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.