t actually there? Well, the experts think it may be down to how our brain perceives the world around us.

Corlett and Powers, both from Yale School of Medicine, have advanced the theory of ‘predictive coding.’ “When we go about the world, we’re not just passively perceiving sensory inputs through our eyes and ears,” Corlett says. “We actually build a model in our minds of what we expect to be present.”
It’s Corlett and Powers theory that the brain doesn’t always get this model right – it has the capacity of overpredict – to be fooled, in essence. I can expect something to be there which isn’t, and this expectation can be so strong that the brain creates something that isn’t there. A hallucination.

I should say at this stage that the predictive modelling theory is speculative and isn’t yet accepted psychological fact but it goes some way to explain the false sensory reactions that I, and others that have listened to binaural audio have experienced. Those hyper realistic three dimensional sounds have made our bodies build a false model of our surroundings and elicited some quite remarkable sensory hallucinations.

Why particularly does sound have the power to do this? We think it’s something to do with our sensory hierarchy. We’re so visually dominant – so programmed, from our earliest days of roaming the Africa plains, to look out for danger – that it’s easier to fool those other senses that are well down the pecking order. And clearly, this ability to fool the brain aurally can create these sorts of false sensory reactions – benign hallucinations which have the ability transport people, immerse them further in our imagined-worlds and create truly deep-seated and memorable multi-sensory experiences.

We think we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential of audio – and other, second tier senses such as smell – in cultural attractions, particularly inside heritage attractions where there’s already an authentic visual backdrop to work with. The secret to effectively to transporting people to new times and places isn’t necessarily through their eyes – where they’ll likely see the flaws in your illusion – but through those other, secondary senses that are easier to fool. And the theory of predictive modelling would suggest that you only have to create part of the illusion – then you can rely on their imagination to do the rest…

Elevator Pitches, and What They’ve Got to Do with Museums

Looking to improve your visitor experience? Here’s how elevator pitches can help your museum to succeed.

Elevator pitches hold the key to unlocking the full potential of your museum or attraction.

Elevator pitches hold the key to unlocking the full potential of your museum or attraction.


I’m totally convinced that an elevator pitch is the key to unlocking the full potential of your museum of attraction. How can I be so sure? I’ve seen the power of them in the commercial world. Oh, and your peers are increasingly starting to use them too.

For those not familiar with an elevator pitch, it’s the idea that to explain a concept successfully, you should be able to do it to someone in a lift (sorry to my US readers for straying into UK vernacular) between floors i.e. it needs to be short, sweet and simple.

Twenty years in the marketing industry has given me plenty of experience of the power of elevator pitches but in marketing we buff them up and call them ‘brand essences’ – an explanation of the purpose of a brand in just a few words.

Why do marketers spend so much time (and often money) trying to get their brand essence right? Because if gives their brand a clear focus and direction. A brand essence will inform a brand’s design, its promotion, its packaging, its distribution and its pricing. If every aspect of a brand is consistent with its brand essence, consumers will know what they’re buying and can easily and succinctly tell their friends why they should buy it too. And other stakeholders – like staff – can use that essence as a filter to make sure they make the right decisions to keep that brand consistent.

What has this got to do with museums and heritage attractions? I think elevator pitches would help give them a focus which would improve their overall visitor experience. In fact, some already are.

A few years back, I went to an excellent talk at the Visitor Attraction Conference given by the then Director of Gardens for the RHS, James Rudoni. He explained that the RHS’s ‘brand essence’ was ‘Horticultural Excellence.’ Demonstrating this, and helping visitors to achieve this, was the core theme behind everything the RHS did – from the experience in the gardens to what they sold in the shop.

I know too that the National Trust has an initiative called ‘Spirit of Place’ – an attempt to encapsulate the core appeal of an attraction in just a few words. Once expressed, the ‘Spirit of Place’ is used to inform everything – from the way that attraction is promoted, to the visitor experience to the merchandise that’s sold in the gift shop.

Some museums and attractions I’ve been to lack this focus . I’m not sure why I’d go there and even when I’ve been there, I’m not sure I can explain to others why they should go. Crafting an elevator pitch gives you focus. It may mean things moving from the active collection to the archive that don’t fit in to the core experience, but if that means telling a simpler, more coherent story to your visitors, I think it’s worth it. Let me give you an example

A few years back I went to the Royal Air Force Museum in North London. What do you expect when you go to the Royal Air Force Museum – a museum which tells the story of the Royal Air Force, right? Except, it didn’t.

