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.

How to Keep All of Your Museum Visitors Happy, All of the Time (Well, Almost)

The key to visitor satisfaction is understanding your visitors and what they want from a day out. A little audience segmentation is handy here, courtesy of our friends at the National Trust.

A robust segmentation model is the key to understanding your visitors.

A robust segmentation model is the key to understanding your visitors.

Dinah and I spend a lot of our time hanging around museums talking to their visitors to see how happy they are.

Specifically, we’re talking to people who have just experienced one of our interactive exhibits, audio guides or games to find out what they think. And although most are positive, there are some who don’t definitely don’t like what we’ve done.

The first experience we launched was our mobile phone audio tour for Gloucester Cathedral. During the first few week’s we’d loiter just behind the official Cathedral Welcomers, ready to pounce on any likely mobile phone wielding visitor to tell them about the tour. We got plenty to try and most absolutely loved it. But some didn’t like it at all. And it was nothing to do with the concept of using their mobile phone in a Cathedral – it was all to do with how we’d delivered the content.

We’d told the stories of seven people and events commemorated in the Cathedral. Visitors could listen to the stories by dialling a number on their phone. The stories were a mix of mini documentaries, docu-dramas and full-blown dramas.

The positive comments we got included words like ‘powerful’, ‘entertaining’ and ‘moving’. The negative comments we got included phrases like ‘too long’ and ‘get to the facts.’ It was then that the different motivations of visitors to the Cathedral become obvious.

Some clearly had come to the Cathedral on a mission to fact find. They actively wanted to add to their knowledge, had certain facts they wanted to learn and wanted those facts delivered in the most concise and easy to digest manner possible.

Others were less committed to coming to the Cathedral – it was leisure time rather than learning time. They didn’t have a specific agenda and were more open to be entertained and engaged by our stories. They weren’t looking for any specific facts, and so therefore weren’t irritated when the facts were delivered by storytelling rather than straightforward interpretation. Most of the families visiting fitted into these category.

We kept these two segments – the ‘fact seeker’ and the ‘entertainment seeker’ – at the forefront of our thinking when designing future experiences. And it was gratifying to find that, a year or so later when we did some work for the National Trust, that our ‘anecdotally observed’ segments had some basis in empirical fact.

About 5 years ago, the National Trust set about coming up with a new way of segmenting their visitors, largely based on psychographics (personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles) rather than the traditional age and demographics.

They came up with 7 segments, described as thus:

Out and About

Spontaneous people who prefer chance encounters to making firm plans and love to share their experiences with friends.

Young Experience Seekers

People who are open to challenge, in a physical or horizon-broadening sense They make and take opportunities in their journey of personal discovery.

Curious Minds

Active thinkers, always questioning and making connections between the things they learn. They have a wide range of interests and take positive steps to create a continual flow of intellectual stimuli in their lives.

Live Life to the Full

Self-driven intellectuals, confident of their own preferences and opinions and highly independent in their planning and decision making; these people are always on the go.

Explorer Families

Families that actively learn together, the adults will get as much out of their experience as the children. To fit in the interests of all family members planning, sharing and negotiation are essential.

Kids First Families

Families who put the needs of the children first and look for a fun environment where children are stimulated and adults can relax; they’re looking for a guaranteed good time.

Home and Family

Broad groups of friends and family who gather together for special occasions. They seek passive enjoyment of an experience to suit all tastes and ages.

Before your mind starts boggling at the thought of creating interpretation for all these different groups, you should know that the 3 most important groups for most National Trust attractions (and therefore probably most museums and attractions in general) are Out and About, Curious Minds and Explorer Families.

For us, it was a ‘eureka’ moment as the Out and About-ers combined with the Explorer Families felt aligned with our ‘entertainment seeker’ group. And the Curious Minds had much in common with our ‘fact seeker’ group. And our experience at the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor Garden backed that up, where Out and About-ers and Explorer Families loved our dramatised audio experience A Walk with Lawrence Johnston, whereas the Curious Minds wanted the history of the garden (and the names of the plants) delivered to them in a more straightforward and concise way.


