How Your Museum’s Past Can Influence Your Visitors’ Futures.

In this post, we discuss how the concepts of ‘retrospective memory’ and ‘prospective memory’ can influence a museum’s approach to the presentation of its content.

Copyright: delcreations / 123RF Stock Photo.

Why do humans have a memory?

Reminiscing about the past can be very pleasant, but it doesn’t confer us any evolutionary advantages. In fact, for our distant ancestors, such behaviour could have been a distinct disadvantage – perhaps re-living the enjoyment of last night’s meal as a predator sneaks up intent on making our forebear tonight’s meal.

No, we have a memory because it helps us to plan for the future.

As a nomadic hunter gatherer, you can see many practical advantages of having a memory. You’ve come across a water hole in the height of a searing Summer – you need to remember where it is, and the fact that it was there when other waterholes had dried up. Someone in your tribe has eaten a berry that’s made them sick – best remember what that berry looked like and create an association between it and your sick clansman so no-one eats it again.

And it doesn’t just make sense from a theoretical point of view either. If I put you under an MRI scanner and asked you to think about the past, and then to think about what you’re going to doing in the future, I’d see activity in the same neural networks in your brain. That’s because we have a ‘retrospective memory’ (remembering the past) which is linked to our ‘prospective memory’ (planning for the future.)

When you think about it, those are two excellent metaphors for museums and heritage attractions. If you think of your museum as a repository for collective memories, you can either position your attraction ‘retrospectively’, that is as a means of purely learning about the past, or ‘prospectively’ – using the past to influence and inform the future behaviours of your audience. Both approaches have their merits.

The ‘retrospective’ approach can deliver pure escapism – telling a rollicking good story because it entertains your visitors, makes them realize that their own lot isn’t so bad and transports them away from their cares and stresses for a few hours.

The ‘prospective’ approach is important too because we have a habit of making the same mistakes. Remember Gordon Brown’s famous references to ‘no more boom and bust’ before the Great Recession of 2008? He was never going to break a cycle that had been in operation since at least since Ancient Egypt, probably since Mesopotamia. And how many times have we seen a repeat of the famous ‘South Sea Bubble’ stock market crash since the beginning of the 18th century? Museums and their curators no doubt have an important part to play in helping people in all walks of life to make smarter decisions in the future by learning from their ancestors’ successes and failures.

And at a time when people increasingly live in their own bubbles, only consuming information from sources that affirm their existing views, the universal appeal of many museums puts them in a unique position to challenge people’s thinking in a way no other media can.

The lesson here is that, when you’re designing your museum, exhibition or heritage experience, you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve.

For both ‘retrospective’ and ‘prospective’ approaches, you’ll want to make your experience memorable – so that people can recall it and tell their friends about it. But in the latter case, you need to think very carefully about what ‘prospective memories’ you’re aiming to create – what do you want people to think, say and do as a result of visiting your exhibition. Then you can plan your content around it.

Particularly in this latter case, you need to understand the role of cues – as they’re one of the ways you can turn current intentions into future action – and that’s a subject we’ll cover in the next post in this series.

What Families Want from Museums and Heritage Attractions

With the Summer holidays approaching, your mind will be turning to what you can do to attract more families. But first, you need to understand what they want. And that’s simpler to understand than you might think.

What do families want? Fun, family time and me time.

What do families want? Fun, family time and me time.

I’ve done some pretty challenging jobs in my time but nothing as tough as being a parent.

You want to nurture the innate talent in your child so they become a happy, productive and well regarded member of society. And sometimes, you genuinely think you’re achieving that. And at other times – usually after a blazing row over the removal of some electronic gadget – the only future you can imagine is one based around the visiting hours of whatever state institution they happen to locked up in.

Of course, there’s an opportunity for museums and heritage attractions here to help make the life of parents a little easier. But first, you have to know what families want. Lots of ‘experts’ in the field will tell you that’s terribly complicated, but actually it’s quite simple.

There are two sides to this ‘happy family’ equation – parent and child – so let’s focus on the child’s side first. And I have to admit that despite racking my brains for some considerable time, I could only come up with one ‘want’ which applied to my two boys – Fun (with a capital ‘F’!) Whether playing games on the Playstation, kicking a football around the garden, watching YouTube on their tablets or transforming the front room into a Ninja Warrior course, they just want to have fun. And let’s be frank – unencumbered by responsibility, that’s what we’d want too.

For parents, things are a little more complicated – but only a little more. They want two things rather than one – a little quality time with their kids, and a little ‘me time’ without their kids.

Quality time with your kids happens when they’re having fun and you’re having fun at the same time, whilst doing something together. Purely having fun is enough some of the time but it’s even better if that fun has an additional benefit – like getting some exercise or, and this is where museums and heritage attractions come in, learning something useful.

To give you can example, I took my kids to Jumptastic the other week. We had great fun leaping into foam pits and throwing soft balls at each other whilst bouncing on trampolines. But I had the added satisfaction of knowing both I, and my kids, where getting one of our two recommended weekly doses of strenuous exercise.

Quality family time at Jumptastic.

Quality family time at Jumptastic.

What ‘quality time with your kids’ isn’t is what’s billed as ‘family interpretation’ at some museums and heritage attractions. Let me give you an example.

Take my visit to a high profile castle recently. Audio guides were offered – one billed as the ‘adult’ version and one billed as the ‘child’ version. My 9 year old and I stood listening to our respective guides. We had no idea what the other was listening too and no prompts to interact with each other. We weren’t having a shared experience – we were having two parallel experiences. There wasn’t even an attempt to dovetail the length of commentary between guides – sometimes, my son would be standing there, bored rigid, for 2 minutes waiting for my commentary to finish. It was as if the designers of that tour had envisaged children visiting the castle by themselves.

Contrast that with going to the cinema to see a well written children’s movie like Minions. There’s plenty of slapstick to get the kids laughing like drains and lots of clever irony aimed at the adults. We can all enjoy the same movie even though we each get something different out of it. Surely that same approach can be easily extended to family interpretation in museums?

Let’s move on from that to the concept of child-free ‘me time’. This is the time that parents crave to have by themselves (and I challenge you to spend time with the same person 24/7 and not crave a little me-time) but frankly, feel a little guilty about. That guilt is lifted if you know your kids are engaged in doing something that’s both fun and good for them whilst you’ve got your feet up – in contrast to activities perceived to rot their brains like shooting zombies on their PS4 or being transfixed by a talking cat app on their tablet.

The museum cafe is the prime place for a little ‘me-time’ over a cuppa, but museums and attractions rarely take advantage of this opportunity to give parents a bit of a break. Adults and kids attitudes to the cafe are very different – adults want to take their time and have a little mental and physical break whilst children want to consume what’s in front of them as fast as they can and then bomb off to have some more fun. The logical thing to do is to offer the kids something to do in the vicinity to give the parents a bit more of break.

At a recent exhibtion I came across a company that offered interactive floor projection games. Their biggest clients? Family orientated cafes. If more museums and visitor attractions offered things like this to give parents an extra few minutes of ‘me-time’ while the kids have some educational fun, then families would be singing their praises.

Parents genuinely love their kids but keeping them entertained can be a challenge. Museums and heritage attractions can help by offering things that enable them to have fun together, and a little guilt free ‘me time’ apart. And your reward won’t just be the warm feeling that comes from creating happy memories of good times together – although that’s reward enough in itself – but by more families beating a path to your door.