The first part of the museum, and frankly the most jaw dropping gallery in terms of exhibits, told the story of the early pioneers of flight before the RAF was even founded. And many of the exhibits after this gallery, interesting though they were, had everything to do with the innovations in flight, and nothing to do with the RAF.


If the custodians of that museum went through the same exercise in the manner that commercial marketers do, I’m sure they’d come up with an elevator pitch/brand essence/spirit of place (or whatever you want to call it) more like ‘innovations in flight’ and maybe even re-name their museum ‘The Museum of Flight.’ Then the name, the collection and the story the collection is used to illustrate are all aligned. I know why I should be going, what I get when I arrive is consistent with that expectation and I can tell my friends and family what I learnt and why they should go there.

Elevator pitches/brand essences aren’t easy. Explaining the purpose of something in just a short sentence of phrase is challenging – remember Mark Twain ‘I would have written you a short letter but I didn’t have the time’? But I would encourage you to try. Get it right, and it opens up a Pandora’s box of opportunities and new thinking which will get the footfall rolling and the tills ringing.

Making Your Museum ‘Talkable’ – 4 More Tips FFOR SUCCESs

The secret to attracting more visitors is to get those who are already coming to talking about their experience. In the second of our ‘Talkable Museum’ articles, we share four more ways you can achieve this.

Our 4 tips for talkability are FFOR - familiarity, feedback, organisation and repetition.

Our 4 tips for talkability are FFOR – familiarity, feedback, organisation and repetition.

In the last article I introduced the acronym SUCCESs as a useful way to ensure that the experience you provide at your museum or heritage attraction is something that people will remember and share.

However, there are a couple of additional thoughts that I wanted to introduce you to that are not fully covered in the Heaths’ book but are mentioned in Higbee’s (remember him?) that I think you’ll find useful.


If you’ve read my article on schemas, you’ll know that the more someone knows about a subject, the easier it is for them to remember and understand new information about it.

So if your visitors already have knowledge of what your attraction is all about, they’re more likely to learn something new as they have some existing learning to anchor their new learning to.

If your subject is entirely new to them, then you need to try to relate your information to something they already know i.e. one or more of their existing schemas. Examples that relate your information to their everyday life can be very powerful in this regard.

Take this example. How do you explain to someone what it was like to spend time in solitary confinement in a Korean Prisoner of War Camp – surely this is too far removed from anyone’s existing schema? Here’s one approach:

If you want to know what it was like to experience solitary confinement in a Korean POW Camp, walk into your downstairs toilet, shut the door and sit on the floor. You’re only allowed to come out once a day a few steps into your hallway for a couple of minutes before returning and you’re not allowed to stand up, flush the toilet or turn the light on.’


I’ve anchored the Korean POW Camp experience in someone’s ‘downstairs toilet’ schema (dark, pokey, hard floor and potentially smelly). I’ve therefore increased the chances that they’ll remember it, specifically when they’re using the downstairs loo. OK, it’s an extreme example, but you can see my point.


The more logical your organisation of information for your visitors, the more likely they are to remember it.

Two logical orders spring to mind when thinking about heritage attractions – by chronology and by topic (e.g. People At Home, People At Work, People At Play). I’m sure you’ve already got this covered.

But there’s one more thing I’d like you to consider and that’s something called the ‘serial position effect’.

Basically, when we’re remembering things, we tend to remember the things at the beginning and the end better than we remember the things in the middle. That feels logical – we’re keen to learn when we first visit somewhere, get information fatigue in the middle and then muster ourselves for one last push near the end.

What does the ‘serial position effect’ mean for you? Well, ideally your experience will be following the SUCCESs mantra, and people will find it all engaging and memorable. Failing that (and we don’t live in an ideal world) put the key messages that you want people to remember at the beginning and at the end of your exhibition.


Repetition helps people to learn, as you’ll no doubt remember from your own exams. The more revision you did, the better you did in your exams.