So what’s the lesson to keeping all of your visitors happy, all of the time? You need to find a way to deliver the relevant facts concisely for the Curious Minds and you need to entertaining ways to engage Out and About-ers and Explorer Families in your story.

How do you do that? By applying a little journalistic practice and a little psychological theory. But more of that soon.

An Introduction to Virtual Reality for Museums and Heritage Attractions.

Oculus Rift?  HTC Vive? Google Cardboard? VR? AR? Confused? Read on to have the world of VR unravelled…

Oculus Rift VR

Oculus Rift VR.

By midday on Christmas Day, I’d already ridden a rollercoaster, flown unaided over a bottomless chasm and crept up close to a T-Rex tucking into his lunch.

If you’re making the assumption that I’d hit the mulled wine a little early, you’d be wrong. I’d been sampling the world of virtual reality, using the Google Cardboard I’d bought for my 2 boys (OK, yes, Dad was rather hogging their present.)

2016 is set to be a BIG year for virtual reality with headsets becoming commercially available for Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC-owned Hive and Sony-owned Playstation. And it’s already creating a buzz in our sector with British Museum and the Natural History Museum VR offering virtual reality experiences last year, and a Buckingham Palace VR experience launching on Google Expeditions just last week.

So what precisely is virtual reality? How are the proposed offerings going to differ? And how can you give it a whirl for yourself without getting your hands on one of the prized (and expensive) developers’ kits?

For a definition of virtual reality, I’m going to turn to a rather handy website I found dedicated to the subject (vrs.org.uk.) They defined VR as ‘a three dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person.‘ It’s important to note that virtual reality takes you out of your environment and into a completely new world, not to be confused with augmented reality which digitally enhances your existing environment (that’s the subject for another post.)

The term virtual reality dates back to Jaron Lanier and the Visual Programming Lab in the 1980s (the 1992 film Lawnmower Man was based on Lanier) but certain aspects of virtual reality can be traced back to the 19th century and the first stereoscopic viewer developed by Charles Wheatstone in 1838.

All of the virtual reality offerings that I’m going to talk about are headset based – that is, you strap on a pair of goggles to enter your virtual reality world (vs. say a flight simulator, which is also a type of virtual reality but clearly isn’t headset based). From this base offering, the solutions differ in an attempt to create more realism. Some are purely visual , others bring your hands into the virtual reality world with you so you can manipulate objects, and others allow you to move around (that is, using your own feet rather than a games console controller).

All are striving for the holy grail of ‘sense of presence’, where the experience is so close to how you interact with the real world that you brain tells you you’re actually there. The opposite of this is ‘sense of nausea’ – created by the VR graphics rendering too slowly, creating a mismatch with the motion sensors in your ears and producing the VR equivalent of travel sickness.

OK – so I’m hoping you’ve got a sense of what VR is, and what makes it less virtual and more reality. Let’s take a brief look at the different offerings out there.


Oculus was the company that propelled virtual reality back onto the agenda. Founder by a teenage Palmer Luckey, the instigator of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the company has been Facebook-owned since 2014.

The Oculus Rift headset features 2 high resolution graphic displays (one for each eye, so you get the stereoscopic 3D effect), complete 360 degree head tracking, a 110 degree field of view and over ear headphones for a 3D audio effect. It also comes with a external sensor (to detect your movements), Oculus controller (for moving around and interacting with your VR environment) and an Xbox One controller (because many of the games developed for the Rift will require the controller for movement, shooting etc.)

The Rift is already available for pre-order ($599 if you’re thinking of buying one) and will be shipping at the end of March. The Touch sensors, which will enable users to point, wave, pick up virtual objects with their hands etc won’t be available until next quarter.

You should know that the Rift is a ‘wired’ experience (i.e. your headset will be wired to PC) and you’ll need a high specification PC (8GB of RAM, high specification graphics card) for it to work.