Again, the ideal scenario is that the content is communicated in such a way that you don’t need to repeat yourself. But we don’t live in an ideal world, so a little repetition, perhaps coming at the information from different angles (or communicated via different media) is no bad thing.


If you’d taken your mock exams and nobody had told you how well you’d done and where you’d gone wrong (although in some cases you might have been happier if they hadn’t), you’d have wondered why you bothered.

Giving people the chance to test what they’ve learnt keeps them interested. It also helps to cement the knowledge in their heads, perhaps because they’ve had to retrieve it.

But of course keep it fun and interactive and reward them for success – we don’t want anyone to feel like they’re back at school.

I don’t know where all of that leaves us in the acronym stakes – perhaps FFOR SUCCESs?

In fact, you don’t need to remember it, you can use one of your computer’s memory aids – just bookmark this blog.

Making Your Museum ‘Talkable’ – SUCCESs is the Key to Success

Creating a ‘talkable’ museum is vital to to attracting new visitors to your museum. And two brothers – Chip and Dan Heath – have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.  

Two brothers - Chip and Dan Heath - have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.

Two brothers – Chip and Dan Heath – have identified the 6 core principles of talkability.

A few years ago, I read a book that was a revelation.

It was written by 2 brothers – a Stanford University Professor and a business education consultant – rather unpromisingly named ‘Chip and Dan’ Heath.

The book was called ‘Made to Stick’ and examined why some ideas ‘stuck’ and others didn’t. They wanted to create a guide to communicating ideas in a way that made them sticky – not only memorable and understood, but opinion and behaviour changing.



Let me give you an example. What’s the only man-made structure you can see from space? Yup, the Great Wall of China – we all know that one.

Apart from the fact that it isn’t true. You can’t see any man-made structures from space. So why has this idea spread while other more worthy (and more truthful) ideas haven’t?

The Heath’s have come up with their own acronym for ensuring ideas are sticky – SUCCESs. Messages need to be Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories.

I don’t think this is the whole story, and I’ll be introducing you to some further thoughts in future articles, but it’s a great place to start on your journey to making your attraction’s experience something people will remember, enjoy and share.

Anyway, you’ll be wanting me to explain those key points in a little more detail so here we go:


Simplicity is at the core of ‘sticky’ communication because, as we’ve discussed before, we can learn and remember only so much information at once. Cramming doesn’t work.

The challenge for you is that making a message simple is rather complicated. You’re aiming to create something both simple and profound – like a well known proverb.

For historic attractions, I think this ‘simplicity’ can be expressed in 2 ways.

First you need to express the core appeal of your attraction to your target audience in a very simple way if you’re going to maximise your visitor numbers. All great brands boil down to simple, but profound, statements that sum up what they’re here for. You need to do the same (and I’ll post an article on this subject soon to give you a hand.)

Secondly, once visitors are there, you need to communicate your messages in a simple way. That’s not to say that you can’t communicate complex stories or concepts – it just means that you need to build up that complexity through layers of simplicity, like all good teachers do.


I made the point in my article on how the memory works that people need to ‘record’ information before they can remember it. If you want them to ‘record’ your interpretation, you need them to be paying attention to it in the first place.

By doing something unexpected, you can grab your visitors’ attention, but only if that unexpectedness is relevant to your core message (otherwise you’re being unexpected for the sake of unexpectedness).

But attracting people’s attention is not enough – you need to maintain their interest. How do you do this? You create knowledge gaps in their heads and don’t fill those gaps until you’ve fully communicated your message. In fact, I think I’ve just created one – don’t worry, I’ll be writing about this soon.


We remember pictures better than words, and words that conjure up images better than words that describe abstract concepts. It’s believed the reason for this is that we have a ‘visual’ memory and a ‘verbal’ memory, so words that are relevant to both get stored in 2 places rather than 1. Hence, we’re more likely to remember them.

Think of one of Aesop’s fables – perhaps the tortoise and the hare? It communicates a very abstract concept (‘slow but steady wins the race’) in a very concrete way.


But beware the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ – it’s this that leads us to communicate messages in an abstract way to demonstrate our grasp of a subject. But we’re not communicating our message to our peer group who have a deep understanding of it, but to visitors who perhaps only have a passing interest in and knowledge of what we have to say.


People believe what they perceive to be ‘authority sources.’ If you’re trying to communicate a message on which your attraction will be judged an authority source, then you don’t have a problem.

If not, you’re going to have to use techniques to achieve this credibility amongst your visitors by other means otherwise they’ll simply dismiss what you have to say.

The power of a few, carefully sprinkled details, vividly expressed, can come to your aid in this scenario.


This is something that any good ad man will tell you – if you want to sell something, make an appeal to the emotional rather than to the rational, because if people made all their purchases on a rational basis, they’d make a lot less purchases.

But how do you make a message emotional?

You think about which emotions the stories of your attraction can stir and you focus on making your audience feel rather than think.  You talk about people, not abstractions. You make your message personal to them by relating it to something they care about, appeal to their self interest and/or appeal to their higher principles.

This is how charities work. And studying how they communicate will help you, especially if your attraction relies on voluntary donations.


Stories have impact because they meet all the other criteria of the Heath’s ‘stickiness’ theory – they’re simple (well the most memorable ones are), they maintain our interest, they’re concrete, they’re credible (if told in the right way) and they make an emotional appeal by connecting us with individuals

There’s also evidence to prove that when we hear a good story, we don’t just visualise it, we actually simulate it in our heads, meaning that there’s a much greater chance of it anchoring in our brain and being recalled later.

I think that you can use these principles to make your own experiences more engaging, more memorable and more inspiring – to help people to learn history’s lessons but also to create experiences people are prepared to pay/donate more for and will tell their friends about.

If you agree, rest assured that I’ll be going into more detail on each of the SUCCESs points in future articles.

A Little Bit About the Theory of Schemas

To make your museum experience more memorable, you need to understand the concept of schemas. It’s a little bit like having a very large collection of DVDs. Let me explain.

Your memory is the filing cabinet. Your schemas are the DVDs, Simple.

Your memory is the filing cabinet. Your schemas are the DVDs, Simple.

I know, I know – I promised you a couple of posts about how to make the content of your interpretation more memorable and now I’m digressing into something called ‘schemas.’

But believe me, if you’re not familiar with the concept of schemas (and even if you are, I’d suggest you read on as I think I may introduce you to one idea you’re not familiar with) it makes some of the ideas I’m going to introduce to you later much more, well, memorable.

A schema is a ‘concept’ that’s lodged into your memory and gets accessed and replayed when you’re thinking about that concept. So if I say ‘castle’ to you, you visualize a stone building with grey towers, keep, battlements, moat, drawbridge’ etc. Perhaps you even remember castles you’ve been to and relive snippets of those experiences in your head.

In fact, a good analogy for schemas is a little DVD, stored away in one of your mental filing cabinets, that you access when you need it.

Thinking about how young children learn helps you to understand how schemas work. I remember when my eldest boy was very young I used to be amazed at how he could see a picture of, say, a real elephant on the TV and then a basic illustration of one in one of his Maisie books and recognise them as the same thing. That’s because his brain was using schemas. Elephant = grey, 4 legs, trunk, big ears.

Now imagine your brain as a collection of filing cabinets, stuffed with these schema ‘DVDs’, filed together into categories, with related categories filed close to each other.

Now think about how people learn something new. They have to file it somewhere to remember it. If it’s related to one of the areas they often go to for their ‘DVDs’, they’ll store it in there. And they’re more likely to remember where they put it – they’re in that filing cabinet all the time.

If it’s not related to one of those areas, they don’t know where to put it. They put it down for filing ‘later’ (and then forget all about it) or throw it into an empty drawer. Problem is, they may never open that drawer again and may forget they’ve filed a DVD in there.

What precisely am I trying to explain via this analogy? Well, if you can anchor the information you’re trying to get across to existing knowledge, or schemas, then your visitors are more likely to remember it. I means they’ll be filing it alongside other, related DVDs. Even better if you can anchor it to things they’re interested in – the equivalent of them filing it in a cabinet they’re getting DVDs out from all the time.

Going back to my son, when he asked about a new concept, the only way I had to explain it to him was by using the knowledge he already had – his existing schemas.

What’s a leopard, Daddy?’

‘Well, it’s like a lion without a mane and with black spots.’

I’ve used his ‘lion’ schema to explain the concept of a leopard in a way he’ll remember it. The 2 concepts are now filed side by side.