Oculus is the solution for those who want to create a top end VR experience for visitors to their museum or attraction and have a significant budget to invest in the hardware and the content. The Oculus Rift audience is going to be pretty niche initially – due to the investment required to get set up – so even if your experience is made available to download, there aren’t going to be that many people who’ll be doing it. That being said, because premium VR experiences will be rare, you’ll have visitors queueing up to try it out.

HTC Vive

Yes – you’re right, HTC are a primarily a mobile phone manufacturer. They rather took the tech industry by surprise when they announced the Vive at the Game Developers’ Conference last March. It may not have the first mover advantage of the Rift – pre-orders don’t start until 29th February with shipments starting in April – but in one way, the Vive promises to be an even more immersive experience than the Rift. Why? The ability to physically move around in the virtual world.


While the Rift is designed to be primarily a ‘sit down’ device, the Vive comes with laser trackers that allow you to move around in a small space – up to 15 foot by 15 foot, to be precise. As you’ve got a pair of goggles strapped to your face and can’t see the objects around you, it has a ‘chaparone’ mode which brings outlines of those obstacles into your virtual world so you don’t bump into anything.

Other than that, the Vive is very similar to the Rift – same resolution of display, same field of view and a pair of controllers that bring your hands into your virtual world. It will also be a ‘wired’ experience requiring a powerful (and expensive) PC to run effectively.

If you’re offering VR in your museum or attraction, Vive would be a good choice especially if your content works with the concept of visitors moving around a little. Of those that have reviewed Vive and Rift, most rate the former as more realistic experience. However, I suspect it’s audience may be even smaller than that of the Rift – it simply doesn’t have the buzz, awareness and marketing muscle of its Facebook-owned rival.

Sony Playstation VR

This headset will be designed to work with Sony’s Playstation 4. It’s very similar in specification to the Rift and the Vive – a slightly narrower field of view and some rather natty LED’s on the front that remind me of Tron (remember that movie?) The main difference is that many people will already have the hardware – a Playstation 4 – required to use the headset and even if they don’t, it will cost them a fraction of the cost to purchase one of the high spec PCs required to operate the Rift and Vive.


However, because a console isn’t as powerful as a PC, the VR experience isn’t likely to be as ‘premium’ but because it’s more accessible, and selling into an existing community of gamers, I’d expect the Playstation VR to be an early leader in the ‘serious VR’ sector.

If you create a VR experience for Playstation, it may be slightly less premium but the hardware to run it at your museum or attraction is probably going to cost you an awful lot less!

Samsung Gear VR

The final 2 offerings we’re going to talk about – Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard – trade off quality of experience for accessibility as they both turn smartphone into a virtual reality viewer.


The Samsung Gear VR is the more sophisticated of the two. For £90 you get the headset which you put your phone into (it’s important to note that it only works with an S5 Note or S6/S6 Edge/S6 Edge+ at present). The headset itself comes with a touchpad, so you can interact with your virtual world, and it’s own sensors (which you connect to your phone via micro USB) for more sophisticated head tracking than the phone’s own sensors can handle.

Because it uses your phone, it’s an experience completely free of wires, but of course it’s nowhere near as sophisticated as the Vive, Rift or Playstation – primarily because the phone screen can’t deliver the resolution of the purpose built rivals.

That being said, it’s much cheaper hardware wise for you to offer than the 3 premium offerings, and your experience could ‘stretch’ beyond your museum as Gear VR experiences are so easy for people to download (via the Play Store) and try for themselves at home.

Google Cardboard

You can’t get much more accessible than a lump of cardboard that you can buy on Amazon for £9.99 , construct yourself and then can slot your smartphone into to create a virtual reality viewer. This is what I bought for my kids for Christmas and if you’re curious about VR but don’t want to fork out nigh on £1,500 for a top end experience, this is a great way to try it out for yourself.


Bear in mind it’s not going to work with any mobile – your phone needs to have a gyroscope so it can track your head movements. You could also do with c2GB of RAM to handle the software. Once you’ve established your phone is compatible, download Google Cardboard from the Play store to get yourself started and then pick one of any number of Google Cardboard VR experiences also available to download.