But that’s not the only interesting things about schemas.

If you introduce something that conflicts with someone’s existing schema in a credible way, they’ll talk about it.

Imagine you know me and then the next time we meet I’ve dyed my hair red. Your ‘Ben’ schema has me ‘recorded’ with blonde hair (not much of it left, mind). The red hair conflicts with your schema. And if you know people that know me too, you’re going to tell them:

‘Have you seen Ben recently? Did you know he’s dyed his hair red?’

So you can leverage schemas not only to make the information you convey more memorable, but also to get people talking about your attraction. And word of mouth leads to more visitors.

Now can you see why I wanted to explain them to you?

Memorable Museums – the Importance of Context

If you your visitors to remember the what they learn at your museum, the context in which they experience that information is important.

Your museum environment, or context, can help or hinder who much of your content your visitors remember.

Your museum environment, or context, can help or hinder who much of your content your visitors remember.

In the last post we talked about the 3 ‘Rs’ of remembering – recording, retaining and retrieving (remember?!) and I mentioned that anything that interferes with any of those 3 elements of the memory process prevents us from remembering things.

So I promised you some insight into how you can make it easier for your visitors to remember the messages you’re aiming to convey. For ease of digestion, I’ve split this into 2 parts – Content (how you present your interpretation) and Context (the environment you present that interpretation in).

I’m going to introduce you to the key foundations of my thoughts on content in some articles to follow this one. This article tackles some thoughts on context and is inspired by some salient points in Ken Higbee’s book:


One of the main reasons we forget is that we didn’t actually remember the information in the first place – it wasn’t recorded or retained. If you want your visitors to remember something, you have to ensure they’re paying attention to it in the first place.

Now I’m going to debunk a myth – no matter what you think, you can only pay attention to one thing at a time. If you think you can multi-task, it’s because you’re switching your ‘sole’ attention between various tasks. You can’t ‘split’ your attention. Just like you can flick between channels on your TV but you can’t watch two at once.

I think there are 2 sides to this point and one of them is ‘content’ related. Firstly, you need to get people’s attention. A heading like ‘A Medieval Peasant’s Daily Diet’ probably isn’t going to do it but a heading like ‘Bread, Beans, Turnips and a Gallon of Beer’ is more likely to.

Secondly, modern design says ‘open plan’ but this point is suggesting a ‘compartmentalised’ approach. Don’t distract them too much – let them focus on just one thing at a time (because that’s all they can focus on) and that will aid the remembering process.


Do you remember going into exams and then remembering all the answers as you were walking out of the door at the end? Stress, or tension, gets in the way of remembering things.

If people are ‘stressed’ when they’re visiting your attraction, they’re not going to remember it as well.

That stress can come from lots of different sources – their own family (kids being annoying), others at the attraction or the environment in general (noisy, distracting). The more you can do to create a relaxing environment, the more likely they are to remember what you’re telling them.


Where you learn is important to your ability to recall it. For example, if you want to do well in an exam, it helps if you do your revision in the same room you are going to be tested in (unlikely I realise). This is because your environment gives you contextual cues to the information you’re trying to remember. If you revised in your bedroom, your contextual cues will all relate to that environment – of little use when you enter the exam room.

Now I’m not advocating that this means that the best approach is to make your attraction resemble someone’s front room but it does suggest that doing your utmost to create an environment which is ‘context neutral’ may be a good approach.

By this I don’t mean blank white walls but making each ‘story area’ as different to each other as they can be.

As the environment in which you want them to ‘retrieve’ is so different to the environment in which you want them to ‘retain’, your best approach is to give them as many different environments as you can. Then their recall doesn’t become anchored in environmental cues.


Cramming doesn’t work. The more you space out learning, the more likely you are to recall it.

Gare d'Orsay museum

Sometimes, when I’ve visited attractions, I’ve felt like I’m cramming because there’s so much information presented to me and I feel duty bound to consume what’s there. The problem is, this causes ‘interference’ – the extra information I’m trying to take in interferes with the information I’ve already taken in, which can prevent me from remembering anything.

So what does this suggest in terms of how you interpret you attraction? Well there are 3 thoughts that pop into my mind.

Firstly, should we be keeping things simpler? Should we be presenting information in a way that gives people the key points without having to delve into the detail?

Secondly, should we be compartmentalising the experience more? Perhaps recommending different experiences for first time visitors and repeat visitors? For the former, keep it simple. For the latter, build on what they already know. Or do we keep different subject areas ‘compartmentalised’ more discretely so people can pick and choose their areas of interest but aren’t encouraged to take on too much?

And finally, should we be building in ‘zones’ for ‘reflection and review’? Time to review helps people to remember. Perhaps cafes should ‘break up’ the experience rather than being ‘placed’ at the end of it? And perhaps more intense learning experiences should be ‘spaced out’ between things that are more fun or contemplative (e.g. the chance to experience a lovely view, or to appreciate beautiful objets d’art).

If you’d like an aid memoire for the above, acronyms are a great tool and there’s an obvious acronym to apply in this case. I’m not going to tell you what it is but suffice to say, you’re sitting on it right now. Good luck remembering…

Memorable Museums – How the Memory Works

It struck me when I first embarked on a career in this industry that a pre-requisite for effectively creating a memorable experience at a museum or heritage attraction was a basic understanding of how the memory works. So I turned to a book by the excellent Ken Higbee.

The short term memory is just that - short term.

The short term memory is just that – short term.

If people don’t find your attraction memorable, they’re not going to learn the lessons your attraction can teach them. And they’re not going to share their experience with friends and relatives – your potential future visitors.

So I did some reading and discovered the excellent book by memory expert Ken Higbee, Your Memory – How It Works & How To Improve It. I highly recommend you read it – not just because it helps you to understand the process of memory but because it teaches you techniques to help you remember things better (it’s done wonders for me.)


Anyway, I digress. Let’s take some time to delve into the human memory…

Firstly, you don’t have one memory – you have 2. Well, to be precise, you have 2 memory processes – as memory is a process, not a thing (your memories are stored in lots of different parts of your brain). These 2 processes are commonly referred to as short term memory and long term memory.

Your short term memory is like a shallow in-tray which becomes overloaded easily and things have a habit of falling out of. You can use it to receive limited information via your senses and process it (for example, for mental arithmetic or memorising a phone number before you dial it) but it can’t hold much (about 7 items) and it can’t hold it for very long (around 30 seconds on average).

Just like any in tray, what’s received into your short term memory can go in one of 3 directions. It can be processed immediately (mental arithmetic etc as described above), discarded into the bin (i.e. forgotten) or filed away into one of your mental filing cabinets. It’s this collection of filing cabinets that represent your long term memory.

The first thing to mention about these filing cabinets is that there are lots of them – they can hold a huge amount of information and there’s no evidence to suggest they can get full up.

Secondly, how well you ‘file’ the information will be the key to how successful you are at retrieving it. If you imagine millions of filing cabinets (tricky I know) then you can also imagine how difficult it would be to find anything in them if you just throw stuff in willy nilly.

To put it a little more formally, there are 3 key stages to ‘remembering’ – the first is recording (learning the material in the first place), the second is retaining (moving the information from your in-tray into your mental filing system) and the last is retrieving (finding it and getting it out again.). A failure in any of these 3 ‘R’s is how we forget things.

And we are exceptionally good at forgetting things, and we forget them pretty fast. Ken Higbee uses the example of a people learning a list of nonsense syllables (I’m not exactly sure what a set of ‘nonsense syllables’ is but let’s just go with him). By his calculations, you’d forget half of them within 20 minutes and more than two thirds after 2 days. Interestingly, further time would not degrade your memory too much and you’d probably still be hanging onto a good proportion of that final third a month later.


So how does all this help you when you’re designing an experience for visitors to your heritage attraction?

Well, any interference with those 3 ‘R’s I mentioned – recording, retaining and retrieving – can lead to people failing to remember what they’ve experienced. But by the way you present that information (i.e. content), and by the environment in which you present that information (i.e. context), you can help your visitors to remember.

And if they’re going to forget 50% of what they’ve learnt within 20 minutes, and that’s assuming that they’ve ‘learnt’ it in the first place, then you want to present your experience in such a way that they remember as much as possible.

To achieve this, context and content are key and I’ll be tackling the first of those next.