You’re not going to get any ‘sense of presence’ with Google but it’s alot of fun and a great introduction to VR.

If you create a cardboard VR experience, the hardware will cost you next to nothing and you can upload your experience to the Play/App Store and have a ready audience willing to download it and try it out.

That’s plenty enough to digest on VR for now. In the next couple of posts Dinah and I will share our experiences with VR – me with cardboard and Samsung Gear and Dinah with Oculus – our thoughts on what makes effective VR experiences and some applications for the museums and heritage sector.

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.

Why is our Heritage So Important?

Struck by a sudden need to justify what I do, I jotted down why I think our heritage is worth protecting. Here’s what I came up with.

Our heritage makes the world a more beautiful place.

Our heritage makes the world a more beautiful place.

This may sound like a slightly strange question for someone to pose who’s writing a blog about marketing museums and heritage attractions. But when you’ve devoted the rest of your career to doing your utmost to help to preserve the world’s heritage then you do feel you’ve got to come up with some definitive answers.

I expect textbooks out there can come up with much more erudite responses than mine below, but here’s my own, personal take on it:

It Gives Us Our Identity

A huge part of what makes us what we are is our shared heritage. Take the English (and I’m one). We may be a bit insular (we’ll we’ve had over 1000 years of only meddling in European affairs when it suited us), but we’re fair (Parliamentary democracy), determined (WWII), sometimes brilliant (Industrial Revolution) and we never give up (Dunkirk).


All of these events have helped to shape our ‘national identity’ and it’s this sense of identity which glues us together. And in the same way national events bind us as a nation, so local events help to bind us together as communities.

The historic buildings that we seek to preserve and nurture are physical manifestations and reminders of our common heritage and can help us to tell the stories of these important events.

That’s just one reason they’re worth protecting.

It Gives Us a Sense of Pride

I was checking out the Museum of London the other month and I wandered past the following Henry James quote about London (surprise, surprise) from 1869:

‘It is not a pleasant place, it is not agreeable or cheerful or easy or exempt from rapproach. It is only magnificent.’

I’m not even from London, and although I’ve spent a significant proportion of my life living there, I don’t regard myself as a Londoner. But on reading this quote, I literally swelled with pride that an American writer should hold the capital of my country in such high esteem. And his quote achieved that effect even though he was writing about London almost 150 years ago!

It just underlines the role of history in investing us with a sense of pride – a pride in what our ancestors, who live on in our genes, achieved.

OK – not everything we’ve done has been a deserving of pride. Many of the motivations behind colonialism weren’t all that altruistic, let’s be frank. But there’s an awful lot to be proud of – our inventiveness, our tolerance, our creativeness and, sometimes, just our sheer bloody-mindedness.

And when I walk past a magnificent edifice like Gloucester Cathedral, the Tower of London or even Clifton Suspension Bridge, it gives me a surge of pride to think – ‘my ancestors created that.’

It Inspires and Teaches

I don’t know about you but history inspires me to better things all the time – often by putting my own problems into perspective. When you’ve been reading about a man who was locked up alone in a Korean POW Camp for 19 months in dark, damp conditions, with no exercise, no stimulation and, on most days, no facilities other than the corner of his cell (all recounted in the book below), the fact that Asda have turned up at your door with a couple of unsuitable substitutions sort of pales into insignificance.


I constantly marvel at the achievements of our ancestors, their bravery, their perseverance and their resourcefulness. There’s plenty that they can teach us in these ‘I want to be famous, as long as it’s not too much effort’ times.

And to understand the present, it’s important to understand the past. The problems in Northern Ireland? You need to go back to at least the 17th century and probably before. The Middle East Crisis? The 19th century at least but probably the Old Testament would be a better starting point.

The past helps to give the present context and is an indispensable tool in understanding it.

Because It Makes Our World a More Beautiful and Entertaining Place

On the whole, our heritage enhances our world and makes it a more beautiful place – whether it be the brooding power of an ancient stone circle, the romanticism of a tumbledown castle or the prosperous handsomeness of a Victorian warehouse.

But the thing that most attracted me to history as a child, and something that should never be overlooked, is it’s sheer capacity for escapism and entertainment. These two factors are important safety valves in our increasingly stressed society.

Our heritage is often the source of a rollicking good story. And that, for me, is reason enough for preserving it, as a story without context is not anywhere near as much fun.

So that’s how I justify what I do to myself, and others if they ask. I’m sure you’ve got your own reasons for working in this industry, which I’d encourage you to share.

But I think it’s important to think through why history is important when you’re approaching the challenge of how to interpret your own attraction.

When I’m approaching a project, I think about how this attraction can help to glue the community together. How can it evoke a sense of communal pride. About the lessons that it has to teach. And about the fabulous tales that it has to tell.

So What is this Blog About Exactly?

Why did I set up PastPorte with Dinah?  Well, it all started one Christmas, many years ago…

My love of history was inspired by a toy castle a bit like this one.

My love of history was inspired by a toy castle a bit like this one.



From the age of 4 I wanted to be a knight.

This new career ambition was prompted by the purchase by my parents of a toy wooden castle (a bit like the one above) and some plastic knights  for me one Christmas (well actually, plastic cowboys and indians as they got the figures mixed up with the ones to accompany my brother’s new fort – we swapped). It transported me to a whole new world of towers and dungeons, Black Knights and Hospitallers, tournaments and seiges and sparked a lifelong, and yet to be extinguished, passion for history.

Yet after a 20 year affair with travel and the travel industry, it was a book by Paul McKenna that brought me back to my first love. When looking for the challenge I wanted to undertake for the second half of my career, I turned to his book ‘Change Your Life in 7 Days’. I’m not a great self-help book reader – in fact, this was the first one I’d ever read (and I haven’t read one since). But as it was lying, abandoned by a previous owner, in my holiday apartment in Mallorca it seemed rude not to pick it up and at least read a few pages. In the end, I read it cover to cover.

In the chapter entitled ‘Dreamsetting’, when defining my ‘Big Dream’ in life, McKenna posed a number of questions:

Q. What do you love so much you’d pay to do it? A. Mmmm – a few things spring to mind…

Q. What do you feel really passionate about? A. Well there’s that, and that as well of course…

Q. What did you want to be as a child? A. Bingo!

I started thinking about my enduring passion for history. Of that excited feeling I used to get in my stomach as I ran around castles as a kid.  You know that feeling – it’s why you do what you do too.


But I also started thinking about how, even though I loved visiting historic places, they didn’t fire my imagination as they did when I was a child. I often found myself shuffling from plaque to plaque, nobly trying but failing to take in all that information and frustrating my wife who’d make a bee-line direct for the giftshop. The thought had occured to me many times:

‘Is there a better way of doing it than this?’

So my new mission became to create experiences at museums and historic places that fire the imaginations of adults and children. That get that tingling feeling going in the pit of their stomachs again.

The more vivid I can make them, the more entertaining and memorable they’ll be. People will learn more, be prepared to pay/donate more and tell their friends more – a virtuous loop for increasing revenues. And I wanted to help the custodians of heritage raise more money to preserve these artefacts and buildings – that had to be at the heart of what I did.

But what could I offer? I was a qualified, if rusty, historian with a 2:1 in Economic & Social History from Sheffield University, so I knew how to research. And I’d had 20 years experience of marketing in travel and tourism – 20 years in which I’d endeavoured to and often succeeded in igniting conversations amongst my customers and potential customers for some of the most interesting brands in travel, such as Simply Travel, A&K and Kuoni.

And of course I was a customer – I’d ‘consumed’ 100s of heritage attraction experiences over the years, and my visit rate has increased markedly over the past few years in pursuit of my new career.

So that became my new direction, and the focus of this blog – helping you to create experiences that bring history to life. That are memorable. That help people to learn. That people will value and share. That will bring in more revenue to help you to preserve these magnificent monuments to our past endeavours.

And with cuts seemingly never ending, additional revenue sources have to be as welcome to historic attractions as wooden castles and plastic knights are to 4-year old boys.